WNBA needs to stay careful when doing business with certain international entities

Photo Credit: Nike

Of course, as the WNBA grows, the idea of the W going international is going to gain steam. When talking about the international status of the WNBA, most of that talk revolves around many of the players themselves. 

A number of players, of course, play overseas following the conclusion of the W season solely because those international teams pay more than the 12 WNBA teams. As we all know, the WNBA’s salary structure was what indirectly led to the atrocities Brittney Griner endured in Russia throughout 2022. 

But the league is growing – and with it, its international aspirations. One country that has received a lot of attention as of late is the nation that happens to border the United States to its north. 

The WNBA has done deals where TSN and SportsNet are airing its games. In addition, prior to the start of this season, the league held its marquee preseason game by staging a matchup between the Minnesota Lynx and Chicago Sky at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. 

That game proved to be a sellout. The Sky won but it drew that large crowd and was also successful in terms of merchandise sales. Toronto sent a message loud and clear to commissioner Cathy Engelbert that it wants to be on the shortlist for an expansion franchise whenever the W (finally!) decides to do so. 

But there also can be a bad side to the WNBA’s willingness to go global as well. As it grows, it becomes a larger part of an international sports economy that is rife with bad actors. 

One of those bad actors happens to be Qatar – the same Qatar that controversially hosted the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup over the United States amidst allegations of corruption. It is also now the same Qatar that recently purchased a minority stake in Monumental Sports & Entertainment. 

That, of course, is Ted Leonsis’ sports outfit that is the parent company of the Washington Mystics. The Washington Wizards, the Washington Capitals and (most recently) NBC Sports Washington are also all under the Monumental Sports & Entertainment. 

For clarification – this is not a matter of Qatari businessmen deciding to buy a stake in the organization. It is the Qatari government. Here is all that one needs to know about Qatar – workers died in sweltering heat while it was building Men’s World Cup stadia for 2022 and it (like Russia that hosted the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup) has a history of homophobia and transphobia. 

One could not possibly watch 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup matches without feeling so dirty one had to take a dozen showers afterwards. 

Then there is the matter of what Engelbert said following the success of the WNBA Canada Game. She recently hinted at the possibility that the W could be open to staging games in the Middle East. 

And while it is the same Middle East that some WNBA players go to over the offseason, it is also the same Middle East that – in some countries – has strict rules for what women are and are not allowed to wear in public. Something tells us that will be a no go for the WNBPA as it should be. 

The topic of foreign investment in sports has taken on new life after Saudi Arabia launched LIV Golf which got plenty of PGA golfers to defect to the new entity because it offers massive stacks of money to do so. Ironically, following a short-lived heated rivalry between the two sides, they managed to merge solely because the golfing economy is facing a perilous period where it cannot find a marquee star to take the mantle once Tiger Woods (at long last!) calls it a career. 

Of course, one will also not overlook Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai being owners of the New York Liberty and Brooklyn Nets. 

But there is something about the W potentially doing business with actors such as Qatar and the Saudis that seems dirty. Staten Island landfill dirty.

Engelbert has taken a more businesswoman’s approach to running the W which is in stark contrast to Lisa Borders who was more of a progressive advocate. But Borders’ approach connected with the players better because she was a Black woman running a league that is majority Black, majority progressive and massively LGBTQIA+. 

One thing that is very admirable about WNBA players is their refusal to “shut up and dribble” whenever something is not right in the world. Ask Kelly Loeffler.

The WNBA needs to be extremely cautious before allowing bad global actors like those in the Middle East to get too close to its league. And if it things staging games in those nations will go over well with players, it needs to think again.