What the WNBA is doing to incentivize its players to stay home instead of going overseas
“No more days,” the Phoenix Mercury wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning. “She’s coming home.”
Brittney Griner was scheduled to arrive on United States soil later Thursday, 294 days after she was arrested in Russia on Feb. 17. The U.S. Department of State declared the NCAA, WNBA and Olympic champion wrongfully detained on May 3, a move that allowed the Mercury and WNBA to speak out on her behalf. It eventually led to a prisoner exchange.
Griner, 32, was in Russia to play for Russian Premier League powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg, the club she has played for since 2015-16 and that has signed WNBA stars Diana Taurasi, Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot, Jonquel Jones and Emma Meesseman. Most players have gone overseas since before the WNBA was founded in 1997, first as a way to play and then as a way to complement their stateside salaries.
It is a reality the league has been working to change and it has taken more prescience with Griner’s detainment. Because if there are truly to be “no more days” for Griner or any other WNBA player to be wrongfully detained in a foreign country they’re visiting for work, then the league and supporters of women’s sports have a plethora of steps they can take moving forward.
The league is already trying, as commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who took the job in 2019, noted in a call with reporters hours after the White House released the Griner news.
“We’ve been chipping away at the economic model and growing the league,” Engelbert said on Thursday. “I think you’re seeing players take advantage of other opportunities and we’re certainly going to provide them more opportunities to do things with the league in the offseason and keep the momentum going with the great play they put on the court every year.”
For there to be no more days, all of it needs to continue to expand in the ways it historically has for growing men’s leagues. The issues are intertwined and bettering one will lift all up further.
Prioritization and league marketing agreements
Prioritization will impact if players go overseas and where they play. The collective bargaining agreement clause, which has been controversial, mandates the league fine players who are late to training camp. Beginning in 2024, the league can suspend a player who does not report. It does not apply to players who have fewer than three seasons of experience.
Previously, players had shown up late or missed considerable time because they were still with their overseas clubs for the playoffs. The clause does not stipulate that players cannot play overseas, simply that they have to be back on time. That means playing in some leagues, such as France’s October through late April regular season, would be out of the question given the timeline.
The idea from the league is to have stars available on opening day and allow teams to build chemistry, particularly important when hardship contracts and short rosters are common. By necessity, if a player wants to continue playing in the WNBA, the player will have to either not go overseas or pick their option wisely.
The league’s answer to this is marketing agreements, which can raise a player’s annual income to $750,000 a year. The supermax salary for 2023 is $234,936 and the required minimum is $62,285 for rookies to two-year players and $74,305 otherwise.
“We are chipping away at paying the players more so that they have more opportunities here,” Engelbert said on Thursday.
Engelbert said about 10 players signed marketing agreements this offseason, up from only a couple a few years ago. The total pool is approximately $1.5 million and teams have the ability to sign marketing deals with players separately.
“We have to build more household names in this league,” Engelbert said. “People are interested in the game, in content, but they’re interested in the players and rivalries that you create.”
Keeping WNBA players in the U.S. means sending them to tentpole events like NBA All-Star weekend, where that building can happen. They’re able to do more TV hits or podcast shows and more media availability overall. Players have gone to fashion events and movie premieres, too.
Any time or place an individual sees a WNBA player is a good thing. It raises awareness of the players and leagues while also boosting further marketing potential.
Engelbert estimated it would take three to five years when she started, but then the COVID-19 pandemic “put us a little behind.” The WNBA also raised $75 million in capital that it hopes to continue to invest in growing the league and supporting players.
“We have to build an economic model,” Engelbert said. “We’re only 26 years young. We’re not 75 or 100 or 110 like some of the men’s leagues. And so we’re working on that.”
New media rights deal will fuel more money
The biggest boost to come will be negotiating a new rights deal when its current deal with ESPN is up in 2025. The company has aired WNBA games every year since its founding and reportedly pays around $25 million per year for them.
“In my mind, when the TV deal is up in two years, that to me, is the moment,” four-time champion Sue Bird told On Her Turf in July. “I think we just have to continue down this path, keep doing what we’ve been doing, and then when they start negotiations for that, that could really break things open and change the entire trajectory of our league.”
Engelbert has spoken often about disrupting the valuation model and media landscape, specifically citing (but not naming) the recent deal MLS and Apple signed at a minimum of $250 million a season over 10 years.
