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Breanna Stewart’s injury highlights larger issue with WNBA’s business model

Reigning WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart is expected to miss the upcoming season after she ruptured the Achilles' tendon in her right leg. Stewart injured the leg on Sunday, April 14, 2019, in the EuroLeague Women championship game. She flew to Los Angeles where test results confirmed the injury. The Storm announced the diagnosis on Wednesday. | Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Storm forward Breanna Stewart will miss the 2019 WNBA season after she had surgery this week to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon. The injury happened while Stewart, who is arguably the best women’s basketball player in the world, was playing in the EuroLeague Final Four on Sunday with the Russia-based team Dynamo Kursk.

The news is devastating for WNBA fans, but it also highlights a larger issue about the league’s broken business model. And Sky forward Cheyenne Parker hopes Stewart’s injury makes WNBA officials understand the need to invest more in their players, who are paid so little that many supplement their incomes by playing overseas during the offseason.

‘‘I don’t know if it’ll be a wakeup call, unfortunately,’’ Parker told the Sun-Times. ‘‘I’m hoping that it opens eyes and wakes up some people’s mindsets on that, and maybe we’ll see a change sooner. But I doubt it.’’

Losing a player such as Stewart for the season could have an effect on the WNBA’s viewership, along with its brand awareness.

The WNBA already had a problem entering this season. The players’ union opted out of the collective-bargaining agreement in November after many players voiced their discontent with the league regarding salaries and travel.

‘‘This is not just about business,’’ Sparks forward and union president Nneka Ogwumike wrote in an article for The Players’ Tribune. ‘‘This is deeply personal. This is about the kind of world we want to live in.

‘‘We just want full transparency, so we can figure out how to make common-sense changes that will help our players’ quality of life.’’

The WNBA is the most competitive women’s basketball league in the world, but more than half its players play overseas during the offseason in an attempt to make more money. By playing year-round, players put their bodies at a higher risk for injuries because they don’t have the luxury of a full offseason to recuperate.

Stewart’s base salary in 2018 was $56,793. She earned an additional $38,525 for on-court performance bonuses, including $15,000 for being voted the WNBA’s most valuable player. Stewart, who is still on her rookie contract, was expected to make $64,538 this season, excluding potential bonuses.

The median WNBA salary is roughly $73,000, and a max contract in 2018 was $115,500, though players can make up to $150,000 with performance bonuses.

In 2018, interim president Mark Tatum said the WNBA suffered a $12 million loss. And chief operating officer Christin Hedgpeth recognizes the business model isn’t working.

‘‘We understand the dynamic that is in play,’’ said Hedgpeth, who oversees WNBA strategy, business development and marketing functions. ‘‘We are doing our very best and focusing a lot of resources and energy and horsepower into developing the right economic model around the WNBA, one that can hopefully one day mitigate the need to have to play overseas. The reality is the reality at this point.’’

NBA players receive 50 percent of the league revenue, compared with 23 percent for WNBA players. It’s also important to note WNBA revenues are less than 1 percent of NBA revenues, which are roughly $9 billion.

But Hedgpeth said making that comparison is ‘‘dangerous.’’

‘‘First and foremost, this is an economic issue; it’s not a gender issue,’’ Hedgpeth said. ‘‘The league has not been profitable, so it’s not an apple-to-apple comparison with the NBA. . . . It can kind of cloud the real issue, which is how can everyone — not just the NBA and WNBA, but corporate partners, media, fans — all work together to contribute to a thriving, healthy league that is economically viable, so there is the revenue to really recognize players to the degree we want them to be.’’

Last April, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the WNBA had a ‘‘marketing problem.’’ Hedgpeth has made it her mission to fix it.

With the help of Sylvain Labs, an innovation and brand-design consultant in New York, the WNBA performed thorough market research on its target audience. The result was a totally reinvigorated brand that was launched two weeks ago.

Before the WNBA Draft, the league debuted a new logo that features a woman wearing a bun. But the design overhaul is so much more than that, Hedgpeth said.

‘‘It’s a complete brand reset, starting with our brand positioning and really being about a progressive league that stands for the power of women,’’ she said. ‘‘We’re really thinking about our voice and how that’s going to translate how we come across.’’

The new logo is a start, but brand awareness is still a big issue for the league. Parker said it doesn’t help that half of the WNBA’s players are overseas for half the year.

‘‘Losing Breanna Stewart overseas, it’ll definitely open the eyes of people who aren’t aware because half the people who know about the WNBA don’t even know that we go overseas to play,’’ Parker said. ‘‘When people ask me, they’re not even aware that half the year, we’re not even here. And that’s also a part of the problem with marketing, too. Us being over there makes it really hard for us to participate in a lot.’’

Despite its issues, the WNBA has shown growth in the last year. In fact, 2018 was its most-watched season since 2014. Viewership went up 31 percent across ESPN networks and NBA TV last season. And WNBA League Pass digital subscriptions were up 39 percent worldwide in the last year.

With that in mind, Hedgpeth said she thinks the WNBA can become a sustainable league.

‘‘It all starts with building demand,’’ Hedgpeth said. ‘‘We know [the WNBA] is an incredible product, so that’s why we prioritized the brand reset: to bring our values to the floor and to connect with the audience that we know is receptive of who we are but maybe hadn’t heard from us enough.’’