Skip to main content

New York Liberty's Kia Nurse shoots during the WNBA three-point contest on July 26, 2019, in Las Vegas.John Locher/The Associated Press

Kia Nurse’s side hustle is halfway around the world.

For the second consecutive WNBA off-season, the 23-year-old from Hamilton is playing in Australia for the Canberra Capitals, who she led to a WNBL championship last spring.

Doing overseas double duty has been the norm for WNBA players. The fact they’re paid virtual peanuts – particularly in comparison with their male NBA counterparts – has made a second paycheque a necessity.

But the women’s pro basketball landscape experienced a seismic shift Tuesday with news of the WNBA’s landmark collective bargaining agreement.

And Nurse and her WNBA colleagues applauded the tentative eight-year agreement that will see average salaries rise to six figures for the first time, plus improved travel conditions and full paid salary for players on maternity leave.

“I think there’s a lot of exciting parts about this CBA,” Nurse said from Australia. “As the years continue to go and as I continue to grow and develop in this league and hopefully have a long standing there, as the time goes on, then maybe that’s when those opportunities to not going overseas will come into play. And hopefully the younger generations that are coming up, they’ll have that opportunity early to decide whether they want to do that as well or not.”

Nurse and Indiana Fever forward Natalie Achonwa, a native of Guelph, Ont., playing in Bourges, France, are among the approximate two thirds of WNBA players who spend their off-seasons playing abroad. Nurse has been nothing but positive about her experience Down Under. Calling Australia her “home away from home,” she’s donated part of her salary to help those affected by the wildfires raging across the country.

But the issue of top women being forced to supplement their income by playing year-round became a hot-button topic when WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart ruptured her Achilles tendon last April in the Euroleague final. The Seattle Storm forward missed all of the 2019 WNBA season. She hopes to make her return in an exhibition game with the U.S. national team later this month.

Diana Taurasi sat out a WNBA season a few years ago because her Russian team, which was paying her more than US$1-million, wanted her to rest.

WNBA players’ union president Nneka Ogwumike said the new pact provides more financial incentive for players to stay home in the off-season.

The tentative eight-year labour deal would allow top players to earn more than US$500,000 while the average salary – US$130,000 – surpasses six figures for the first time. The deal also guarantees full salaries while on maternity leave plus child-care benefits and enhanced travel standards, along with other health and wellness benefits.

“It’s a milestone agreement that is taking us steps in the right direction, and I’m hoping it won’t be great just for women’s basketball, but for women’s sports in general,” said Canadian Kayla Alexander, a centre for the Chicago Sky.

The deal still won’t pay women anywhere near what men make – the average NBA salary is US$7.7-million – but it tells women that “I can have a decent lifestyle and I can make a decent living, I can have a decent work environment and work setting that I can be successful and compete at a high level,” said Alexander, a native of Milton, Ont.

While neither are mothers, both Nurse and Alexander said the maternity improvements were big wins.

“There are so many mothers in our league who are absolute superheroes both on and off the court with taking care of their child and also putting out the best performance that they can night in and night out,” said Nurse, who was an all-star in her second season with the New York Liberty.

Improved travel news was also welcome relief. Last summer, Achonwa documented her team’s travel woes in a frustrated Twitter thread. Flight delays between Seattle and Indiana turned what should have been a relatively short trip into a 24-hour ordeal.

Teams have traditionally flown coach – imagine Raptors swingman Norman Powell, who is the same height as Alexander, being asked to squeeze his 6-3 frame into an economy seat.

Players experienced better conditions in college.

“In college, you’re used to flying charter, you’re like ‘What? We have our own flight? Our own plane?’ " Alexander said. “Then you get to the league [WNBA] and you think it’s going to be the same and it’s like, ‘Oh, psych, no, we’re flying commercial, we get on the same flight as everybody else.' "

The new CBA includes premium economy airline tickets as well as individual hotel rooms on road trips.

Alexander also applauded the WNBA’s new “Changemakers” program that will see companies contribute financially in the league’s marketing, branding and player and fan development. AT&T, Nike and Deloitte are the inaugural three business partners.

“People can’t support and get behind something they don’t know,” she said. “It’s important that we’re putting money towards marketing efforts to get us out there so people, especially young girls, can see the league, and witness what high-quality basketball these elite women are playing.”