For the great celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month 2022ESPN Deportes presents this special series, Latinas in the WNBA – past, present and future:
IT’S DIFFICULT TO BE A YOUNG FREE AGENT TODAY
For young players in the WNBA, the dance between being a rookie, for example, and being a free agent is very precarious. None of the Latina rookies in 2022 were under contract for the entire season; so they were predominantly free agents.
Former league star rebecca wolf broke down the panorama, in an exclusive interview with ESPN Digital Sports, “I don’t know how many people understand how difficult it is to get into a team in the WNBA. So in terms of percentage, it’s the most difficult professional league to play in.”
Let’s explore the struggles facing young free agents in the league.
THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH QUOTS
The harsh reality of the league is that there simply aren’t enough seats in the WNBA to accommodate the vast amount of women’s basketball talent out there, in the United States and around the world.
For now, there are 12 teams, each with 12 spots or players on their roster, which means 144 spots on the floor in the entire league. The expansion of the league is inevitable, necessary. It is already being processed to add two additional teams by 2025 at the latest, because the current situation is unsustainable in the long term.
Lobo is not only in favor of expansion, but suggests expanding the rosters, adding two spots per team. That would give 24 more places, and in addition there would be the 28 places of the two new teams (assuming 14 players per team). Therefore, there would be 52 new quotas, which added to the original 144 would add 196 players in total. Better.
Lobo believes that the expansion could favor Latinas, “One of the ways that players of Hispanic descent can have a better chance of making it to the league is to expand opportunities and we hope to see that in the coming years.”
Precisely a Latina who was affected by the lack of quotas and changed equipment like a ping-pong ball until she found her home in the Washington Mystics near the end of the campaign. She is Evina Westbrookwho this year became the first Mexican-American to be drafted into the WNBA.
Westbrook understands that even the most talented can be left out due to lack of space, “There are so many great basketball players who deserve a spot on the roster and deserve to be on a team. … At the same time, it is a business. You could have played the best basketball of your life, but maybe that’s not what the team needs.”
LOW SALARIES (OR ZERO PAY IF THEY DON’T PLAY)
As in any job, if there is no money or money is tight, it is a big problem for the employee. This applies in particular to WNBA rookies and players in their early years.
It’s well known that WNBA salaries are already low. That’s why so many players go abroad to play in the offseason.
For rookies and young players, that complication is multiplied. They make half the league’s average salary ($128,369 in 2022), and even rookie contracts aren’t protected by the league’s collective bargaining agreement; that is, the players only receive compensation for the part of the season in which they are actually on the roster.
Here you can meet the rookie katie benzanwho made history as the first player of Dominican blood in the league, signed with Washington Mystics a training camp contract and then a deal under the league’s hardship clause.
At the end of those terms, Benzan was left empty-handed and did not play again … and did not earn a salary in the WNBA again. In July, with the WNBA season in full swing, she made the difficult decision to step away from basketball for now. Instead, she took a job with the Utah Jazz in the NBA.
Benzan knows what basketball excellence is, having broken records at Harvard and Maryland universities. He had big contributions in two of the three games he played with the Mystics.
Benzan’s decision to turn his back on his dream could not have been easy. But during our interview, when she was ready to leave for her new job, she was already calmly looking at the WNBA in her rearview mirror, “The league is at a turning point, with how difficult it is, not only to be drafted, but to remain in a list. There have been times where girls, women drafted in the first round who are not on the lists to this day and it is a little heartbreaking because I know how much hard work it takes to succeed at a high level.
The contracts are not negotiable, except in circumstances of non-drafted rookies, whose contracts can be one or two years.
One of those undrafted rookies was Mexican-American shooting guard raina perez. She played only one match for the Seattle Storm. She signed a training camp contract and a deal lowered the hardship clause but she was released.
To his delight, nine days later, still in May, he re-signed another four-day hardship deal with Seattle due to COVID-19 absences from the club. But that was it for Perez; from then until the end of the season, he would be a free agent with no income.
LACK OF EXPERIENCE
NBA stars can afford to take time off in the offseason — either to be with family and friends or to focus on fitness — because their salaries are so high compared to those in the WNBA.
Seventeen NBA players earn $35 million per season, according to ESPN, while only 14 WNBA players earn $200,000 or more, according to Sportrac, led by Diana Taurasi of phoenixmercury, Jewell Lloyd of Seattle Storm Y Breanna Stewart of Seattle Stormwho earned the maximum of $228,094 in 2022.
For the youngest players in the WNBA, the appeal of playing abroad isn’t just because of the higher salaries — and the fact that if they were free agents in the American league, they’re at least guaranteed to earn a salary there.
It’s also important that they go to gain valuable experience and level up their game, which can certainly increase their chances of sealing a spot in the league.
Lobo discusses what it means for so many to go to Europe or Asia to play, every September through May, during the WNBA offseason, “They will improve, hone their skills and make money abroad before they come back and try to sign with a team, enter training camp and get on a free agent roster.”
They will increase his chances of making a WNBA roster, yes, but at what price? Playing abroad, and basically self-inflicting year-round basketball — between the WNBA and the foreign league — there are increased risks of injury and fatigue.
UNCERTAINTY, PRESSURE AND FEAR
Being a free agent in the WNBA during the season itself is like having a job, but not having it. Then, if you sign a three-week contract or a hardship agreement, it’s like you have to audition for the play all over again, as good as or better than yesterday…because your future literally depends on it.
Benzan, who is not returning to the league for now because the hardships of being a free agent were too much for her, proved wise beyond her years, with her words, “I wish there were more opportunities for women across the country, in all the world. But everyone has their own path, however difficult it may be. Everyone has adversity, so it depends on how you react to it and how you deal with it. That will determine your path.”
The life of a young WNBA free agent is full of uncertainty, pressure and fear. Hopefully the expansion of the league will serve as relief for this complicated situation. The problem is that it won’t arrive for another two years or so.
Our latest installment in our series “Latinas in the WNBA — past, present and future” will explore who are the Latin promises that could reach the WNBA. As we’ve seen throughout the series, half the problem is recruiting more Latinas and the other half is keeping them, as we just examined.
In other words, being recruited by the league to stay, not to be free agents, with all the difficulties that entails… in other words, difficulties that could lead to them leaving the league, like katie benzan. We are waiting to see how the WNBA deals with the matter.
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LATINAS IN THE WNBA: It’s hard to be a young free agent these days