Last weekend, at a good friend’s child bathe in Manhattan, one other visitor requested me a query that has most likely by no means been mentioned alongside nappy stock and nursery renovations: what’s going to occur to Brittney Griner?
On August 5, the US basketball star was sentenced to 9 years in a Russian jail for having lower than one gramme of cannabis oil in her baggage whereas travelling by way of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February. The timing of her arrest — simply earlier than the invasion of Ukraine — together with the continuing negotiations for a possible US-Russia prisoner swap, have made Griner a family identify, her face a tragic fixture on entrance pages all over the world.
Which is why, as a sportswriter, I really feel a particular ache when contemplating the totality of her present nightmare. Griner is presently probably the most well-known basketball participant on the planet, not for her two Olympic gold medals or her 5 skilled championships throughout the EuroLeague and the WNBA, however as a result of she’s change into a political pawn.
Despite latest beneficial properties, it’s no secret that girls’s basketball is much less watched and fewer “valuable” than the lads’s sport. In December 2020, skilled companies firm Deloitte estimated that the worldwide girls’s sports activities business was price “well under $1bn”, with the worldwide sports activities business in its entirety — males’s, girls’s and combined — estimated at $481bn in 2018. WNBA video games averaged about 300,000 viewers on the half level within the present season, whereas comparable video games within the NBA fetched viewership between a million and 1.8 million, in keeping with business tracker SportsMediaWatch.
Even important beneficial properties within the commercialisation of ladies’s sport illustrate how far they need to catch up. Two weeks earlier than Griner’s arrest earlier this yr, the WNBA introduced a $75mn funding spherical which it described because the “largest-ever capital raise for a women’s sports property”, valuing the league and its 12 groups at $1bn. The NBA has revenues of roughly $10bn.
There are broader “catch-up” indications too. Outlets similar to Forbes and Sportico publish steadily up to date lists of probably the most beneficial males’s golf equipment and franchises, every with proprietary metrics and reporting. No such rankings exist for ladies’s golf equipment, in keeping with lecturers, bankers and basketball officers I’ve requested. Ahead of the 2021 sale of the Atlanta Dream, I requested economics professor David Berri, who research the enterprise of the WNBA, why that could be the case. “Franchise values are quite low simply because sports investors (who tend to be men) are not bidding up the price of women’s sports,” he mentioned.
Under-funding obscures the ability of athletes similar to Griner. A collegiate star at Baylor University, the place she led the crew to a nationwide title, Griner was the primary general choose within the 2013 WNBA draft. In her second season, she helped the Phoenix Mercury safe their first franchise championship. She was the league scoring champion in 2017 and 2019, and gained gold at each the Rio and Tokyo Olympics.
At the second, these accomplishments are extra beneficial to Russia: Griner is presently underneath a three-year, $665,000 contract within the WNBA, whereas she reportedly earns $1mn yearly enjoying for the oligarch-backed UMMC Ekaterinburg.
The gulf is due partly to the WNBA’s enterprise mannequin, which regulates crew homeowners’ spending. Last yr, the homeowners of the New York Liberty — Alibaba vice-chair Joe Tsai and his spouse, Clara — have been fined $500,000 for supplying constitution flights to shuttle gamers between video games, a violation of WNBA guidelines because it gave Liberty gamers a aggressive benefit over groups whose homeowners have been much less rich. As Sports Illustrated put it, it was “a unique scandal in which a prominent franchise stands accused of treating its players too well”.
To be certain, the WNBA and its gamers’ affiliation are making progress. The league is increasing its use of constitution flights for championship video games this yr. And their 2020 labour settlement consists of provisions for “time-off bonuses” to proficient gamers contingent on their opting out of professional leagues abroad.
It’s unclear whether or not Griner will serve her jail time period, or whether or not US and Russian diplomats will be capable to negotiate a posh swap settlement. But I do marvel in regards to the neighborhood and the occupation ready for her return. For girls’s sports activities to realize their potential, in keeping with the Deloitte report, “the entire sports industry . . . needs to invest on a sustained basis in creating more opportunities for women’s sports to prove its commercial worth”.
Whenever Griner could also be reunited along with her spouse and teammates within the US, it might be a gross injustice if stakeholders couldn’t discover a technique to make girls’s basketball as vital to Americans as it’s to Russia.
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