“If you look at our viewership this year compared to some of the men’s leagues, we are doing quite well,” Engelbert said ahead of the WNBA Finals. “We doubled one men’s league who signed a very large media rights deal, so I am very optimistic we’ll get something very favorable, and it should be because this valuation model has been broken for too long.”
She added, “it’s really, really important that we get the value we deserve. So yes, that is going to be a huge uplift to these players.”
Money from TV deals are included in revenue sharing. An important aspect of the deal is also where games are, how they are marketed and if they are given their proper due. The WNBA would not be where it is without ESPN’s support, but there is always work to be done.
There is no standard time or place to watch a game, nor is there a constant studio show lead-in or postgame discussion. Contests are often buried on the network, even though a Yahoo Sports analysis of the jump in 2021 viewership numbers showed having more games on big networks boosted viewership further.
Companies brokering more player sponsorships
Athletes often receive most of their income from off-court endeavors and deals rather than their annual playing salary. For women athletes, those opportunities are fewer and lesser. Studies have shown that less than 1% of sponsorship money goes to women’s sports. Engelbert, who came to the WNBA after serving as CEO of accounting firm Deloitte, told ESPN this year much of that goes to individual athletes rather than team-sport athletes.
That is beginning to change, but more will be needed for players to make the kind of money and lifestyle they would overseas. For the businesses, it’s not charity. It’s a solid business decision.
“We’ve kind of talked about this throughout the media this season, but the women’s game is growing,” Las Vegas Aces champion Kelsey Plum told Yahoo Sports this month. “Gen Z cares about women’s sports. There’s over 35% of Gen Z that watches women’s sports. We’re coming and I think that brands and media companies are adapting to that, so I think it’s really cool to see that change and that shift.”
Plum followed up her first WNBA title and FIBA World Cup gold by announcing new deals with Google Pixel, Under Armor and American Express. It pales in comparison to most NBA players, both of high profile and lower.
LeBron James is the NBA’s highest-earning active player and made more than $385 million in net salary over the course of his career as of last summer. Off the court, he made “upwards of $900 million” from endorsements and business ventures, Forbes reported in June. Much of James’ wealth comes from ventures like the SpringHill Company ($300 million) and stakes in professional sports teams ($90 million). The ability to make those high-end moves came from early sponsorship deals like Nike, where he has spent his entire career.
The lifetime agreement he signed in 2015 pays him tens of millions every year and includes signature shoes, a lucrative aspect long ignored for WNBA players.
More shoe deals for income, marketing potential
Breanna Stewart, a two-time WNBA champion and one of the league’s most marketed faces, broke with Nike and signed a monumental deal last year with Puma to release a signature shoe, the Stewie 1. Stewart is the first WNBA player in the past decade to have one, and only the 10th player overall.
Shoes are big money, and a big marketing opportunity that grows a player’s clout. For players like James, there are multiple colorways and versions that fans — or even a non-fan buying basketball shoes for their kids — buy year after year.
“Kids are seeing certain people and certain faces all over the place — social media, TV, live [in person] — and wanting to represent them,” Stewart told Yahoo Sports in March ahead of the shoe release.
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LeBron and Nike debuted a new version of his recently released 20th shoe on Wednesday, whereas WNBA and Team USA stars such as Bird, Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore or Seimone Augustus (to name only a few) had zero.
As a superstar domestically and internationally, Stewart was often asked previously by fans where they could buy her shoe. She had to tell them she didn’t have one.
“Now it’s like, well I do, and it’s coming, and I hope that all these young girls and boys are going to want to go out and get the shoe and realize that there’s the NBA, and there’s also the WNBA,” she said before the Stewie 1 release.
Elena Delle Donne, a 2019 champion with the Washington Mystics, also has a signature shoe now with the Air Deldon released in October. In comparison to Stewart, though, it was done without much marketing or fanfare.
Nearly every one of the 450 NBA players have a sneaker deal on some level, ESPN’s Nick DePaula reported in 2020. The men’s signature shoe deals can bring in $5 million to $15 million annually plus up to six-figure bonuses for marks like All-Star appearance or league MVP. There are also cash deals and merch deals.
Player exclusive (PE) shoe deals are also important. Moolah Kicks, the trailblazing shoe specifically for women players, announced Indiana Fever guard Destanni Henderson and WNBA All-Star Courtney Williams to exclusive deals. Natasha Cloud has one with Converse.
