Sara and Ted are having their baby! Cool!
Since we can't help their baby come faster, we'll distract the rest of you with more speculation about career lengths.
A few weeks ago we discovered
that WNBA careers are shorter than NBA careers, both in number of seasons and in player age at career end, even if you count only from '97 (when the W began). Why is that?
1. Prep-to-pro men. NBA teams now
players (and neophyte pros from overseas). The WNBA, of course, cannot:
even underage overseas draftees must have two years in another pro league.
Prep-to-pro players might explain the NBA's longer careers, but not their higher mean age. If anything, prep-to-pro players should lower
the men's retirement age, since some men would wash out (or experience career-ending injuries) before most pro women enter the league.
2. It's too soon to know.
Reader J. G. Harrington writes: "The W hasn't been around long enough to have any real outliers like Reggie Miller. We do know that they are likely to occur, though, because of players like Sue Wicks
" (and Debbie Black and Teresa Edwards
) "who had a professional career of more or less the same length as Miller, but mostly not in the WNBA. I wouldn't be surprised to see the average move up a fair amount over the next ten years."
3. Pregnancy and motherhood. Some players have their best on-court year while raising a two-year-old: consider Stacey Lovelace
and the magnificent Taj
. Other players have trouble
regaining pre-pregnancy form. Some may not return after having a child, though there are certainly moms
in the league: Lauren Jackson wants
to "retire and have kids when I'm 28."Pilight
writes: "Lady Grooms
is done, not because her skills have diminshed but because she elected to have a child.
At her age, that's the end." (His opinion, not mine.) "A male baller having a child at her age might not even miss a game to see the delivery. Even for younger players that can be a consideration, as they may see the stress of raising children while travelling all over playing ball to be too much. This relates to the money thing, as a WNBA spouse can't afford to give up a job to stay home with the kids as easily as an NBA spouse." (Stacey explains
how she handled it; so does Taj.
League help with child care, anyone? Anyone?)
4. More season-ending,
and ultimately career-ending,
injuries. Women ballers get ACL tears more often
than the men, maybe 3.5 times
more often, or two, or eight.
New sports-med research may help.
5. Money. Harrington again: "For most players in male leagues, the likelihood that you'll make a comparable amount after you stop playing is relatively low, while for most players in the W, the likelihood is fairly high. (Lawyers and doctors make more money
than WNBA players, even if you count what they get overseas; that's not the case for NBA players.
) Simply put, you're more likely to keep playing when your knees ache and your passion is gone if the money's good."
Katie Smith says
future compensation becomes a big issue when players reach thirty.
talking on ESPN over playing in the WNBA. Stories on Stephanie White's retirement hit both the coaching career and the injury
6. The WNBA's salary cap.
Pelton, who knows more than we do, thinks
it matters. The W's hard cap
makes marginal veterans less attractive to GMs, hence more likely to get cut. The NBA's soft cap
doesn't work the same way.
7. The NBA's collective bargaining agreement.
Pilight (on the current, now-expiring agreement): "Very, very few undrafted rookies make NBA rosters, so almost every rookie that signs is guaranteed at least two years."
8. Because the college and high school games have improved so rapidly, young players are on average better, relative to veterans, than is the case in the men's game. I don't mean that the median first- or second-year player is better in absolute terms than the median fourth-year WNBA'er (especially since the worst rookies don't come back), but that the difference won't favor fourth-years as much as it would in a prominent men's sport, because the newbies in the W saw better competition in college, and emerged from a bigger group of ambitious teen ballers, than players who earned their degrees five years ago. "Kids didn't have pro ball to look forward to prior to 1996," Pilight writes, "so many who would have been fine pros didn't put the work in on it when they were young." Sue Bird said as much
in 2001; for further evidence, look to Cappie's tattoo.
9. Pilight also wonders about physiology: "if you look at other women's sports you see that women have shorter careers even though some of the above aren't factors. In tennis, for example... at Roland Garros Mary Pierce was the oldest woman finalist
in a major since 1994 at age 30. That would be above average age for a men's finalist during that time but nowhere near a record. All of tennis history is like that, with the exception
of Martina Navratilova... Even if they do keep playing, the women tend to peak at a much younger age than the men." We won't really know if that's true at all in basketball until those other factors have gone away: the nature of basketball, in which experience alongside the same teammates helps players improve their game, makes me think the analogy might not hold.
10. The size of the league. Fewer teams mean fewer chances for veterans to survive through trades or free-agent signings once their current coach or GM wants them gone. There's no logically necessary reason a smaller league has to lead to shorter careers-- in a sport where almost everyone had to play pro for five years to become any good, sunk costs could make a good GM likely to keep even marginal third- and fourth-year players. In our sport, though, the size of the league likely matters.
I suspect that money's the biggest factor (number 5), with the relative merits of newer players (number 8) and the contractual issues (numbers 6 and 7) somewhere behind.