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The WNBA must cooperate more with Europe to increase the league’s worldwide reach

Though Europe is women’s basketball’s best continent, three of the five players who made this year’s Women’s EuroBasket All-Star team aren’t in the WNBA. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Las Vegas Aces v Washington Mystics
Emma Meesseman could very well be the Mystics’ franchise player. But because of the WNBA’s inflexibility with Europe, she may never truly get a chance to shine.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

As the most powerful continent in women’s basketball, Europe has produced many of the sport’s top stars. Stars on the Women’s EuroBasket championship and medal-winning teams consistently shine on the professional stage, including at the annual EuroLeague and EuroCup Women tournaments.

However, most of the top stars from the best teams in this year’s Women’s EuroBasket tournament aren’t playing in the WNBA this season. That’s even though all five players named to the Women’s EuroBasket 2019 All-Star Team have experience in the league: Spain’s Astou Ndour, Great Britain’s Tami Fagbenle, Spain’s Marta Xargay, Serbia’s Sonja Petrović and France’s Sandrine Gruda. However, only Fagbenle and Ndour are active WNBA players. Ndour was also named the Most Valuable Player.

Why aren’t many European stars playing in the WNBA? And how can the WNBA and Europe work better together?

Why aren’t more European players in the WNBA?

There is no single reason three of Europe’s top players in Women’s EuroBasket aren’t playing in the WNBA this season. But one of the primary reasons is the WNBA’s inflexibility for the European game and its players.

The WNBA has never paused play for a European tournament like Women’s EuroBasket or for the professional basketball season (EuroLeague and EuroCup Women), which runs from late fall to early spring. Instead, the WNBA runs its own schedule in the summer and teams suspend players when they choose to represent their countries and/or professional teams.

European players also appear to value playing for their countries more than their American counterparts. In Europe, there are multiple countries that can win a continental title like Women’s EuroBasket. This year, Spain won the tournament, but France and Serbia could have realistically won the gold medal as well.

But the United States is the world’s top country in women’s basketball and doesn’t face much competition for the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup when they do participate, even with Canada improving in recent years.

European professional women’s basketball players also play in a system that respects and cooperates with national team play. In Europe, professional teams pause all domestic and continental competitions at various points during the fall and winter to allow players to compete for their national teams. The WNBA doesn’t pause the season for any international competition except the Olympics.

There is a good reason why the WNBA has stuck to its current scheduling format. The league still struggles for relevance among all sports fans. The WNBA plays in the summer by design so it won’t affect the NBA season too much. The WNBA’s media rights with ESPN, CBS Sports Network and Twitter are also competing against Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League for viewers’ eyeballs.

If the WNBA decided to pause the season for a couple of weeks for Women’s EuroBasket, it would create a break in the schedule for a tournament that few current players participate in. This could possibly hurt ratings.

European women’s professional basketball has been established for a longer time than the WNBA and Europeans are more comfortable with the system they have at home. American players, including most WNBA superstars, also play in Europe, so it isn’t like European stars are missing out on playing with more talented players.

Why does the WNBA need Europe?

The WNBA is still the world’s top women’s professional basketball league. European players like Washington Mystics guard Kim Mestdagh are still quick to say that playing in the league is a dream. However, there are limits to that dream when the European and WNBA calendars collide.

Basketball is a global sport. In the men’s game, the NBA has been very successful gaining support from every continent, especially Europe. Greek star Giannis Antetokounmpo is the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and French center Rudy Gobert is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

But to date, no European has won or been in contention for the WNBA Most Valuable Player or Defensive Player of the Year awards.

If there is a European WNBA player who could be a WNBA MVP at some point, it’s probably Mystics forward Emma Meesseman. Meesseman made the WNBA All-Star team in 2015 when she was just a budding star. That year, her native Belgium didn’t qualify for Women’s EuroBasket.

But as Meesseman improved, Belgium made EuroBasket, and she couldn’t play in every Mystics game. This has effectively hurt her chance of becoming an All-Star ever since. It has also limited or even hurt her perception among WNBA fans stateside.

Since Meesseman is just 26 years old and entering her prime, she should be taking on a larger role with the Mystics. But instead, Meesseman is perceived to be a complementary piece. The fact is, other Mystics players have grown in the last two seasons while she missed some or all of the WNBA season.

Do Europeans need the WNBA?

If the WNBA continues with its current track record, there may be European stars who will refuse to play in the United States. One of the reasons is that the W does not pause for European tournaments. When European players are consistently absent, that lowers their value among WNBA teams.

Also, most American stars play in Europe during the WNBA offseason to supplement their incomes. European players still get to play alongside or against American superstars anyway during the fall and winter. It is unlikely that WNBA players will be prohibited from playing overseas in the next CBA, so Europeans can maintain familiarity with Americans’ style of play.

Do European players want what American players want with the next CBA?

Since last season, American WNBA players have become more vocal about their media coverage, pay and travel accommodations during road trips. This all came to a head when the players’ union opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement on Nov. 1, 2018.

Though Liz Cambage is a non-American player who also has voiced her frustration with the WNBA on various issues, including pay, few if any European players have said similar things to the public. However, like most international players, Europeans want the chance to play for their countries while also having a chance to fulfill their potential in the WNBA.

How do the WNBA and Europe reconcile their differences?

The WNBA aims to remain the best women’s professional basketball league in the world, and most Europeans still consider it a dream to play in the United States — they know the WNBA offers the highest level of play in the world. However, given the WNBA’s low pay, they don’t want to do that at the expense of playing for their national teams.

Since last year, most of the WNBA players’ fight has been over pay, travel and promotional opportunities. These are all things players should fight for. But it’s also important to make sure that the WNBA include breaks for FIBA’s major continental tournaments so the league can attract and retain more talent beyond the United States’ borders. This will allow European players like Meesseman to show their full potential in the WNBA.