NBA commissioner David Stern told WNBA players Tuesday that unless they settle their contract dispute by April 18, the 2003 season for the women's league will not be played.
"We want to get a deal and work with the players," said Stern, announcing at the same time that his league had voted an additional $12 million to subsidize its women's affiliate. "But if that's not to be, it's not to be. We'll know in the next 10 days if there will be a WNBA season."
Calls by The Associated Press to the NBA Players' Association, which represents the women as well as the men, were not immediately returned.
The contract with WNBA players expired last Sept. 15 and negotiations have gone nowhere. The union is demanding substantial pay increases and free agency among other things.
The key word in this is "subsidize." From the beginning, the WNBA has been a money-losing operation, and the future prospects aren't good regardless of how the labor negotiations turn out. The WNBA players may not want to recognize or admit this, but the NBA considers their women's auxilliary league to be little more than a promotional item, something to keep professional basketball going during the summer months while expanding the NBA's appeal to a larger audience. For the WNBA to be independently viable, it would have to cut the number of teams significantly (from, say, 16 to 8) and commit to a longer schedule with less television exposure. That's how other professional leagues grew their revenue bases over a period of many decades. In contrast, there are some WNBA boosters who seem to believe you can say the magic words "Title IX" and instantly become profitable.
Sadly, the WNBA may be a victim of Title IX more than its beneficiary. After all, Title IX amounts to a government-compelled subsidy of women's sports at the collegiate level. But a nonprofit college is in a far different position than the for-profit businessmen who own the NBA. The Title IX generation just doesn't understand that distinction—they've been led to believe their every whim will be met by a society eager to "overcome" its sexist past. Rather then thank the NBA for at least making a good-faith effort at creating a women's professional league, most of the Title IX brigade will likely resort to condemning the NBA for not giving the WNBA players everything they want in this labor negotiation. It's an ironically sexist message: men have to earn their way, but the women should just have things handed to them without condition.