An Overseas Dream: Atlanta’s stars head overseas to supplement WNBA income
June 19, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta Dream guard Tiffany Hayes (15) reacts during the first half of WNBA basketball game at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Atlanta Dream won 88-78 over the Indiana Fever. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
As the end of the WNBA regular season nears, the league’s veteran stars, standouts and stable bench players alike prepare to pack their bags and head overseas for another season.
Or two or three.
Eight people on the Dream’s current roster -- including three of the team’s regular starters: Jessica Breland, Tiffany Hayes and Elizabeth Williams -- played overseas between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the stamps in their passports sporting destinations across Europe and Asia.
Poland, Turkey, China, Israel, South Korea, Lebanon.
And the motivation, according to the Dream’s second-year forward Monique Billings, is money.
Billings and other women in the league head overseas to supplement their WNBA salaries.
The former UCLA Bruin, Billings finished her collegiate career on an Elite Eight run in 2018, went nearly straight into her rookie season from the NCAA tournament after she was selected in the second round of the draft by the Dream. And as her inaugural professional season ended, she headed to China for four months, South Korea for six weeks and Lebanon for two more weeks before heading back for training camp with the Dream in April.
“They pay good money overseas,” she told the AJC.
While the money is good, the ramifications on the league domestically are significant, such as missing training camp or even parts of the season, such as the Dream’s Alex Bentley who missed four games because of an overseas, national-team commitment with Belarus.
Her absence might have cost her a spot on the starting lineup, Dream coach Nicki Collen said.
Collen said that at training camp this year, Bentley was competing with the Dream’s current point guard Renee Montgomery for a spot in the starting five.
“I didn’t realistically look at it and say I’m gonna start a kid who’s going to leave this team in six games and might potentially be gone for seven games,” Collen said.
While she hasn’t gained a consistent starting role since returning, Bentley, who told the AJC there was a lot that went into her decision to play for Belarus, receives consistent minutes, averaging 8.3 points and 2.9 assists in an average 21.8 minutes a game in a sixth-man role for the Dream.
Sometimes the cost of playing overseas can be even higher – despite the paycheck, such as when 2018 league MVP Breanna Stewart ruptured her Achilles in the EuroLeague earlier this year.
The injury ended the MVP’s defending season before it could begin -- six weeks ahead of the Seattle Storm’s regular-season opener.
The Dream’s franchise player and 2009 No. 1 pick, Angel McCoughtry sat out the 2017 season to rest, crediting the grueling seven-month off-season overseas schedule in a Player’s Tribune article.
In the article, she wrote that players can make up to 15 times more than an average WNBA salary in the overseas market.
“When I learned that, it became hard for me to pass up the chance to play overseas,” she wrote. “And so that’s how my year would go: I’d play for five months in the WNBA, and then fly over and play for seven months in Europe”
The 12-month nearly nonstop grind mentally and physically pushed the five-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist to take a break.
She’s not the only league star to take a step back because of overseas commitments. In 2015, Diana Taurasi, a three-time WNBA champion, four-time Olympic gold medalist and nine-time WNBA All-Star, decided to sit out the season at the request of her overseas team, who paid her approximately $1.5 million – again, 15 times more than her WNBA salary, ESPN reported at the time.
With its stars drained and prioritizing higher-paying, overseas contracts, the WNBA’s health, longevity and sustainability suffers. The league’s inability to financially compete with overseas teams can’t be good for the league’s success domestically.
“I can’t compete with that. It is what it is. If I’m going to stay coaching in the WNBA, it’s just part of coaching in the WNBA. You don’t ever like it, but you adapt with it.” Collen said. “You’re making decisions about what’s best for the team based on things that are totally out of your control.”
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, in an interview with the AJC, credited the depth of the league for why so many athletes head overseas, saying some players can get critical minutes that they couldn’t get off the bench behind the league’s big names.
But surely the WNBA MVP doesn’t need more minutes in the offseason, or the league’s gold-medal-winning All-Stars.
And Collen said that it’s actually the better players who are more heavily recruited to overseas leagues.
“The more accolades your players get in this league, the tougher it becomes because it usually means they get better overseas jobs which means they’re gone longer,” she said.
Engelbert, who was hired as the inaugural commissioner in 2019, hopes to transform the league economically to keep players in the domestic market who don’t need the extra development in the offseason.
“We want them to think the WNBA is their primary job,” she told the AJC. “That’s what we’re working very hard to message and put all of our efforts to driving an economic model that can support them more year-round than just during the five months of the playing season.”
Which is exactly what some athletes want. Just last year – a year after her season off, McCoughtry told TMZ she was tired of needing to travel to supplement her domestic salary.
“Pay us like you pay the men,” she said in the video. “I don't want to get paid more overseas. I want to get paid in my country."
What’s she’s referring to is the nearly 83% wage difference between the WNBA’s top-paid stars and the NBA’s lowest paid.
According to the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement, a 2019 WNBA league champion, veteran MVP named to both the First-Team and All-Star squads could -- at most -- make $153,525 including bonuses, while an NBA rookie in the 2019-20 season will make at the absolute minimum $898,310, without bonuses, according to Real GM.
The problem isn’t necessarily the income disparity, though in the most extreme cases it is enormous – Zion Williamson, the NBA’s 2019 No. 1 draft pick, with a guaranteed salary of at least $8,139,400, according to the league’s CBA, will make more than the combined roster of the Dream, whose salary cap sits at around $960,000.
While the NBA is more profitable and brings in more revenue than the women’s league, the revenue-sharing models privilege men’s teams in ways they don’t the women’s. And that’s what has some players frustrated.
Players in the NBA get roughly 50% of league revenue, while WNBA athletes receive 20% and only when average team ticket revenue exceeds a certain predetermined threshold, according to the CBA.
WNBA players voted last fall to opt out of the current CBA at the end of next season, and the union will negotiate with the league to reach a new CBA.
The women don’t benefit from the league’s financial success to the same extent that the men do, which doesn’t provide incentive for athletes to prioritize the league’s success when there are better options – such as million-dollar contracts in Europe.
Engelbert said players likely will play in the overseas market regardless of how the league adjusts.
But Billings, a second-string forward who averages 19 minutes per game, said she would rather play at home, following the legacy of great women who have played professional basketball in America that she looked up to as a girl. Further, the notoriety, and subsequent endorsement opportunities, that women can gain playing domestically exceeds any fame they could garner playing internationally.
“You’re playing in your country; it’s a big deal,” Billings said. “If we can make the same money here, I would not want to have to go overseas.”