Diana Taurasi's decision to sit out should spark WNBA salary changes

February 3, 2015, 4:59 PM

— -- Diana Taurasi might need some rest.

The Phoenix Mercury star has played year-round since 2004, when she was the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. She spends winters playing overseas and summers helping the Mercury chase WNBA titles. In addition, there were three gold-medal runs with Team USA in 2004, 2008 and 2012.

But when Taurasi announced Tuesday that she has decided to sit out the 2015 WNBA season at the request of her Russian Premier League team, it wasn't just about rest; it was also about money. Sure, Taurasi has been going full speed for more than a decade, but she wouldn't sit out this upcoming season if the move didn't make financial sense.

That's where the club Taurasi plays for overseas, UMMC Ekaterinburg, comes into play. The team has offered Taurasi a deal: more than her WNBA salary to not play at all this summer.

For the 2014 WNBA season, the 33-year-old made just under the league maximum of $107,000. But she makes 15 times that -- approximately $1.5 million -- playing overseas. Now she'll make even more, as UMMC is essentially compensating Taurasi her WNBA salary and then some, to not play in the WNBA at all.

Taurasi says she has every intention of returning for the 2016 WNBA season and also intends to play in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. But this summer, for the first time in her career, the California native will actually have an offseason.

"It was the perfect mix of timing and making sure I was in control of my career," Taurasi, whom many consider the best women's basketball player in the world, told espnW Tuesday. "Since 2004, when I started professional basketball, it has been a cycle -- a cycle that I have enjoyed so much. With my team in Russia, a conversation began about making sure I'm at an elite level for a long time with them. I put everything on the table and weighed all my options and made the best decision.

"I'm really lucky to even have these options. It speaks volumes on how UMMC values our relationship, and vice versa. For 10 years, I have never had any significant time off."

The Mercury have won three WNBA titles with Taurasi since 2007.

"There are few competitors as fierce or committed as Diana," Mercury GM Jim Pitman said in a release on the team's website. "This decision is not a representation of her dedication to our team; she intends to return to the Mercury in 2016 and honor the contract extension she signed with us last year. Though obviously disappointed, we respect her decision."

The news creates short-term questions for the defending WNBA champion Phoenix, which must now find a way to replace Taurasi's leadership -- and her 16.2 points and 5.6 assists per game.

But the news raises more important, long-term questions for the WNBA. Because Taurasi's decision hasn't just been a long time coming; it might also be a harbinger of what's to come.

For years, clubs including UMMC have offered players bonuses or contracts contingent on their sitting out the WNBA season. It makes sense for the club: protecting its best player from injury and fatigue for just a fraction of her yearly contract. But Taurasi has never pursued any such offer because she feels a strong connection to Phoenix and has always embraced the chance to play as much as possible.

Now Taurasi's viewpoint has shifted. Now she has hundreds of professional games in her rearview mirror and a finite time to keep playing. Now, accepting that golden ticket finally makes sense -- physically, emotionally and financially.

UMMC's offer is not unique. The top overseas clubs, which employ the world's best female players, would prefer their stars not risk burnout and injury by playing in the WNBA. Dozens of players (read: the entire roster of Team USA) have been offered bonuses from their winter clubs to rest during the summer. But until this move by Taurasi, none had accepted the offer and the WNBA had been able to avoid losing its biggest names, its headline attractions.

How? Well, the league is widely regarded as the most competitive in the world, and the players themselves -- Taurasi included -- want to compete against the best while also helping cultivate the fan bases in their cities.

In other words, there is a sense of solidarity among most female players. They want to grow the WNBA, which by professional sports standards is still in its infancy. (The league is just 17 years old.) These players hear the skeptics; they hear those who say a professional women's sports league won't work, that no one will watch, that no one cares. But they also see mile markers of success: franchise stability (the WNBA has had the same 12 teams for five seasons), strong independent ownership groups and an ESPN television deal worth $12 million a year through 2022.

In the past decade, the league's top players have repeatedly made this emotional investment in the WNBA. But now that some overseas clubs are offering incentives to not play at all, WNBA players are facing a difficult question: How much money can they leave on the table?

The truth is many within the WNBA worry Taurasi's decision might spark a trend. They worry other stars will begin sitting out the WNBA season in exchange for a bonus from their overseas club team.

What can the WNBA do?

A solution does exist. The WNBA's financial model doesn't leave much room for excess. The league is no-frills: Teams fly coach, take layovers and stay at hotels with reasonable rates. Life in the WNBA is nothing like life in the NBA. For many female players, life overseas isn't just more lucrative; it's also more comfortable, with many of the top teams flying charter jets around Europe and Asia. Furthermore, most WNBA teams are unable to support additional salary on their rosters. (Numerous professional women's leagues have folded because they tried to maintain bloated salary and travel budgets; the WNBA will not go down that path.)

So what's the fix?

It's simple: Stop paying mediocre players the same amount as Diana Taurasi (or Sue Bird or Candace Parker or Seimone Augustus). This past WNBA season, 36 players made approximately the same amount as Taurasi, who will likely finish her career as the league's all-time leading scorer. Another six players made just under $100,000. This means each team had three to four players making "max money." Although listing names would be gratuitous, common sense says not all of those 40-plus players are as valuable to their teams -- or the league as a whole -- as Taurasi is to Phoenix.

Translation: The WNBA's salary structure is broken.

If the WNBA wants to keep its stars from sitting out, the league needs to consider restructuring exactly who gets the money. There shouldn't be 40 "max" players; there should be 12, one on each team, and the highest-paid member of the team should be a player -- not the coach.

In the WNBA, most coaches make more than double the salaries of their star players. Numerous coaches in the league are making in the range of $250,000 -- some as much as $300,000. Think about that for a second. That's the equivalent of the Cleveland Cavaliers paying coach David Blatt something like $40-50 million, while LeBron James makes $20 million. (Most NBA coaches make about a quarter of what their star players make.)

How many people who attend WNBA games or watch on TV are doing so to watch the person on the sideline? (Spoiler: not many.)

If, as Taurasi said, this decision is as much about money as about rest, then the WNBA needs to figure out a way to better compensate the players who actually move the needle. Taurasi is worth much more than $107,000 a year to the WNBA.

But is playing in the WNBA worth $107,000 to Taurasi?

Of course, another layer exists to this story: the need for an offseason. Think about this: Since Diana Taurasi was 22 years old, she has never had significant downtime. She has never had four or five months -- a typical NBA offseason -- to simply spend time in the gym and get better at basketball. This past month, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant talked about how the AAU system keeps young players from refining their fundamentals. Guys are playing too many games and spending too little time honing their skills. Plus, there's less time to rest and recover.

A similar, frantic rhythm is actually the forced existence of a professional women's basketball player: a never-ending slate of games, from January through January, on a loop. So Taurasi is hitting the pause button. She seems perfectly content with that decision, both physically and financially.

"I will enjoy life with my family," Taurasi said. "I will work to better myself on the court and actually have an offseason program to make sure I stay where I need to be. If there is one thing women basketball players rarely get to do, it is make sure they can improve on their weaknesses because of the year-round grind."

But while Taurasi is relaxing and working on her handle this summer, the WNBA better do some soul-searching and better brainstorm some solutions.

Because sometime in the near future, another of the league's marquee players will likely accept an overseas bonus equivalent to her WNBA salary, in exchange for not actually playing in the WNBA.

That's a serious problem for the league.