After March Madness, Women’s Pro Basketball Options are Slim
DALLAS (AP) — March Madness may have been the last time for fans to see many of the talented college women players compete.
Players' options for professional basketball careers are limited, whether in the U.S. or overseas — the jobs just aren't there.
“You can be a great college player and not make a WNBA roster,” ESPN WNBA analyst LaChina Robinson said. “You’re not only competing with players that are currently on roster, but also a ton of women’s basketball players overseas that have been honing their skills and waiting for opportunity to break into the WNBA.”
The numbers paint a challenging picture.
— There are only 12 WNBA teams and 144 roster spots with most of those being filled by returning players.
— Over the past six seasons, 64% of players drafted made WNBA rosters according to basketball website ‘Beyond Women’s Sports’. The high mark was 28 of the 36 draftees in 2019. The low was only 20 the year before.
Even if a player does get into the league, it's a battle for playing time.
Only 60% of players drafted got on the court to play minutes their first year since 2017 according to the basketball website ’Her Hoop Stats." It's part of the reason why five of the first-round picks in 2021 are no longer in the league.
There has been talk of WNBA expansion, but nothing has come to fruition yet. Players often turn to playing professionally overseas, working on their games and looking for another shot to play at home.
Now those jobs are also at a premium.
Brittney Griner's nine-month incarceration in Moscow along with the war with Ukraine has led to the elimination of dozens of potential jobs in Russia.
Griner is back in the WNBA after her nine-month legal fight in Russia, during which she was detained when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage, then later arrested before being released in a high-level prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Russia.
The lost jobs in Russia has a trickle down on openings in other countries as top players who once played there are looking elsewhere for work.
Longtime agent Brian Dyke said that there a fewer countries now that he can send players to. Besides Russia, China and Korea stopped signing foreign players few years ago because of the coronavirus. Neither has started again. That's roughly another three dozen jobs gone.
“In Korea, everyone used to get $25,000 a month,” Dyke said. “It's a huge loss not having those jobs as those are two of the biggest markets.”
Dyke also said he wouldn't send some of his clients to play in other countries because of the political climate.
While the overseas job market is shrinking, there are start-up leagues looking to fil the void.
Athletes Unlimited just completed its second season. Over a dozen WNBA players competed last month in it. The four-team competition in Dallas is an opportunity for players to stay in the U.S. during the offseason and make up to $50,000 during the five-week season.
Staying in the U.S. is becoming more important with the WNBA now requiring players to be present at the start of training camp. The requirement can impact playing opportunities outside of the league for WNBA players. Their overseas contract have to include provisions that allow players to return to the U.S. in the middle of a postseason run overseas.
It all makes the path to a professional basketball career for women harder than ever.
Players had to declare by March 26 if they planned to enter the WNBA draft unless they were still playing in the NCAA Tournament. Those players had 48 hours after their last game to declare. South Carolina's Zia Cooke and Dorka Juhasz from UConn are among players headed to the draft.
Others like 6-foot-6 Elizabeth Kitley from Virginia Tech are staying in college, where they enjoy various amenities due to Title IX, including taking charter flights vs flying commercial. Kitley, a senior, despite being a possible first-round pick is one of many college players who have an extra year of eligibility because of COVID.
The new name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities women basketball players also have is playing into their decisions on turning pro.
“NIL definitely plays a major role,” said South Carolina star Aliyah Boston, who decided to forgo her COVID year and enter the WNBA draft as the likely No. 1 overall pick. “NIL is something that's a blessing. It gives you a head start on life before you need to get there.”
Making a WNBA roster isn't something that Boston is going to have to worry about.
Tennessee forward Tamari Key isn't rushing to find out if she would.
“Everyone says college is the best years of your life… why pass up… especially when you have enjoyed your time at the school,” the 6-6 Key wrote on social media.
Key, who will return for a fifth-year after missing most of her senior season with blood clot issues, added:
“Why go to the league right away when there are potentially not enough spots?”