On a recent April afternoon, the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. was buzzing. Not because of the Wizards (their disappointing NBA season had been over for weeks) or because of the Capitols (their second-round NHL playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins was still a day away). Rather, the excitement on this day was all generated by the Washington Mystics, the WNBA team that has called Chinatown home since 1998.
It was media day, and there was a distinct first-day-back-at-school vibe. Training camp had just begun, photoshoots were taking place, and, perhaps most importantly, it was just weeks before the WNBA’s historic 20th season kicked off.
One person, however, was not brimming with joy: Mike Thibault, the head coach of the Mystics.
It’s not that he wasn’t excited for the season to begin, or hopeful about his team’s chances. He was just frustrated that training camp had begun, and only half of his team was even in the country. The other half were (primarily) overseas, finishing up their seasons on foreign teams, which they’re forced to join because the WNBA season is so short and their salaries are so limited.
Without his whole team in the same zip code, Thibault — a former assistant coach in the NBA — struggles to implement new plays and establish team chemistry.
“It’s just disjointed when you only have a few weeks to prepare and you’re doing it with half your roster missing,” he said. “I learned a lot in the NBA — your offseason is a time for improvement. You get to work with players. That’s not the norm in this league. You just have to hope they do the right thing when they’re gone.”
The limitations of the league’s schedule were evident immediately upon the launch of its historic 20th season — particularly for the Mystics, who lost 87–76 to the New York Liberty on Saturday night in front of their hometown fans. The team was not operating anywhere near full strength. One Mystics player, LaToya Sanders, was still overseas due to Turkish national team commitments. Veteran Ivory Latta was still recovering from knee surgery she underwent after injuring herself in Turkey. Emma Meesseman, a 2015 WNBA All-Star, was on the court, but far from her best; the Belgian had only been back in Washington for a few days, and she was clearly jet lagged and uncomfortable.
While there are no guarantees in professional sports, it was hard to watch the team and not wonder how different things would be if they had all gotten a proper offseason and training camp.
“The league is improving, but nobody is doubting that the league could be even better if the players had a chance to have an offseason,” Howard Megdal, the editorial director of Excelle Sports, told ThinkProgress.
Overall, about 50 percent of WNBA players spend their seven-month “offseason” playing for teams abroad, and financially, it makes perfect sense why. Last winter, 2009 WNBA MVP and seven-time All Star Diana Taurasi earned $1.5 million playing for a team in Russia, while her teammate, two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Brittney Griner, took home almost $1 million. While not everyone gets money like that, the paychecks and superstar treatment that WNBA players get abroad makes the extra physical exertion worth it. After all, basketball careers are short, and players are under pressure to cash in while they can.
This season in the WNBA, the most money a player can make is $111,500, while some rookies will make less than $41,000.
So far, most players still prioritize the WNBA because of the elite competition and the opportunity to grow the game, but there’s no guarantee that’s going to happen in the future. In fact, last year Taurasi made waves when she announced that she was going to sit out the 2015 WNBA season with the Phoenix Mercury — because her team in Russia was paying her to do so.
While her decision generated headlines, it didn’t spark a mass exodus of copycats, nor did it cause the WNBA to panic and start throwing money at players. And, of course, Taurasi returned to Phoenix this season.
It’s not clear that there’s a better way forward.
So, for now, the WNBA will remain stuck in a Catch-22. The league’s modest salaries and limited schedule, nestled in the NBA’s offseason, has kept the league alive for 20 years and provided a great opportunity for countless female athletes. But with players exerting themselves so much during the offseason, coming late to training camps, and even missing regular-season games due to commitments abroad, will the league ever truly be able to live up to its potential?
“Is it counterproductive? Maybe. But what’s the alternative?” Megdal said. “Either pay the players enough money so they don’t have to go overseas, or alternatively, put together a schedule where you end up with fewer players.
“It’s not clear that there’s a better way forward.”
Overall, Megdal is less concerned about the product on-court, which has been able to steadily improve despite the challenges it faces, and more worried about the lack of visibility the WNBA players have in the United States because they spend the majority of the year overseas.
“My bigger concern is that to really market the players, it would be helpful to have them around the large majority of the year,” he said. “That is the bigger potential stumbling block.”
As ESPN’s Kate Fagan wrote, “Essentially, the WNBA and its players must attempt to reintroduce themselves to casual fans — every single season.”
The Mystics reintroduction on Saturday night was a “mixed bag,” according to Thibault. There were some highlights — guard Bria Hartley took over the third quarter and almost single-handedly kept the Mystics in the game with 17 points, and rookie Kahleah Copper showed flashes of defensive brilliance. But make no mistake about it — because the team got such a late start, there is still a long way to go.
“We got some shots blocked, we missed free throws, and we missed some layups. I thought that for playing seven to eight players, we were tired. We are going to have to get a lot better in a lot of ways,” Thibault said.
“Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We are going to have to figure out a way to do a better job.”
This piece has been updated to reflect the WNBA’s salary information for the 2016 season.
The maximum salary for players with less than six years of service is $109,000, while the maximum salary for players with over six years of experience is $111,500.
As for rookies, the first four picks in the draft make $50,617, while the next four picks in the first round make $46,837. All second-round picks make $40,248, and third-round picks make $39,676.
Every other year, when the WNBA doesn’t have to schedule around the FIBA World Championships and Olympics, the season starts a few weeks later.