Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On Player "Retirements"

Q McCall at Swish Appeal writes about Shannon "Pee Wee" Johnson's retirement from the WNBA...but not from basketball:

Since Johnson announced her retirement, I’ve heard multiple people express concern about players choosing to leave the WNBA to play basketball overseas because a) it shortens ones career to be playing professional basketball year-round and b) players make more money overseas.

There are already NBA players choosing to leave the U.S. mid-career to play overseas. As of yet, no all-star caliber player has done that at the peak of their career, but it’s difficult for a U.S. entity to compete with foreign entities given the current economy.

Johnson is certainly on the decline at this point in her career and this problem is by no means at crisis level. But you wonder what kinds of things the league is trying to do to address the problem.

This was such a good point that I wanted to write a blog post about it.

Actually, if this is news to the people expressing concern, they haven't been watching. I believe this has been going on for several years now. In particular, some foreign players who travelled to the WNBA between 1997 and 2000 returned to their home countries and played for several years.

Part of the problem is the paradox of lesser European leagues which pay better money. In Europe, from my understanding, teams are subsidized by both corporations and the respective European governments. Teams in Europe looking to win big in their respective national leagues or in Euroleague play will hire big WNBA stars for six figure salaries - a player can earn more overseas despite playing in front of smaller crowds.

This paradox doesn't exist in other major sports. For example, suppose a big-name baseball star has clearly hit his declining years to the point where he is a marginal talent at best. There's just no other league that's going to pay him the million-dollar salary to which he is accustomed. AAA isn't going to pay that. The player might be lucky and play in Japan, but most American baseball players aren't accustomed to playing overseas and learning a new language.

So they retire. Better to retire than play for lesser cash in a sub-standard league. Would Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams have played longer if there was an overseas winter baseball league which might have had lesser talent but which paid better? I think Teddy Ballgame probably would have played into his forties if there was such a thing.

Johnson's case is not the case of a player saying, "I have a few more productive years in the WNBA, but I'll just go to Europe and play for more money to preserve myself." Pro athletes just don't think like that. Every pro athlete thinks "I am one of the best in the world." And I believe that the WNBA is the best women's basketball league. Athletes - at least American athletes - are probably going to play there until it becomes obvious that they can't hang anymore. Then, and only then, they'll head for Europe full-time.

(Note the large number of ex-US college players that play full time in Europe. For those players, it's definitely not a case of "I can make more money in Europe." It's a case of "I can't get on a WNBA roster.")

When a major American college player - a potential first round WNBA draft pick - eschews the WNBA to play in Europe full time, then I'll be worried. But not until.

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