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The New York Liberty, WNBA, and turning points

2021 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Things are picking up. Last week, Howard Megdal reported in Sports Illustrated that the New York Liberty were fined $500,000 by the WNBA league office for providing the players with chartered flights in 2021. As it turns out, Joe and Clara Wu Tsai gave their players “a benefit that vastly exceeded the allowable compensation to players.” To make matters even worse, the league threatened to suspend the Tsais and terminate the Liberty as a franchise!

It’s a PR disaster for the W and even more damning when you consider one of its original franchises and team in its largest media market was threatened like that. We’ve talked about it before, but the W’s recent issues are part of a long-term, frustrating trend.

Of all the damning aspects of Megdal’s reporting, this quote in particular jumped out:

Some owners worried that players would get used to it, so there’d be no going back, and others wondered whether players might just prefer a salary hike instead.

Following the story, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert spoke to ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel and said:

“It would be more than $20 million a year to fund charter flights for an entire WNBA season. So this is something that we’re not going to jeopardize the financial health of the league and be irresponsible about. If we can get it funded by sponsors and supporters, great, but that’s not where we are. We do not have that.

This speaks to a few things. First, it’s directly related to the on-court product. Season after season, we’ve seen games directly impacted by the poor travel accommodations provided to the players. It’s been an issue for almost as long as the league has been in existence, but they still haven’t fixed it. As a league, you should be doing everything in your power to ensure the on court product is at its very best at all times. This means ensuring the players can travel in conditions befitting professional basketball players, allowing them the opportunity to rest comfortably as they travel from city, and give them the opportunity to perform at peak strength every night. When your players are having to squeeze themselves into substandard conditions just to get to work, it harms the game and makes it less enjoyable to watch and play. This directly impacts working conditions and as WNBA players continue to point out how terrible this situation is, the pressure will be on Engelbert and team owners to get this corrected before as soon as possible.

The other speaks to what the league prioritizes financially. At the beginning of February, the WNBA got a $75 million cash infusion that they hope, among other things, will help improve travel conditions along with marketing and presentation. The NBA has provided financial support to the W over the years, but it doesn’t appear as if they’ll be providing more than what they currently have going forward.

We’ve seen the NBA put their money behind a myriad of basketball related projects, so it’s disappointing that they haven’t put more in to support their peers here. For the W, they have to figure out how to best make the most out of their funds and push to be the standard of basketball worldwide. The players are incredibly talented, engaging, and provide WNBA fans with lots of fun and great moments. They’ve been able to build followings that began when they were in college and taken it to the pros as they enter new lanes. Engelbert and the WNBA have to meet that standard and help bring the game to new heights. Sabreena Merchant of Swish Appeal expanded on that and said:

For so long, the WNBA has existed in pure survival mode, which is understandable given the history of women’s sports leagues in the United States. But 25 years have come and gone, and it’s time for the W to start behaving as the best women’s league in the word, which it purports to be. That means treating its players as well as they are treated overseas, and there are owners in the United States who are willing to make that happen. The league has to think about growth, not just in terms of expanding the number of teams, but in terms of improvements. The new CBA was a good step, but there’s no reason for progress to stop until that agreement expires.

Swish Appeal’s Juanita Anderson spoke about this even more on the latest episode of the Triple Threat Pod, as heard below:

While that has been going on, we learned of an even more distressing situation that has geopolitical implications.

WNBA Finals - Game Two Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On March 5, it was reported that Phoenix Mercury All-Star, two time Olympic Gold Medalist, and future basketball Hall of Famer Brittney Griner, has been detained in a Russian jail for the past three weeks. (Griner was coached the last several years in Phoenix by Sandy Brondello, the Liberty’s new head coach.)

Russian authorities allege that she was smuggling hashish oil into the country and is reported to face almost a decade in prison. Considering the charges and Russia’s history of handling situations like these, everyone is rightfully concerned as to Griner’s safety and freedom. The United States government is working to secure Griner’s release, but that process tends to take a long time. As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, WNBA players that have been playing there evacuated the region.

Like many players, Griner was overseas to earn more money than she was getting in the WNBA. In 2016, Kate Fagan profiled Griner and her Mercury teammate, Diana Taurasi, for ESPN the Magazine. BG and DT were teammates for UMMC Yekaterinburg as they earned more than five teams their WNBA salaries. Then UMMC and Mercury assistant coach, Todd Troxel, explained why he and many others like him went to Russia: “This is the big paycheck — for all of us. We all love Phoenix, but ultimately it’s all about here.”

In 2018, Griner spoke about the difference in treatment in the WNBA compared to her Russian team:

“It’s just easy. They make it easy. The team over there, they make it as easy as you can make it. They take care of everything, car, translator, flying private. It’s nice. It’s like the NBA.”

Griner’s predicament has driven home the worst case scenario of players having to go abroad to receive fair pay. With WNBA salaries on the low side, players often have to go across the world immediately after the W season to earn a living. When you’re playing year round without adequate time to recover, it can lead to disastrous results that have long term consequences. Along with that, players have to travel far from home and when you’re abroad, you often wind up in places that are incredibly hostile and dangerous. If you pay the players well, give them opportunities to help grow the game stateside, and create conditions that will allow for them to perform at the peak of their powers during the WNBA seasons, it will be well worth the investment you put in.

There has been some help for players thanks to the upstart Athletes Unlimited league, and their success is something that the WNBA should look to draw from as they try to improve conditions for players. After the AU season wrapped up, Lexie Brown spoke about the WNBA to Megan Armstrong of Boardroom and said:

“There are some amazing things about the league, but we would be doing each other a disservice for not calling out where they need to be better. I just love this game and this league so much. I want so much better for it.”

In late February, Los Angeles Sparks star Liz Cambage spoke to ESPN’s Malika Andrews and Ramona Shelburne about how the W can better treat the players after she signed with the Los Angeles Sparks:

The past week for the WNBA has to be a turning point. All of the issues players and fans of the league have called out for years came to light in the greater sports and political communities. The league has failed to properly address issues of pay and travel and the goodwill they’ve earned over the years has started to dissipate. Their lack of success in fixing these problems has led to them alienating the ownership of one of their most important franchises and one of their greatest players being stuck in a high stakes battle between warring nations. The league has made some progress over the years, but now these issues have taken on even more importance and the league has to ensure they improve conditions for players now and in the future.

The WNBA has made plenty of progress in its 25 years. The fans love the product, the game has given us myriads of great moments, and it has helped form life-long friendships amongst fans and players. As they tries to chart a new path forward, they have a great opportunity to right some past wrongs and build a more solid foundation as they try to reach new heights. Anything less would be a disappointment.