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2018

The NBA season is grueling.  Players report in September and the season ends in April, Of course, if your team is successful you might compete until June.  But for most players, the entire season is not much more than six months long.

For the women of the WNBA the story is different.  Training camps open in April and the season ends in September. So like the NBA, the WNBA is about a six-month commitment. But when the WNBA season ends, the majority of the players join a league in another country.  This means that for many women, professional basketball is a year-long job.

Economists have a habit of thinking that money is the only thing that motivates people. Often that approach to human behavior is too simplistic.  But in the case of the women who play professional basketball, money really seems to be a huge issue.

As noted in Sports Economics (and updated for this article at Forbes) there is a significant gender-wage gap between the NBA and WNBA. Give the WNBA's minimum ticket price, attendance, and television broadcasting deal the league earned at least $51.5 million in revenue in 2017. But the league paid less than $12 million to its players. So the players were paid less than 25% of the league's revenue.  And this is an overstatement of the amount received.

In contrast, the NBA pays 50% of its revenue to its players.  The gap between the best players and the average player in the NBA is also much wider.  Steph Curry receives a maximum wage in the NBA.  But if this wage was determined as it is in the WNBA, Curry's wage would fall from $34.7 million in 2017-18 to less than $5 million.  And that would be the outcome even if the NBA's revenue didn't change.

In other words, the best players in the NBA have a huge incentive to solely focus on their NBA career. In contrast, players in the WNBA need to think of other ways -- besides playing for the WNBA -- to earn a living.

As s consequence, we see labor market outcomes that are not found in other major men’s professional sports.  For example, Diana Taurasi was paid by UMMC Ekaterinburg (the Russian team she also plays for) to NOT play in the WNBA in 2015.

And now we are seeing something similar. Emma Meesseman has been with the Washington Mystics since 2013, playing primarily as the starting center since 2014.  From 2013 to 2017 she produced 17.6 wins (see Sports Economics and The Ladies League for how this is calculated).  This represents about 20% of the team's wins across these years.  In sum, Meesseman has consistently been a good player.

But as Ava Wallace of the Washington Post reports, Meesseman is not playing in the WNBA in 2018. As Mike Thibault -- General Manager of the Mystics -- stated: “Emma has played year-round for almost six consecutive years, without time to rest her body from the wear and tear that results from that kind of schedule.”

Meesseman is only 24 years old.  But playing year-round for six consecutive years takes it toll.  So now the WNBA will be missing out on one of its better players in 2018.

The solution to this is simple. The WNBA has to follow the lead of UMMC Ekaterinburg and find a way to pay its players enough money to play less basketball. Such a move wouldn’t just make it better for WNBA players.  As I argued recently for Forbes, higher pay for players is also in the interest of the league.

More pay for players could lead more girls to devote time to playing basketball. As argued in Sports Economics, expanding your talent pool leads to more competitive balance.  In sum, more pay today can make the WNBA better tomorrow.  So, it’s in the WNBA’s interest to do what it can to make sure players like Meesseman do not make similar choices in the future.  But to make that happen, the WNBA has to get more money to its players today.

With less than three minutes to play in the Super Bowl, Tom Brady and the Patriots needed a touchdown to win the Super Bowl. Last year Brady and the Patriots overcame a 28-3 deficit to win their fifth Super Bowl. So many people watching were expecting yet another Brady comeback.

Two plays later, though, disaster struck. The Eagles sacked Brady and forced a fumble.

A few plays later the Eagles kicked a field goal to give them an eight-point lead. But again, Brady got the ball back with over a minute to play. 

Despite being given another chance, though, Brady couldn’t find any magic. After not making much progress to move down the field a last second Hail Mary fell to the ground in the end zone. And with that, Brady and the Patriots went home losers.

So, what happened to Brady?

If you think you know, check the data. As the very last pages of Sports Economics reports, quarterbacks – no matter how you measure performance – are very inconsistent. At least, relative to athletes in basketball, what a quarterback does from season-to-season is hard to predict.

The reason for this is simple. A quarterback’s performance depends on his teammates. A quarterback requires linemen to block and receivers to catch for a pass play to work.  It also helps to have a reliable running game.  Plus the decisions of offensive coordinates – who often call the plays – also matters.

A few things could have happened on Brady’s fumble. Maybe his line could have blocked better. Maybe his receivers could have done better to get open. Maybe the play could have been different. Or maybe everyone else was playing well and Brady simply didn’t pass the ball quick enough and/or didn’t maintain ball security.

All of this means that researchers who wish to use American football data to answer questions in labor economics have a problem. Researchers wish to use data from sports to measure the marginal productivity of athletes. But because the stats we use to track individual performance in American football depend on the player’s teammates, this data really can’t be used to measure marginal productivity. So, researchers who need marginal productivity data to answer economic questions… well, they might want to look for another sport!