Mike Cound, a sports agent specializing in women’s basketball, certainly has a vested interest in the success of the WNBA. But … that’s not his employer.
“I work for my clients,” Cound said.
And so while in ideal circumstances he’d rather that clients Deanna Nolan, Cheryl Ford and Janel McCarville were all playing in the WNBA this summer, he understands why they are not.
For each one, the specifics are all a bit different, but the overall reason is the same: The economics of professional women’s basketball.
Like all athletes, women’s basketball players have a limited window of opportunity to earn money from competing before their body gives out and age wins. With women’s hoops, many athletes good enough to be in the WNBA also try to maximize their earning potential by also playing overseas.
Of course, if you are reading this blog, you already know all this. It’s been this way since the WNBA began 14 years ago. The issues are the same: Late arrivals to training camp (especially in years when the league starts in May), players dealing with wear-and-tear on their bodies, the debate about “loyalty” to the WNBA (especially from American players).
There are no sweeping answers to any of those issues. I’ve written about them a lot, and so have others. Here in this blog entry, I won’t try to project much into the future about when/if any of that will change. This is really just about the situations with Nolan, Ford and McCarville – all of whom are represented by Cound and have WNBA fan bases.
This is the second consecutive WNBA season that Ford and Nolan will miss, the first for McCarville. We’ll start with Janel, who was suspended for the season by the New York Liberty after she did not report to training camp.
“She was one of the last ones finished (overseas), didn’t get any break, then went home to see her dad,” Cound said. “She’s really just taking the summer off. She probably would have come back (to the Liberty) after a month or so. But they just clear their cap if they suspend her for a whole season, rather than a more temporary suspension.
“I don’t blame them. They needed to clear the cap space so they could make other moves. They couldn’t be sure that Janel really would play this summer.”
In other words, had McCarville gone to the Liberty with a promise to return at a certain time, and the team really wanted to accommodate her and get her back sometime in 2011, both parties could have agreed to do it that way.
However, Cound stressed that wasn’t a conversation that happened; McCarville was tired and largely non-committal about the summer. Furthermore, the Liberty have a new coach/GM in John Whisenant, who has a history in the WNBA, of course, but no past working relationship with McCarville. He’s trying to establish himself in this job and didn’t want to potentially hamstring the Liberty with a commitment to a player he’d never previously coached.
Furthermore, since everyone else for the Liberty was in training camp, making an exception for McCarville to basically join the team when she felt up to it potentially could have caused a rift between Whisenant and a new group of players he’s trying to bond with.
Cound could empathize with both sides. He was a little disappointed that McCarville didn’t fulfill her contract agreement with the Liberty for this summer, and he communicated that to her. At the same time, he’s fully her advocate. He understands that after three days off between returning from her Italian team and needing to report to the Liberty, she decided she just couldn’t do it.
McCarville is relatively sound health-wise and is not dealing with any major injury. Mental and physical fatigue were the impediments to her rejoining New York, and ask any athlete _ those really can be big obstacles to being able to perform.
Cound expects her back in the WNBA next summer, although that might not be with the Liberty. It may depend on how New York (relocated to Newark as home base for the next three summers) fares this season. If McCarville is obviously missed and Whisenant decides to reach out to her (or vice versa), maybe she does play for the Liberty again.
But if the team does well enough and it’s deemed that McCarville returning in 2012 would not be beneficial, then the Liberty likely would try to trade her. From what I’ve heard from Lib fans, there is a real split in how they regard her contributions. But she is a former No. 1 draft pick and I’m sure she will be of value to some team.
Now, Nolan is in a different situation than McCarville. Nolan won three WNBA titles for Detroit, playing in her home state of Michigan. Once the Shock left Detroit for Tulsa, she did not feel any real allegiance to the franchise. Her rights are still owned by Tulsa, but she is not under contract to the Shock. Instead, she opted to sign a contract with her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, that prevented her from playing in the WNBA last season and this one.
Nolan has a Russian passport, which makes her all the more valuable to her team and its relationship to the Russian Federation.
Nolan always has kind of marched to her own drummer, for lack of a better way to say it. I don’t mean it as criticism; it’s just fact. She was never that interested in playing for the U.S. national team and was not going to make any financial/personal concessions to do so. The idea of “helping out” the WNBA by playing in a new city such as Tulsa after the Shock relocated was not something Nolan or Detroit teammates Ford and Katie Smith seriously considered. (I wrote for ESPN.com this week about how that’s one of the things that has impacted the struggling Shock.)
Ford’s mindset, though, is not identical to Nolan’s, although she also was part of three WNBA title teams in Detroit. Ford, released from Tulsa, really does want to play in the WNBA again, in part because injuries dampened some of her time in Detroit. (She was hurt and unable to compete in the 2008 postseason when Detroit won its last title).
Ford wants WNBA fans to see her at the top of her game once more. To the degree that Nolan even cares much about that, she feels she’s already shown her best to fans.
“Cheryl wants to come back and show people that she’s still the best rebounder in the world,” Cound said. “She did not accomplish everything yet that she wants to in the WNBA.”
Ford considered signing with the New York Liberty for this summer. But she made a financial decision to commit fully to another season in Europe and recently signed with Beretta Famila-Schio, the same team for which McCarville plays.
Cound said a lucrative Russian deal that Ford struck overseas a few years ago was mostly negated by injuries, so some of her prime earning seasons overseas came up dry. She is trying to make up for that while she can.
Speaking of “coming up dry,” the European high salaries are evaporating in some places and dropping noticeably in others. Again, this won’t surprise those who follow the sport. It was sadly predicted as soon as Spartak Moscow owner Shabtai von Kalmanovic was murdered late in 2009.
Seattle/former Spartak point guard Sue Bird grieved personally over the death of “Shabs” as he was called, but also knew pragmatically what it meant for women’s basketball.
“In terms of salaries, you have to have competition to make those go up,” Bird said last summer. “It could come to a point where teams see they don’t have to pay a player a certain amount because nobody else is offering them that much. You have to have that competition, even if it’s between two teams in Russia. It had upped the rest of Europe.”
Cound confirms Bird’s prognosis has come true. (Bird, incidentally, has signed with UMMC for next season.)
“We’re probably an average of 40 percent off the top deals,” Cound said of what he and fellow agents are now able to negotiate overseas. “Your top 10-12 salaries are 30, 40 and even 50 percent off what they had been making. All controlled, really, by (UMMC) Ekaterinburg. Once Shabtai was assassinated, that competition ended between the two big-money teams in Russia.
“The competition between them had caused a domino effect to Turkey and Italy, where they had to pay considerably more to get a player’s interest away from Russia. People can say what they want about Shabtai, but he was really, really good for these players. He caused the whole market to go up.”
Cound said the market was slightly going down even before Kalmanovic’s death, but that great accelerated the decline. It’s not as if the European leagues are going out of business or anything, but the biggest paydays are in a hiatus until something spikes the market again.
It seems probable, if they stay healthy, that we’ll see McCarville and Ford in the WNBA next summer. It may end up that even Nolan opts to return to the league. For that to happen, Nolan likely would want to play for a team somewhat geographically near her hometown of Flint, Mich. Maybe Chicago or Indiana could fit that bill.
(It is NOT my intention to start any “Tweety to Sky” or “Deanna to Indiana” rumors. That latter part is simply speculation.)
For this summer, though, Tweet, CFord and JMac will not be involved in the WNBA. No doubt league followers would like to see any or all of them back in 2012.