World of Importance
The World Championship for Women is more important than you think.
by Clay Kallam
Though it’s relegated to NBA TV, and the small print at the back of the sports section, FIBA’s World Championships for Women are really a big deal. In fact, that importance is one of the big differences between women’s and men’s basketball, and it has a significant impact on the way the WNBA is structured.
Maybe the best place to start is the more familiar NBA, which is the best league in the world — and not incidentally pays by far the biggest salaries. That financial incentive brings the best players in the world to the NBA, and the NBA title is the most prestigious in all of basketball.
In addition, American dominance in men’s basketball is so pronounced that the Olympics and World Championships were, for decades, of interest only to see if anyone could come within 20 points of the USA. Recently, they have captured a little more attention, but realistically, if the top Americans show up, the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
The same might be said of the women’s international competitions, but the talent gap is not nearly as large. The Australians won the World Championship in 2006, and though the Americans have dominated in FIBA events since 1994, the gap between the US and the rest of the world is not nearly as great as on the men’s side.
Another difference is the relatively low pay scale in the WNBA. The salary cap that is crucial to the league’s survival limits top players to about $90,000 a year — while those same women can make three or four times as much in European leagues in the winter. As a result, many of the top Europeans, and even some of the top Americans, don’t play in the WNBA, which means that even though the WNBA is the best league in the world, it does not have the same reputation as the NBA.
That, in turn, means that the WNBA title is not the most prestigious championship in women’s basketball — in fact, it’s third, behind the Olympics and the World Championships, and some would even claim the Euroleague title is on a par with the WNBA. (The Euroleague matches the top club teams (as opposed to national teams) in a winter-long competition that culminates in its own version of the Final Four.)
So even though WNBA fans were focused on the Seattle Storm’s run to the WNBA championship, the rest of the world is paying much more attention to the World Championships in the Czech Republic. What they’ve seen is an American team minus Cappie Pondexter (taking time off), Seimone Augustus (injured), Candace Parker (injured) and Cheryl Ford (injured) roll through a series of overmatched teams, but both Spain and Australia are considered worthy opponents. In fact, the United States will play Australia Wednesday at 2:15 p.m. EST in pool play in what could well be a preview of the gold medal game — but to see it, you need access to NBA TV, or a willingness to pony up $25 to get FIBA’s feed on your computer.
That relative invisibility doesn’t mean that the World Championships really don’t matter to the United States, or the WNBA, because the event is so important that the WNBA must schedule around it — just as it must schedule around the Olympics every four years. This season, the WNBA started earlier than it would like so that its players could get to the Czech Republic for the September 23 start of the competition, and on top of that, the importance of the World Championships means that almost all the WNBA stars are playing in the event.
That matters because the European season starts immediately after the World Championships, and then the WNBA summer schedule begins right after Europe finishes. Elite female players, then, get no breaks, and essentially play year-round. That wear and tear has its impact on length of careers, both mentally and physically, and also leads to some players choosing to skip the WNBA because they can make more money in Europe.
So even though there’s not going to be much coverage of the World Championships for Women in America, even if you look really hard, that doesn’t mean it’s not important — in truth, it’s more important than the WNBA, and to the international players and coaches, right up there with the Olympics.