Showcasing WNBA players in commercials
It was a big, refreshing deal in WNBA circles when State Farm released its latest insurance commercial in April.
Jonquel Jones, the 2021 WNBA MVP, was featured prominently alongside NBAers Trae Young and Boban Marjanovic in a humorous ad based in a grocery store. It raised her profile and normalized WNBA talent.
The same can be said for longtime faces of the league Bird and Candace Parker in CarMax commercials. Bird’s spot with Steph Curry is particularly well done in that sense. It again put the leagues on equal footing and made the point that Bird had more championship rings than Curry (they are now tied at four).
Earlier this year, Jones spoke out about marketing, sponsorship and endorsements issues, calling it a “popularity contest and politics” on who receives deals. In men’s basketball, she said, being the best is the only thing that matters.
“In [women's basketball] you gottah [sic] be the best player, best looking, most marketable, most IG followers, just to sit at the endorsement table,” she wrote on Twitter. “Thank God for [playing] overseas because my bag would've been fumbled.”
Jones, a native of the Bahamas who attended prep school in the U.S. and played at George Washington, was making the point that she did not receive the same benefits of becoming an MVP versus a player like Stewart or the NBA’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. She filmed the State Farm commercial weeks before accepting her unanimously voted MVP, but has not received more revenue opportunities since.
Players’ offseason jobs in the U.S.
Even before news of Griner’s detainment, there was a growing trend of WNBA players staying home in the offseason. Many have done so because of job opportunities near their families that are curated to fit into their basketball season and training schedules.
Sabrina Ionescu, the heralded No. 1 pick in the 2020 WNBA draft, has not played overseas. The New York Liberty point guard was rehabbing ankle injuries each offseason, but had said she might go overseas for the second half of last offseason. A’ja Wilson, another No. 1 pick, stopped going overseas and multiple 2022 draft picks have opted not to play.
Ionescu, who has many endorsements led by Nike, is one of the players to work at her alma mater. She joined the Oregon Ducks’ support staff as the director of athletic culture last month. Aari McDonald, the Atlanta Dream’s No. 3 pick in 2021, took on the role of director of recruiting at Arizona under her former head coach Adia Barnes.
“I just feel like overseas wasn’t for me, but I gave it a fair shot and it’s not for everybody,” McDonald told The Next. “So I’ll still be in the States, I’ll be close to my family, still involved in [and] around the sport that I love, and just honestly, helping to mentor people and just trying to bring some great talent to Arizona.”
Plum also previously coached at the collegiate level. Veteran two-time champion Kristi Toliver spends her offseasons coaching with the Dallas Mavericks. Engelbert also spotlighted players coaching at other NBA and G League teams. She said internship or apprenticeship opportunities were also an option for those players who aren’t household stars as they prepare for life after basketball.
Broadcasting and analyst jobs are also sprouting up as opportunities. Chiney Ogwumike has grown into more roles on ESPN. Parker fits in perfectly on the “NBA on TNT” desk. Skylar Diggins-Smith worked for Phoenix Suns broadcasts last winter.
Offseason basketball in the U.S.
The WNBA season is short, even given the expansion to 40 games, and a lot of players have said they want to play basketball as much as possible while they still can. The Athletes Unlimited basketball league that launched last winter allows them to do that at home, for a shorter amount of time in a way that doesn’t overlap with their WNBA preparation. The second season begins in February and will feature such talent as Cloud, Allisha Gray, Sydney Colson, Layshia Clarendon and NaLyssa Smith, the Indiana Fever’s No. 2 pick in the 2022 draft.
Rookies, who are not included in the prioritization clause, are in a difficult position because they go from a long NCAA season that ends the first days of April immediately into training camp and a WNBA season that runs usually until October. Overseas seasons are often underway already, so they report and play through until their second season in the WNBA.
But the plus to overseas seasons is that it gives them time to work and develop more. AU can now take the spot of that.
“Then you go play AU and you still get to compete at a high level,” Smith told Business Insider. “It’s not you taking time off — you’re still going to compete and you get to play with different people … I feel like this is gonna help me grow a lot.”
The AU salary for 2022 was an average of $20,000 with bonuses that can move it up to $50,000 for a six-week season.
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