For the WNBA's Stars, Another Season Is Just Beginning

The league's best players don't have an offseason.

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Last night, the Seattle Storm beat the Washington Mystics to clinch the WNBA title. For an elimination game, it was never particularly close—and after Seattle fended off a 16-3 run by the Mystics to begin the fourth quarter, the Storm never looked back. WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart went for 30 and 8. The Mystics had nothing for Natasha Hastings on the block. Sue Bird, one of the sport’s all-time greatest players and one of the most decorated athletes of any era, didn’t score until late in the game but still came up with a double-double. Seattle looks to have a dynasty on their hands, and the rest of the WNBA will be chasing them for years to come.

But as the WNBA offseason begins today, most of the sport’s elite players won’t have much, if any, time off. For players like Stewart and WNBA Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson, another season begins in a matter of weeks.

In order to make their yearly calendars as financially lucrative as possible, WNBA players are forced into a situation that none of their NBA counterparts would ever have to consider. All of the money is overseas. The fact that the WNBA just completed its own season is just an unfortunate detail.

While the WNBA provides a high level of competition, and a chance for the league’s domestic born players to play in front of American audiences, the financial windfall is minimal compared to other major sports leagues. The league’s maximum salary is around $115,000, and that’s only after some of the WNBA’s most visible players pressured the NBA (which operates the WNBA) into more equitable treatment. The median salary hovers around $71,000 and a rookie contract pays in the $50,000 range. (Stewart made around that for her rookie year, a season where she proved to be one of the league’s 15 best players almost instantly.) The WNBA’s CBA (collective bargaining agreement), which players like Diana Taurasi have criticized in the recent past, doesn’t expire until 2021 and can’t be revised until next year, 2019.

Wilson, who is one of the most exciting young players since Candace Parker, will ship out to China, where Stewart played after the 2017 WNBA  season. (Reportedly, Maya Moore made $400,000 for Shanxi, where Wilson will be playing). While the league’s all-time great, Taurasi, has hinted that she might be done with a full-year calendar, the financial upside is too hard to pass up for some players—in 2015, Taurasi’s Russian team paid her to sit out the WNBA season rather than risk injury in the WNBA.

But there’s nothing like infinite spots, or infinite destinations, for all of the WNBA’s players. The majority of the lucrative contracts are based in Russia, China or Turkey. For some teams—like Shanghai Duhua, the team that Stewart played for last season—have a cap on how many foreigners a team is allowed to have. (Shanghai, for instance, gets one).

And then there’s the aspect of cultural assimilation. While Stewart’s team provided a Chinese translator, her coach was Korean. The cultural shift could be incredibly daunting to manage, as depicted in Cycle’s mini-doc of Stewart’s year overseas.

In an American culture that values the grind, no one is grinding harder than the WNBA’s stars to get the money they’ve proven that they deserve. While they wait for the culture at home to change, and for the league that governs them to make equitable adjustments to their bargaining agreement, the WNBA’s biggest stars are rearranging their lives in order to earn what they’re capable of earning.

The WNBA season is over. But a new grind is only just beginning.

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