Diana Taurasi, one of the WNBA’s marquee players, needs some rest. She also needs money to secure her future after her playing career ends and, because she can’t get those two things in the United States, she will not play in the WNBA this year. Instead, she will rest up before playing in the Russian Premier League.
It’s a sad situation for Taurasi, the WNBA’s highest-paid player at just less than $107,000 a year, and a problem for the WNBA. She has played year-round since 2004 and has helped the U.S. national team win gold medals in the Olympics in 2004, ’08 and ’12. She plays overseas during the winter and for the WNBA during its 34-game regular summer season and now, at 32, she needs a break. Taurasi promised that, after sitting out the 2015 WNBA season at the request of her Russian Premier League team, she would return to the WNBA in the future but explained that she needs to also consider her financial security. Playing in Russia won’t just pay well, it will pay far, far better; she will earn roughly $1.5 million playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Still, it’s a huge loss for the WNBA, a league that has struggled to gain a real foothold in the United States and, with Taurasi, the Mercury have won three titles since 2007.
“The year-round nature of women’s basketball takes its toll and the financial opportunity with my team in Russia would have been irresponsible to turn down,” Taurasi wrote in an open letter to fans who now won’t get to see her play. “They offered to pay me to rest and I’ve decided to take them up on it. I want to be able to take care of myself and my family when I am done playing.
And she won’t get much after this season, assuming she honors her intent to return to the WNBA, because she plans to play for the U.S. team in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. With so many miles on her legs, the move makes sense for Taurasi, a seven-time WNBA all-star who is the league’s second all-time leading scorer. Although the WNBA has been around since 1996, it has relied on the star power brought by a few to elevate it and now a significant star is playing elsewhere for 15 times the money she could make here. It’s a significant problem for the league, which can’t afford an exodus by its stars. One very big problem it must address, ESPNW’s Kate Fagan writes, is how it pays players.
If the WNBA wants to keep its stars from sitting out, the league needs to consider restructuring exactly who gets the money. There shouldn’t be 40 “max” players; there should be 12, one on each team, and the highest-paid member of the team should be a player — not the coach.
In the WNBA, most coaches make more than double the salaries of their star players. Numerous coaches in the league are making in the range of $250,000 — some as much as $300,000. Think about that for a second. That’s the equivalent of the Cleveland Cavaliers paying coach David Blatt something like $40-50 million, while LeBron James makes $20 million. (Most NBA coaches make about a quarter of what their star players make.)
How many people who attend WNBA games or watch on TV are doing so to watch the person on the sideline? (Spoiler: not many.)
It’s curious that Russian teams will pay big bucks to American players, but U.S. teams will not. In 2007, when Taurasi played for Sparak Moscow, the late Russian billionaire Shabtai von Kalmanovich who owned Moscow Spartak and signed Taurasi and Sue Bird at one time acknowledged losing money on women’s games that drew crowds of about 3,000, but explained his passion to Jim Caple of the Associated Press in 2007: “I have friends who go to casinos. I know friends who risk on the stock exchange. I am Lithuanian — for me, basketball is everything. It is a hobby, a pleasure, a casino, whatever you want.”
Taurasi’s teammate in Phoenix, Brittney Griner, continues to play for the Mercury at a salary of roughly $49,000, but also makes $600,000 playing in China. And Griner, of course, also makes $1 million for endorsing Nike, according to ESPN the Magazine.
The announcement by Taurasi came less than 48 hours after the #LikeAGirl Super Bowl ad became a big social-media phenomenon. It may have resonated during the big game, but its effects have yet to be felt elsewhere.