The Unequal Path Women Take from College to the WNBA

A 20-year old sophomore at Texas Tech, Jarrett Culver played his last college basketball game on April 8th when his Red Raiders were defeated by the University of Virginia in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game. On May 16th, Culver will be in Chicago to attend the 2019 NBA Draft Combine—a televised event on ESPN2.

If the combine doesn’t work out or something else negatively impacts Culver’s draft stock, he can still withdraw from the draft as late as June 10th. If he does stay, Culver will likely be selected in the 2019 NBA Draft on June 20th.  In all, the path from the final game of the NCAA men’s basketball season and the NBA draft takes 73 days—a bit more than ten weeks. This time must fly by for the participants.

But when compared to the path for women drafted into the WNBA? The NBA’s process must seem like it takes forever.

Consider the path to the draft for Jackie Young, a 21-year old junior who starred at Notre Dame this past season. On April 7th, Young and her Notre Dame teammates lost to Baylor in the NCAA Women’s basketball championship game.  

As a junior, Young had the option of returning to Notre Dame next season. But because she turns 22 in September, WNBA rules says she was also eligible for the 2019 WNBA draft. Those same WNBA rules, however, also said she only had 24 hours to decide if she wanted to declare for the WNBA draft.  And that decision was essentially final because the actual draft was on April 10th.

In sum, Young’s path from the end of her college career to the WNBA draft took less than 73 hours.  And on May 5th—or four weeks after the end of her college career—Young was already in training camp with the Las Vegas Aces.

Sabrina Ionescu faced the same problem as Young. After Ionescu and the University of Oregon lost to Baylor in the semi-finals of the NCAA tournament, Ionescu—who many felt would be the first choice in the 2019 WNBA draft—was given 24 hours to decide if she wanted to skip her last year of college. Ultimately, she made a different decision than Young and decided to stay in school.

Because of the nature and rules of the WNBA draft, Young and Ioenescu were essentially the only players facing this choice.

Mar 26, 2018; Spokane, WA, USA; Oregon Ducks guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) brings the basketball down court against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the championship game of the Spokane regional of the women’s basketball 2018 NCAA Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Whereas a man only has to be 19 to declare for the NBA draft, WNBA rules once again require a woman turn 22 the year of her draft. This means that women in college basketball are generally asked to generate revenue for colleges for four seasons.

And yes, for many female players—and certainly for the elites—the amount of revenue generated exceeds the value of their scholarship. The same is also true for male players, of course, but elite men face this exploitation for only 1-2 years.

Of course, there is a benefit to the women generally playing four years of college basketball.  

Four years gives the decision-makers of the WNBA—relative to their NBA counterparts—much more time to evaluate the elite prospects.  And it appears this extra time is needed because the WNBA draft evaluation is missing something: Unlike their NBA counterparts, WNBA teams do not have the benefit of an official league combine.  

There is, however, potential alternatives.

One of these is provided by the Merit Management Group.  According to Stephanie Stanley—President of Merit Management Group—the WNBA combine hasn’t existed in years.  Yet, Merit Management has been providing a combine for 22 years.

Stanley emphasizes that the purpose of this event is to give women in basketball a chance to be seen by WNBA decision-makers and the international leagues. According to Stanley, the Merit Combine’s budget is funded partially by the players and their colleges (although there is money available for those who cannot pay).

So, yes, at least some of this particular combine is paid for by the players.

So, to summarize, the NBA pays for a combine to evaluate players for the NBA draft. The WNBA doesn’t pay for a combine for its potential draft picks. Instead, the players themselves are asked to partially fund an unofficial event.

Players spending on this event, however, do not have much guarantee of landing a WNBA job.

In fact, getting drafted by the WNBA also doesn’t guarantee a job.  Cierra Dillard was taken with the 20th pick in 2019 by the Minnesota Lynx. The 20th NBA pick is a guaranteed contract. In the WNBA—as Dillard discovered—there is far less guaranteed.

Mar 24, 2018; Albany , NY, USA; Buffalo Bulls guard Cierra Dillard (24) shoots the ball between South Carolina Gamecocks guard Bianca Jackson (10) and guard Tyasha Harris (52) during the second half in the semifinals of the Albany regional of the women’s basketball 2018 NCAA Tournament at the Times Union Center. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Six days into her first WNBA camp and without even playing a minute of a preseason game, Dillard was cut by the Lynx.

The problem wasn’t necessarily Dillard’s talent, iether.  The WNBA only has 12 teams. And with only 12 roster spots per team, there are only 144 jobs. In contrast, the NBA—with 30 teams and 15 roster spots per team—has 450 job openings.  

Consequently, Josh Okogie—a guard taken with the 20th pick in the 2018 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves—started 52 games during the regular season for Minnesota. And again, Dillard—a guard taken by Minnesota with the 20th pick in the WNBA draft—never saw the floor of a preseason game with the Lynx.

So what would it take to give players more time to make a decision about entering the WNBA draft? And what would it take to create a league combine for WNBA decision-makers to better evaluate draft picks? And what would it take to create more jobs for women to play in the WNBA?

There is a one-word answer to all these questions.

Investment.

Yes, a bit more spending by the WNBA (and their NBA partner) would solve many of the problems associated with the WNBA draft.  In addition, solving the problems with the draft could do much to solve many of the other issues facing the WNBA as a whole.

Consider the first problem:  Why not hold the draft a few weeks after the conclusion of the NCAA season?

To do this, the WNBA would probably have to push back the start of training camps and the start of its season. But that would then move the end of the WNBA season back.

If WNBA players only played for the WNBA, this probably wouldn’t be an issue.  But because the WNBA only gives about 20 percent of league revenues to its players (as opposed to the 50 percent NBA split), WNBA players tend to supplement their income by playing in Europe and Asia.  Given that these leagues begin in October, changing the WNBA schedule could jeopardize a player’s ability to play elsewhere. And since those leagues tend to pay better, WNBA players may be forced to choose to play for more money outside the United States or less money in the WNBA.  

The WNBA probably wouldn’t like how that choice would be made by most.

Therefore, changing the WNBA schedule would likely require the league to increase player salaries. There are some real positives for the league from such an investment. Beyond reforming the draft process, higher pay would likely stop the WNBA’s talent—like league MVP Breanna Stewart—risking injury in other leagues. It would also encourage WNBA talent to devote themselves to promoting the WNBA throughout the year.

Sep 7, 2018; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart (30) goes for a rebound with Washington Mystics forward Aerial Powers (23) and center Krystal Thomas (34) during the fourth quarter of game one of the WNBA finals at KeyArena. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

And maybe the additional investment shouldn’t stop with higher pay.  

Again, a 12-team league limits the jobs available in the WNBA. It also limits the markets and overall fan base for the league. So, perhaps the WNBA and its NBA partner should think about investing in more markets.

Of course, critics might note the WNBA and the NBA has often claimed the league is not profitable. But whatever losses might exist must be put in some perspective.

The WNBA is currently a very small operation. One conservative estimate suggested league revenues are only about $60 million. In contrast, NBA revenues are more than $8 billion.  Even if the WNBA lost money, the amount it could be losing is quite small relative to the size of the NBA.  And the same would be true if the WNBA made money.

This is not at all unusual.  It generally takes decades to build a professional team sports league.  All the major men’s sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL) were very small operations after just 22 years.  In fact, the NBA claimed in 1983—after it was 35 years old—that it was in significant financial trouble.  

But with time—and investment—a fan base is built and a league grows. And when that happens, the few million invested today to fix the WNBA’s draft—and some of its other issues—would look like money well spent.

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