Although many Americans would like to believe we live in a perfectly equal utopia, sexism and discrimination are still very much an issue. One of the main places this inequality shines through is within the sports world. For many female athletes, the real struggle lies with earning enough money to support themselves or their families, as their wages, even within professional leagues, toe the line of sufficiency.
The wage gap is an issue many people are aware of and are now working to improve upon, as we work to root out sexism in our society. However, the matter of the wage gap within sports is a much more complex issue, as wages are often based on a multitude of factors, including viewers and popularity, which often aren’t as substantial for female leagues.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) are perfect examples of this disparity, with the average salary for the NBA being $10 milion and the average salary for the WNBA being $100,658. Like many other female athletes, most WNBA players have been forced to find ways to supplement their income, and that supplement often comes in the form of overseas play.
A practice that has been around for over ten years, many WNBA players balance an overseas season in the winter with a WNBA career in the summer. As of 2018, nearly two-thirds of rostered WNBA players spent time playing overseas, and with countries like Turkey and Russia being the most popular destinations, language barriers and culture shock present major issues, in addition to the struggles of time spent away from family and the risk of injury.
Oftentimes, players are forced to begin their time overseas immediately after their three-month WNBA season ends, giving them little time to appropriately rest and recover. In an interview with The Undefeated, a sports and pop culture web magazine, Seimone Augustus, a guard for the Minnesota Lynx, said, “Obviously, we have to come out and put quality basketball on the floor. It’s very hard at times to have quality basketball and have players that are at one hundred percent when we play year-round and we’re all kind of banged up. We’re doing the best that we can with the damage that’s been done to our body and very little break.”
In the past couple of years, several higher-profile players have been injured while playing overseas and have been unable to participate in the WNBA season. Breanna Stewart, a forward for Seattle Storm who was named the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 2018, tore her Achilles tendon during the EuroLeague final four championship game and missed the entire 2019 WNBA season. Despite her injury, after recovery, Stewart signed with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia for the remainder of the 2019-2020 season and is currently signed for the 2020-2021 season.
Before the 2020 University of Connecticut exhibition game, Stewart said, “For me, it’s something that makes sense financially. Playing EuroLeague is a very high level. And my window is short. Maybe when I’m thirty, I won’t want to [play overseas]. But right now I want to play as much as I can.”
Despite its risks and drawbacks, ultimately, overseas play provides female athletes with the opportunity to make money doing what they love year-round, as well as stay in shape and improve their playing skills. Until female players are paid an adequate salary, overseas play will remain a necessary part of women’s professional basketball.