The WNBA’s MVP Is Out for the Season. Now What?

Reigning WNBA MVP and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart’s injury before the start of the WNBA season highlights an underlying problem with the league’s business model.

(Illustration by Sophia Di Iorio)

Reigning WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon in last weekend’s EuroLeague title game, rendering her injured for the entire WNBA 2019 season, which starts next month. Aside from being incredibly devastating for Stewart and the Seattle Storm’s title chances, this injury and the ones that preceded it underline the need for the WNBA to change the way it treats its players.

Stewart was playing for Russian team Dynamo Kursk when she landed on the foot of UMMC Ekaterinburg center and fellow WNBA star Brittney Griner and fell to the ground in pain. Stewart and Griner were among seven WNBA players on the court that day. 

Injuries are part of being a professional athlete; that comes with the deal. However, the 24-year-old’s injury is not the first to happen to a player abroad. After the conclusion of every WNBA season, many of the league’s stars — this year, 89 of the league’s 144 players — choose to play overseas in order to supplement their income. 

A few weeks ago, Indiana Fever guard Victoria Vivians suffered a torn ACL while playing in Israel. She will also miss the upcoming WNBA season. WNBA Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson had to return to the U.S. after she hurt her right knee playing in China. Thankfully, she was able to make a full recovery.

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The median salary for a WNBA player is around $71,365, with starting salaries at $50,000. Stewart’s base salary last season with the Storm was $56,793, and she earned bonuses of $15,000 for being MVP, $11,025 for winning the WNBA title, $10,000 for being All-WNBA first team and $2,500 for being an All-Star. According to a CNBC report, WNBA players earn just 20% of NBA players’ salaries. Salaries for female players in the EuroLeague start at $100,000.

Can you imagine Stephen Curry or LeBron James jetting off to Europe to play after the end of the NBA season? Of course not, because the prospect of playing more games after a grueling full season of basketball is ludicrous. This is the reality of many women in the WNBA.

In 2018, Stewart played in China, had some time off, played 42 WNBA games, played in the World Cup in the Canary Islands, had some time off and then competed in the EuroLeague in Russia, where her season came to a premature end. The last time she had significant time to rest was before her senior year at the University of Connecticut four years ago — where she won four straight NCAA titles.

It’s not entirely fair to simply compare the salaries of NBA and WNBA players because the NBA earns significantly more revenue. However, the WNBA players are not treated the same as their male counterparts. The NBA pays its players approximately 50% of league revenue. According to a 2017 Forbes report, WNBA players receive less than 25% of the league’s revenue. While the WNBA season is 48 games shorter than the NBA’s 82-game season, the average WNBA player only makes an average of $2,098 per game while an NBA player rakes in an average of $32,311. In other words, a significant gender wage gap exists in professional basketball and it is not going away.

WNBA players have been outspoken about their concerns ahead of negotiations for the new collective bargaining agreement. The Dallas Wings’ Elizabeth Cambage has suggested that she might sit out the upcoming WNBA season if her trade to the Los Angeles Sparks does not go through and pointed out how she can make significantly more money playing overseas than playing in the WNBA. But this is not just about money. 

In a 2018 article in The Players’ Tribune, WNBA Players Association President Nneka Ogwumike wrote about the factors contributing to the players’ decision to opt out of the current CBA following the 2019 season. Lack of transparency from the league, poor travel conditions and little visibility are some of the issues WNBA players will surely bring up the next time they are sitting at the table with WNBA executives. 

With the upcoming CBA negotiations, these issues are in the spotlight more than ever. It’s in the WNBA’s best interests to figure out a way to keep its best players healthy so they don’t have to push their bodies to the limits playing basketball all year long.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 22, 2019, print edition. Email Bela Kirpalani at [email protected]

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