Kristi Toliver’s struggle reflects that of many

Fascinating piece in the Washington Post today chronicling Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver’s fight to play basketball both for Slovakia and the WNBA. So many aspects of the problem are examined in this story:

Navigating the summer of 2014, as she toggled between Los Angeles and Bratislava, would take all the stamina that Toliver, 27, could muster. “It’s getting to the point where I just don’t want to hit complete burnout,” she said……

And as the summer wore on, she also began to wonder whether this life, with its 12-months-a-year basketball and constant travel, was sustainable – and if not, which part of it she would have to drop. The inevitable answer — of leaving the WNBA entirely — though still merely a hypothetical at this point, gave her pangs of guilt for all that the founders of the women’s league had done for later generations of players, such as herself.

“You almost don’t want to let the pioneers down,” she said. “But you also have to make a choice. If you’re not happy, you kind of gotta go with that.”…..

Her hair pulled back in a simple ponytail, Toliver spoke in a world-weary monotone, mustering at most a slight grin or a soft chuckle as she described a lifestyle that would be incomprehensible to anyone familiar only with the men’s version of professional basketball. Top women’s players typically go straight from the end of their three-month WNBA season to the start of their overseas season — and vice-versa — sometimes without as much as a full day off. It’s a simple fact of life in the WNBA, where the salaries are a fraction of what players can make overseas……

But by March of this year, Toliver was so burned out, she begged her Russian team for a mental break. The request was granted, and she returned to the States for the better part of three weeks, hoping to recharge, trying to make herself miss the game of basketball, even if it meant sacrificing three weeks’ worth of her Dynamo salary.

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This season WNBA fans have been talking about what they perceive to be athletes not playing hard, not showing enthusiasm. Perhaps fatigue is a reason why, if it’s true. Retiring coach Lin Dunn told me earlier this week that she worries about the wear and tear she sees with players in the league these days.

Almost two years ago I wrote a story about why U.S. ball players are able to make so much more overseas. Basically, European and Asian countries have business sponsors for teams. It’s something that we don’t have in this country, which the Post story references:

Toliver, meantime, made less than $50,000 her first season in the WNBA, and in this, her sixth season, is making the WNBA maximum of $107,500. In other words, Curry makes more in one game (roughly $120,000) than Toliver – or any WNBA player, for that matter — makes for a full WNBA season…..

This imbalance is what sends most of the top women’s players overseas every October once the WNBA season ends. There are a handful – including Skylar Diggins and Elena Della Donne – who make enough in endorsement money Stateside to turn down overseas opportunities. But almost everyone else who can get a job goes overseas – for example, Brittney Griner and Maya Moore to China, Angel McCoughtry and Crystal Langhorne to Turkey, and Toliver and Candace Parker to Russia.

Far from being mercenaries, they are simply realists – or at worst, opportunists. If an athlete is lucky, she might squeeze 10 or 15 productive years out of an elite athletic career, a small window in which to bank a decent nest egg. What sane person wouldn’t seek to maximize that window?

“Financially,” Toliver said, “it’s a no-brainer.”

Playing for Dynamo Moscow this past season in Russia, Toliver made roughly $350,000. (Others make more overseas. Griner, for example, reportedly made $600,000 last season in China.) It’s not Steph Curry money, but it’s about triple Toliver’s WNBA salary. She handed it all over to her financial adviser, making herself live on her income from the Sparks. The top European teams also provide players with luxury apartments and drivers.

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And now with the new WNBA contract, players are penalized when overseas commitments interfere with their duties in the league.

The bottom line for Toliver is the same as for other players:

“Right now, it’s just a lot of talk,” she said. “[But] ultimately, if I had to [choose one or the other] today? Yeah, it would be overseas before it would be the WNBA. Hopefully at some point, I’ll find it within myself to play both and enjoy both. But right now, I wouldn’t play in the WNBA. The WNBA is a great league, especially for younger players. . . . But once you get older, that’s where you have to make decisions: What’s best for you. What’s best for your family, your state of mind.

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Who can blame them?

A better question: Is anyone here in the U.S. going to do anything about this imbalance? Is anyone going to seriously promote the women’s game?

After the 1996 Olympics, interest in women’s basketball was high. Two professional leagues for women were born in the late 1990’s; players were on TV shows and posters. Chamique Holdsclaw was given major billing, including being the first woman on the cover of SLAM Magazine.

Since then, interest has fallen, and no one seems to be trying to pick it back up.

Why not?

2 COMMENTS

  1. "Almost two years ago I wrote a story about why U.S. ball players are able to make so much more overseas. Basically, European and Asian countries have business sponsors for teams. It's something that we don't have in this country, which the Post story references…"

    It's not just that they've got business sponsors for teams (which, of course, NBA teams have as well), it's that the salaries and expenses of many overseas women's' basketball club teams are directly subsidized by the cultural and sporting ministries of the localities and nations in which they play. In other words, Russian and Chinese taxpayers are partially paying the salaries of Candace Parker and Brittney Griner.

    Unless US taxpayers are gonna start paying WNBA salaries (which I find hard to envision, and am not even sure that I personally would support), it's gonna be difficult for WNBA paychecks to compete with the government-subsidiezed paychecks that some of our superstars can get overseas.

    Patrick Meighan
    Culver City, CA

  2. If it's true, though, I agree that it won't be happening here.

    My main point, anyway, is how can we get the interest level in women's basketball back up to where it was at 16 years ago? It's crazy that we've gone backwards instead of forwards.

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