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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 these players."
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."
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