WNBA Draft, NCAA tourney tell two tales about women’s hoops 

OPINION: Women's basketball has never been more popular thanks to college stars like Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark. But the WNBA, with its low pay, economy flights and limited roster spots, may not be the best option for some top players.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and Aliyah Boston pose for photos after Boston was drafted 1st overall by the Indiana Fever during the 2023 WNBA Draft at Spring Studios on April 10, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The state of women’s basketball is similar to the dual cities Charles Dickens wrote about: It’s the best and worst of times.

You couldn’t see the flip side Monday night if you looked at Aliyah Boston. The All-America center from South Carolina was selected first overall in the WNBA draft. You also couldn’t see cloudy skies later when four of her former teammates were drafted, including first-round picks Laeticia Amihere and Zia Cooke. Coach Dawn Staley and the bubbling mentees were all smiles all evening long, rightfully so.

The joy is justified because they went 97-8 over the last three seasons, reaching three straight Final Fours and winning a national championship. South Carolina has become a familiar brand atop the rankings, drawing heightened interest and new fans to the sport. The Gamecocks were riffraff before Staley started cooking, but now they’re right comfy among bluebloods like UConn and Tennessee.

Entering the Final Four two weeks ago, South Carolina was undefeated and defending its national championship. Focus on the sport only intensified from there, with ESPN reporting record-high ratings for L.S.U. vs. Virginia Tech and Iowa vs. S.C. Those games averaged 4.5 million viewers, up 66% from last season’s Final Four. The latter game, promoted as Boston vs. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, had up to 5.5 million viewers, an increase of 72% from 2022.

But the title match vaporized those numbers. ESPN deemed it the most-watched women’s game on record, averaging 9.9. million viewers (103% increase) and peaking at 12.6 million viewers. Sports Media Watch reported that more people watched LSU vs. Iowa than all of the 2022 NBA playoff games besides the Finals. The tournament also set an attendance record for the second straight season.

Nothing about that sounds like bad times. But neither does the quiet before a storm. 

Likewise, the WNBA has surged recently, last summer enjoying its highest viewership on ESPN in 16 years. Stars Candace Parker and Sue Bird troll Steph Curry in CarMax ads. Arike Ogunbowale and Jonquel Jones are featured in “Jake from State Farm” commercials. A’ja Wilson, South Carolina’s first player to go No. 1 in the draft (2018), is ready to defend her 2022 MVP award. Brittney Griner, an all-time great and seven-time All-Star, is back from a Russian prison.

Our appetite for woman’s ball has grown to the point that Monday’s ESPN broadcast was the most-viewed WNBA Draft since 2004, a 42% increase from last year. Next year’s draft could draw more outsized attention, potentially with LSU’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Clark, the sport’s new faces after their title-game interaction had the nation buzzing.

Which brings us to the dark-and-dreary portion of our weather report. 

If Reese, 20, and Clark, 21, were men’s players, they’d be eligible for the NBA this year. But WNBA draftees must be at least 22 or set to graduate from a four-year institution. Even when they can jump, it’s not a no-brainer for everyone; several players projected to be top picks essentially said, “Nah, we good.” 

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LSU’s Angel Reese (right) reacts in front of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark (left) during the second half of the NCAA Women’s Final Four championship basketball game Sunday, April 2, 2023, in Dallas. LSU won 102-85 to win the championship. (Photo: Tony Gutierrez/AP)

UCLA star Charisma Osborne passed on the opportunity and is returning to college. Her coach, Cori Close, had a conversation with a WNBA peer who laid out the choice. “Does Charisma want to make more money and stay in college and get massages, fly charter, have everything paid for, have a nutritionist and have her own trainers that are paid for?” Close said, quoting the coach. “Or does she want to have none of those things and fly Southwest with us?”

On3 calculated that Reese’s compensation for name, image and likeness deals was $371,000 entering the NCAA tournament. Now the Bayou Barbie’s NIL valuation stands at $1.3 million. No one could blame her for picking college life and chartered flights if she had to choose. “I’m in no rush to go to the league,” she told the “I Am Athlete” podcast. “The money I’m making is more than some of the people that are in the league that might be top players.” 

Boston, as the No. 1 overall pick, is slated to earn $74,000 in salary. The average salary for players in the WNBA this season is $147,745. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert knows the pay scale leaves much to be desired — just like the travel arrangements. 

Teams typically fly on commercial flights and are prohibited from chartering planes on their own, which would create a competitive advantage for wealthier franchises. Engelbert is trying to improve those work conditions. Last week, the league announced it will pay for charter flights throughout the playoffs and back-to-back regular season games this year. “It’s significant dollars,” she said. “You add it up, it’s a lot of flights.”

But low pay and economy flights are trumped by the most extensive problem: There aren’t jobs to go around.

The NBA has 30 teams but the WNBA has only 12. That leaves room for just 144 players, not enough for all the fresh talent exiting college each spring. The scarcity is unlikely to affect Boston or Reese, who are primed for long pro careers. But other players won’t be so fortunate, including most of the 36 players drafted annually. 

Just 17 draftees last year made an opening day roster. 

“We talk about it every year, but I don’t know if people realize exactly how hard it is to make a WNBA roster,” ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo told USA Today. “Like, this year, there might be 10 players in the draft that stick. It’s not a lot. And that might even be a high number… Just because you’re a first-round pick, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make a roster.”

The league previously planned to announce expansion plans by the end of this year, but Engelbert recently backed off that timetable. “I’m not in a rush,” she told The Athletic, citing everything that goes into the vital decision. “But, yeah, would we like to get it done in the next few years? Absolutely.”

Until there are more teams, increased pay and better travel, the WNBA is stuck on the rainy side of women’s basketball. Meanwhile, the college game is basking in glorious sunlight. 

It’s the same sport. But each tells a different tale.

Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.

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