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The NBA can solve the WNBA pay problem: It just chooses not to

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The Russian oligarch who owns UMMC Yekaterinburg, the team that WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner plays for, pays top U.S. players millions while losing many millions more.

Women’s basketball is a matter of pride, politics, cover for the billionaires who lure U.S. players to Russia, according to a report published today in the New York Times, which quotes one agent who has negotiated contracts for WNBA stars to play in the country as recognizing that he should have stopped sending players there long before the current war in Ukraine.

“We’re all hypocrites, all the agents, all the players,” the agent was quoted as saying, conceding that Russia has been using women’s basketball as a cudgel against the West, to showcase that its money can make it dominant in international athletics.

This is the case only because top female players can’t make anywhere close to the money that top WNBA stars have been getting paid to play in Russia. Griner was reportedly being paid $1 million to play this season for UMMC Yekaterinburg, double what top WNBA players make here in salary and endorsement deals.

Russian teams don’t operate with any sense of market pressure – owners often buy TV time and don’t charge admission to games, hoping to build goodwill with fans.

Which raises the question: why can’t we do that here?

Women’s basketball has yet to gain a foothold anywhere near the level of the NBA in the American consciousness, but it can’t help that the league is reduced to playing its games in the summer, a time of year when potential viewers have their schedules disrupted by vacations and outdoor activities.

What if the NBA were to take the position that Russian oligarchs have in taking on the WNBA as an investment, and not just some half-hearted obligation, and paid WNBA players, if not what they play their NBA stars, at least what the Russians and other top European teams do, and booked their games not in the summer, when no one is paying attention, and instead in the fall, winter and early spring, side by side with the NBA?

Throw some money at ESPN, at Fox, whoever, to get prime time slots; launch a streaming service akin to the excellent NBA app, and advertise the heck out of it to get people to tune in.

Millions of young girls are playing basketball in rec centers and YMCAs across the country. There’s your viewer base, ready-made.

There’s no reason that our top women’s hoops talents have to risk their freedom playing for shadowy figures to make a living.

This is a problem that seems so easy to solve that it’s not funny.

All the while, Griner sits in a jail cell in Russia, on trumped up charges, a political prisoner, for all intents and purposes.

It just doesn’t have to be.

Story by Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].