Natasha Cloud
Natasha Cloud Credit: Darrow Montgomery

One day after winning the WNBA championship, a bleary-eyed Emma Meesseman stood on the court at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Ward 8 and thought about how she needed to pack.

Meesseman, the WNBA Finals MVP, had to board a flight back to her native Belgium the next day. She would then have a week or two to catch up with family and friends before going off to Russia where she competes for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a professional women’s basketball team she has played on since 2016.

“I’m used to it,” Meesseman says. “I’ve been doing it for a couple of years already. We’ve had several championships in Russia we just don’t celebrate because everybody goes home ’cause we have a flight in the night. It’s kinda sad, but I’m used to it.”

This is the life of a WNBA player. The Mystics won their first championship in franchise history on Oct. 10, rallying from a halftime deficit to beat the Connecticut Sun, 89-78, in front of a sold-out crowd at home during a decisive Game 5. But instead of sticking around D.C. to have a parade in front of adoring fans, the Mystics returned to their home court on Oct. 11 for a mid-afternoon rally.

They didn’t really have a choice. Unlike many male professional athletes, WNBA players often have to play overseas during their league’s off-season in order to make an adequate living. In addition to Meesseman, six other Mystics players on the active roster will be flying to different countries to play for their respective foreign teams in the coming weeks. Natasha Cloud and Aerial Powers are headed to China, Ariel Atkins is playing in Australia, Kim Mestdagh will go to France, Myisha Hines-Allen is competing in South Korea, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough will fly to Hungary.

“It’s really hard, and I think a lot of people don’t understand our world,” says Cloud. “We play here for three or four months, possibly pushing that four-and-a-half mark. Then we got to go overseas right away. Their season has already started. When you’re talking about bringing in American players and paying them an amount that you do, teams want you immediately … So a [fall] parade in any sense is not even possible. A parade isn’t [the city] not doing it for us, it’s us not being able to do it for the city. So it sucks.”

The Mystics plan to have a parade in the spring before next season and have been engaged in other activities this week. The team traveled up to New York City for an appearance on Good Morning America on Monday and Elena Delle Donne threw out the first pitch at Nationals Park on Tuesday night before the Washington Nationals beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 7-4, in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series to reach the World Series. 

Cloud, who took a financial hit last season by staying in D.C. to do promotional work for the team’s Monumental Sports & Entertainment ownership group, doesn’t put any blame on the city, her team, or organizers for the quick celebration turnaround, but calls the situation “disappointing.”

According to the Washington Post, players made a base salary of between $39,000 and $115,000 for the season in 2018, before potential bonuses. Players can make more than 10 times the maximum amount while playing overseas. In 2015, three-time WNBA champion Diana Taurasi accepted a $1.5 million offer from UMMC Ekaterinburg to sit out the WNBA season.

Last fall, the league’s Players Association voted to opt out of its collective bargaining agreement with the WNBA following the end of this season. The league named Cathy Engelbert as its commissioner in May, and the former Deloitte chief executive will play a pivotal role during labor negotiations. “My team and I are working very hard to bring in potential sponsors who share the same commitment as we do in growing women’s sports and lifting up women more broadly in society,” Engelbert told reporters last month before the WNBA Finals.

The league reportedly pays about 20 percent of its total revenue to players, while NBA players get about half of their league’s revenue. WNBA players like Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum have clarified that players aren’t asking for the same kind of pay as NBA players, but that they want a bigger cut of the league’s revenue, especially because players often need to compete year-round to make ends meet.

“It’s a toll,” Cloud says. “My body, it just went through a WNBA season in a Game 5 series, Game 4 semis. So I’m a little beat up right now. I’m fighting for two weeks with my [Chinese] team just to kinda sit down and allow my body to reset. But it’s tough. When you’re talking about why we’re fighting for equality and equal pay and opting out of our CBA, this is why, because we put ourselves in a situation that injuries are welcome in a sense. We try to take care of our bodies the best we can, but in order to be financially stable we need to go overseas and play.”

Kristi Toliver is expected to return to her role as an assistant coach with the Wizards this season. Toliver, who has won championships at the University of Maryland and with the Los Angeles Sparks, made only $10,000 last year for her work with the Wizards due to the team’s ownership structure, according to the New York Times. The WNBA had determined that Toliver’s pay needed to come out of the $50,000 WNBA teams are given to pay players for offseason work.

Details of her salary this year have not been released.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Toliver told the Times in December. “For me, I looked at the pros and the cons, the pros obviously being I get to rest my body, it being my first time in 10 years of not playing year-round, not going overseas. Obviously there are financial burdens that come with that, but this is also a very exciting opportunity that I want to take advantage of, being home, still being around the game, around the best players in the world, around the best coaches in the world.”

Powers, a Mystics forward, calls the quick turnaround after the WNBA season “very difficult” and believes WNBA players go overseas purely for financial reasons. She will travel back to Detroit, where she grew up, to see family for a few days before heading off to China to play for the Guangdong Vermilion Birds.

“All of the reasons are definitely financial,” Powers says. “I don’t think anyone just goes because we like it. It’s all financially, because it’s more beneficial for us.”

She envisions a different future for WNBA players—one in which the athletes have more power over their offseason schedules. 

And maybe then they’d have time for a championship parade.

“Hopefully things turn around soon ’cause honestly, I feel like I can speak for everyone when I say if we had a chance to make more money like we make overseas here, most of us would not return overseas,” Powers says. “And if we did, it would be more of our choice. Right now it’s not our choice … It’s something we have to do.”

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