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 . 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.