After A Decade, The WNBA Shoots For Longevity

By Dennis Manoloff
Updated: March 31, 2007

CLEVELAND — The WNBA has plenty to celebrate heading into its annual draft Wednesday in Cleveland. The league enters its 11th season.

Corporate support is up. Foreign interest, from players and viewers, continues to rise. Attendance and ratings for the 2006 Finals increased significantly over the previous year.

Underneath it all, though, lies a nagging issue: The WNBA season comes and goes in a relative blink. The league’s 11th season, similar to the previous 10, will unfold primarily in the summer.

It runs May 19-Aug. 19, with playoffs to follow for three weeks. Such a schedule lasts long enough to create interest and generate excitement, but ends too soon to make a sizable impact on the American sports landscape.

A summer fling also leaves WNBA players wanting more. The majority of WNBA players — estimated by the league office at more than 60 percent for 2006-2007 — fills the calendar by playing in foreign women’s leagues.

“We need a longer season to become the overriding best women’s league in the world,” said Stacey Dales, Chicago Sky guard/forward and ESPN commentator.

As it stands, the WNBA’s players claim to have the best night in, night out, women’s competition anywhere on the globe.

But the WNBA knows it cannot boast of having no peers until its players stop doubling up in EuroLeague or EuroCup, or in Russia, Korea or Australia.

“The key is chemistry,” Dales said. “The longer you stay together as a team, the more chemistry develops. That makes for better teams and an even better league, top to bottom.”

The main reason players pack their gym bags, aside from seeing the sites, is cash.

WNBA players, subject to the double barrel of a salary cap and a short season, earn between $32,500 and $93,000 for standard contracts. Salaries in foreign leagues vary widely, as they depend on exchange rates, taxes and how badly owners want to win.

“The WNBA still has the most talent, and all the best players in the world still come to play there — regardless of money,” Sue Bird, a standout guard for the Seattle Storm who is in her third year in Russia, wrote in an e-mail interview from Russia.

“It’s a challenge, and many want to see where they stand against some of the best. If the WNBA paid the same way European teams do, it wouldn’t even be a question.

“I’d be lying if I said [money] wasn’t high on my list. There are rules and caps and free agency in the WNBA, and nothing like that in Europe. If a [European] team wants to pay one player $100 million, they can do it. If they want to pay them $100, they can do that, as well.”

Bird declined to state whether she makes $100 million or $100, but she undoubtedly is one of the better-paid American players overseas.

Another who plays all year is Brooke Wyckoff, a former standout at Lakota (Ohio) High School. Wyckoff played for the Chicago Sky last summer before suiting up in Spain. Her European basketball stints have ranged from full seasons to a couple of months.

Wyckoff also wishes for a longer WNBA season, but she realizes it would not entail flipping a switch.

“Obviously, it would be great to have a normal’ basketball season and not have players with the burden of finding something else to do,” she wrote in an e-mail interview from Spain. “But while we are attached to the NBA and still largely dependent on it, I don’t see it happening.”

At the WNBA’s inception, its franchises were owned by the WNBA and the NBA. The WNBA as a league paid all the salaries, and the teams ran themselves. Now, the WNBA is branching out on its own, sometimes as a result of NBA owners bailing.

The Connecticut Sun of the Eastern Conference, owned by the Mohegan Tribe, became the first WNBA franchise in a nonNBA city when it joined in 2003. It is not the only franchise to operate independently of the NBA. The Sky, Washington Mystics, Los Angeles Sparks, and Houston Comets are others.

Drifting too far from the NBA base could be hazardous to the WNBA’s health, which is why WNBA insiders think the league should maintain a combination of independent and NBA owners for its franchises.

Drifting too far into the NBA season could be lethal.

“It would be very challenging on so many levels to overlap the NBA, especially given how young we are as a league,” Dales said. “And it’s not just overlapping the NBA; it’s NFL, MLB, etc. So you have a dilemma. We have to pick our spots as to when we’re going to get viewers.”

The WNBA began with eight teams, grew to 16 and currently sits at 13. Dales, Wyckoff and Bird agree perspective is critical as the WNBA ponders its moves over the next 10 years.

“I think the No. 1 goal for the WNBA in 10 years is to still be in existence,” Wyckoff wrote. “Although it’s been around 10 years already, it’s still a very young entity.

“I think the WNBA is growing at the rate it should be. Right now it’s important to. . . avoid becoming too big too quickly, therefore increasing the likelihood of failing.”