Last summer, DeLisha Milton was an All-Star forward for the WNBA
champion Los Angeles Sparks. She played at the Staples Center in
front of crowds that routinely exceeded 10,000, and many of her
team's games were broadcast on national TV. This fall and winter,
she is playing for a club team in Ekaterinburg, Russia, a mining
town tucked away on the east side of the Ural Mountains. At a
well-attended game, perhaps 1,000 fans converge on Ekaterinburg's
dowdy civic amphitheater.
Now get this: For the four-month WNBA season Milton was paid
$70,000, and she and three teammates shared a car provided by the
team. For the six-month season in the Russian League, she makes
roughly $150,000 (tax-free) and has her own chauffeur, courtesy
of the team. What's more, like all WNBA players, Milton folded
her 6'2" frame into a coach-class seat on a commercial flight
when the Sparks traveled. In Ekaterinburg, she and her teammates
fly on private planes chartered by the team. "I know," says
Milton, laughing. "It makes no sense to me either."
Such are the fun-house-mirror economics of women's pro
basketball. The WNBA fancies itself the premiere women's sports
league, yet players commanding an average salary of $55,000 in
the WNBA double and triple their income by competing for smaller
club teams overseas. When the WNBA season ends, more than half
the players become hoops mercenaries. "People ask how I spend my
off-season from the WNBA," says Chastity Melvin, a forward for
the Cleveland Rockers who is playing in Gdinya, Poland. "In some
ways, the WNBA is the off-season. The fall and winter is when
most of us make our real money."
How can teams in backwaters such as Ekaterinburg pay six-figure
salaries to players? Not surprisingly, there's no single answer.
In some cases the teams are sponsored by local businesses that
underwrite player salaries in return for affixing the corporate
name to the team. In other cases the teams are municipally owned,
and public monies are used to offset salaries. (The mayor of
Ramla, Israel, Yoel Lavi, doubles as the de facto general manager
for the women's pro team in his town.) Lastly, some team owners
are wealthy individuals who derive so much satisfaction--and ego
gratification--from the club that operating losses are irrelevant.
Overseas owners also apply a different business model. In the
WNBA players' salaries account for less than 20% of the teams'
gross revenue, and the league's lowest-paid coach makes far more
than the league's highest-paid player. For clubs like Gdinya, the
lion's share of the revenue goes toward paying the players, not
the administrators. "The question isn't, How can these players
make three and four times their WNBA salaries overseas? It's, How
can the WNBA get away with paying one third and one fourth as
much?" says Bruce Levy, an agent who represents dozens of female
players. "The overseas teams are subsidizing the WNBA."
If so, the foreign franchises don't mind. The WNBA has helped
popularize women's basketball and has done wonders for elevating
the caliber of play. Yet the league's depressed wages create a
market for players when the WNBA season is over. "I am shocked
the WNBA doesn't pay more," says Kashka Dydek, the Gdinya G.M.
and older sister of Utah Starzz center Margo Dydek. "But I'm
thankful because if they set a higher standard, I couldn't afford
That day may be drawing nigh. This winter the WNBA and the
Women's National Basketball Players Association will negotiate a
new collective bargaining agreement. (The old one expired in
September.) The players are in a much stronger position than they
were last time because of the league's popularity. Among other
concessions, they are seeking a hefty pay increase, one that will
eliminate the need to supplement their incomes. Much as they
relish the fat paychecks and some of the quirky experiences that
attend playing in foreign countries, the players would much
rather the WNBA became a full-time job. "When we can spend the
off-season at home, working out and working on our games without
worrying about the money," says Melvin, "that's when we'll know
we've really made it."
Home and Away Games
Here are some of the differences the L.A. Sparks' DeLisha Milton
has found between playing in the WNBA and competing overseas.
Length of season Four months Six months
Avg. home attendance 10,606 1,000 (estimated)
National TV Some games No games
Salary $70,000 $150,000 (estimated)
Air travel Coach Private charter