It was stunning, heartbreaking news that emerged from Europe over the weekend: Seattle Storm stalwart Breanna Stewart had ruptured her right Achilles tendon playing for her Russian team, Dynamo Kursk, in the EuroLeague title game.
The ramifications of this injury are vast. And the questions it raises are vexing.
For starters, it’s obviously devastating news to the Storm, who had their sights set on a robust defense of its WNBA title. With a healthy “Stewie,” who at age 24 has emerged as the league’s dominant player, that was a realistic goal. But the task now becomes vastly more difficult, if not impossible.
For the WNBA, it’s a huge blow as well. Stewart is one of the faces of the league, its reigning MVP of both the regular season and championship finals. Now she will miss the season, depriving fans of one of the league’s most skilled and charismatic players. Stewart underwent what was termed successful surgery to repair the rupture in Los Angeles on Thursday, performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache and Dr. Kenneth S. Jung.
The WNBA already will be without superstar Maya Moore, the 2014 MVP who is opting to sit out the season to focus on her family and ministry. And Dallas center Liz Cambage, the WNBA scoring leader in 2018 who poured in a record 53 points in one game, has requested a trade to Los Angeles and may not play if it’s not executed.
Cambage already had thrown out the possibility of bypassing the WNBA season in 2019 because the money was so inferior to what she and other players make overseas.
“I’ve said this many times: (The WNBA) doesn’t pay my bills … playing here doesn’t pay my bills,” Cambage told ESPN’s Sean Hurd. “We make more money overseas. I’m ready to have next summer off and focus on getting a European contract where it’s 10 seasons here worth the pay.”
Which brings us to the vexing question: What can the league do about the fact its best players are being forced to play nearly year-round to supplement their WNBA income?
It would be inconceivable for NBA players the caliber of LeBron James and Steph Curry to hurry off after the playoffs to join a European team for a second season that takes them right up to training camp. But that’s a common occurrence for Brittney Griner (with whom Stewart got entangled in the fateful play that resulted in the Achilles rupture), A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and, over the years, nearly any superstar you can think of, including until 2014, Sue Bird.
It’s certain to be a major negotiating point in the upcoming labor talks, which will intensify in the upcoming season now that the Women’s National Basketball Players Association chose to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement following the 2019 season.
Players have been increasingly outspoken about the pay gap between the NBA and the WNBA. They aren’t asking for matching salaries, though; what they want addressed is the disparity in the percentage of revenues paid to players – about 50 percent in the NBA compared with an estimated 20.4 percent in the WNBA.
That places the average WNBA salary at less than $80,000, with a maximum base of $117,500 (plus bonuses that can bring it to around $150,000). Stewart made a base salary of $56,793 last season (set to rise to $64,538 in 2019), according to espnW’s Mechelle Voepel, plus bonuses totaling $38,525 for being league MVP, winning the WNBA title, making All-WNBA first team and being selected an All-Star.
WNBA players stand to make vastly more money playing overseas in places such as France, Spain, Turkey, China, Korea, Israel, Italy, Australia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Belgium and Russia – and upward of 70 percent of the league chooses to do so.
Salaries for the elite players can approach, or even surpass, half a million dollars in those countries. Ominously for the league, Diana Taurasi elected to sit out the 2015 WNBA season because her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, paid her $1.5 million – roughly 10 times her salary with the Phoenix Mercury. They essentially bought out Taurasi’s WNBA season to entice her to rest up and concentrate on the European campaign, which is what Cambage has alluded to as well.
The year-round playing, while lucrative, takes a physical (as well as a mental) toll. With her commitment to Team USA, Stewart has been grinding her way on the court nearly nonstop for years. She hurt her knee playing in China last winter, and now this Achilles injury has shelved her in her prime.
It must be pointed out that Stewart played 42 WNBA games last season (including playoffs), plus 18 with her Russian team, and a handful for USA basketball, still not equaling an NBA regular season. But the key point is that players such as Stewart never have a sustained opportunity to rest their bodies, and it stands to reason that makes them more susceptible to injury.
What makes this especially vexing is that the WNBA is awash in red ink. It lost $12 million in 2018, and an average of $10 million a year over its existence, NBA commissioner Adam Silver stated last December.
But it also has a product that may be better than it has been, with a slew of exciting, marketable stars. Ratings for the playoffs were up 30 percent. The WNBA remains the best league in the world for women’s basketball; just not the best paid.
It won’t be easy to change that, because of the financial challenges the league faces. And let’s face it, the big money overseas always will be a lure, because of owners who are willing to pay it regardless of whether they turn a profit.
But it behooves the WNBA to figure out a way to keep its best players, such as Stewart, from putting their bodies on the line nearly 12 months a year. We have just learned, painfully, the potential cost.
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