WNBA must pay price if it hopes to succeed
It wasn't so long ago that the players of the Seattle Reign were staying an
hour or two after their games to sign autographs, affecting the lives of
young women with their unique model of athleticism and accessibility. They
were good times.
What's happened since the folding of the American Basketball League three
days before Christmas has not been good.
It all makes you wish the NBA had never draped its suits over women's
basketball. It killed the competition in a short war and in the process
left refugees everywhere.
And we thought the limit of selfishness was reached during the NBA lockout
when players and owners sacrificed half a season trying to get their way.
The women are worse. Management and players alike.
The WNBA has told its players that they must reach an agreement by Saturday
or the league likely will lock them out. The players want a decent wage - a
minimum of $45,000 for the 3-month summer season - and say the league wants
to give them a minimum of only $20,000.
Whatever the differences in money, it doesn't total more than $2 million
for the entire 12-team league, or less than the average salary of one male
player in the NBA.
With the ABL gone, the WNBA has no competition, and the players have no
leverage. Exploitation lives.
The players of the WNBA organized. It shouldn't be surprising that they
wanted to look out for themselves, but it is surprising they were
shortsighted enough to try to legislate themselves spots on rosters. They
don't want competition from the 90 players from the ABL, who were, by
everyone's admission, better than the bulk of players in the WNBA. Most of
ABL players want to keep playing, but few will.
The union wants a limit of two ABL players on each team. The WNBA says it
is willing to take four on each established team and six on the two
Kate Starbird and Shalonda Enis will make teams. Kate Paye and Naomi
Mulitauaopele probably won't.
Both sides are missing the point.
The game is fragile. The WNBA needs the best product on the floor. To be a
fiscal success, the game must broaden its appeal beyond women and girls.
The union wants to protect its membership, rewarding them for taking a risk
by signing with the WNBA. The reality is they took far less of a risk than
those who signed with the ABL.
With its marketing muscle and ties to established networks and sponsors,
the WNBA had a huge advantage over the ABL. In the competition for players,
the ABL was forced to pay more while, at the same time, the WNBA was eating
into its possible revenues. The result was bankruptcy.
When it folded, the ABL was paying an average of nearly $90,000 in
salaries, three times the WNBA. It offered women a full-time job. The
league also played in the winter, when the game was meant to be played. The
WNBA changed all that. It doesn't want women playing when the men do. It
doesn't want women to think of basketball as a full-time job. Its main
objective still seems to provide summer programming in otherwise empty NBA
The ABL is contemplating an antitrust suit against the WNBA. Creditors of
the ABL have filed claims for more than $25 million. The ABL thinks the NBA
used its position to keep the new league from getting a television
The ABL is unlikely to win such a lawsuit, but can make a case that it was
too bad the NBA got involved in women's basketball at all. It would have
been interesting to have seen what niche the ABL, with the best players and
paying decent salaries and playing in the winter, might have found. The
WNBA has expanded to Orlando and Minneapolis. San Francisco is in line for
the next franchise. Seattle must be fertile territory, and the WNBA's
long-range goal is to have a team in every NBA city.
But in the short range, the league needs to pay a decent salary and welcome
all comers. For its own good.