Women’s Basketball: Score One For Russia!

It has been a rough year for the Russian Federation, hasn’t it? First it became enmeshed in the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine. Then its government budget took a hit when the price of crude oil, its primary export, dropped by half. That led to a dramatic decline in the value of the ruble, and a severe economic recession.

And yet the Russian bear remains fully capable of beating its Western rivals at their own games. Just last week, for instance, it scored an upset “win” in the world of global sports by enticing a major star to leave an American sport to play exclusively in Russia.

The star is Diana Taurasi, perhaps the greatest player in the history of the WNBA woman’s basketball league. A graduate of Geno Auriemma’s dominant basketball program at UConn, Ms. Taurasi spent many years playing for the Phoenix (Arizona) Mercury during the American regular season and then playing for Spartak Moscow (and now UMMC Ekaterinburg) following the WNBA playoffs.

Why would a star basketball player deny herself a normal off-season to recuperate from the rigors of a full season of games? Perhaps it is because Ms. Taurasi, despite her status as a star player, was only earning a base salary of $107,000 with the Mercury. Now, though, she will earn nearly $1.5 million with UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Although Title IX of the federal law requires universities to establish equivalent scholarship (and other financial) budgets for men’s and women’s sports, there is no corresponding requirement that male and female professional basketball players earn equivalent salaries. Thus, while 8 male NBA players earn more than $20 million annually and 56 earn more than $10 million annually, the typical salary budget for an entire WNBA team of female players is reportedly less than $1 million.

When UMMC Ekaterinburg offered Ms. Taurasi $1.5 million, it did so with the understanding that she would only play in one league next year. By accepting the offer to play in Ekaterinburg, Ms. Taurasi walked away from her American fans (if only for one year) and left them unable to watch one of their favorite players.

American basketball officials are opining that Ms. Taurasi’s situation is a unique one. They are predicting that no other star players will follow her from the WNBA to the Russian league.

Nevertheless, American basketball fans might wonder why the WNBA — with its national television contracts and its arena based basketball schedules — refuses to pay one of its most popular stars more than $107,000 annually. With the cost of VIP tickets for Phoenix Mercury games starting at $111 per seat, was it too much to expect the team to pay more compensation for its most talented player?