Sparks' Chelsea Gray pushing for better conditions for WNBA players


SAN FRANCISCO -- Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray has been playing basketball since she was a child with the dream of playing in the WNBA. Now, having achieved her goal, Gray is living through the rigors of the WNBA and is working to change the league.

"I think the good is you're at the highest stage playing with the best athletes ever," Gray said during a recent episode of the "Runnin Plays" podcast. "We talk about Lisa Leslie. We talk about Ticha Penicheiro, Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson. You talk about all these different players that's created this pathway for people, for me to do what I do. It's on the biggest stage, and be able to hold that jersey like you're in the NBA for the W.

"The bad, I think a lot of people talk about salary. You're at the highest stage, but you don't get rewarded for it," she added. "The player experience needs to be better."

Under the current structure, each team's hard cap is around $976,000. Seattle Storm guard Jewell Lloyd -- the league's highest-paid player last season -- makes $119,000, a small fraction of her male counterparts. The league minimum forces many players to play overseas in countries like Russia, Israel and Turkey during the fall to make ends meet, forcing them to have a year-round schedule and little time to recover.

"That's the place that gets us so frustrated," she said. "The payments and salary in the WNBA because we see this longtime grind. People that go from the WNBA to overseas back to the WNBA. You have like two weeks to chill and you can't really chill because then you're out of shape. It's crazy the amount of time and effort it takes to play at such a high level but also sustain the lifestyle you want to live."

All the while, the WNBA has been labeled as being not as athletic or exciting the NBA, which critics argue leads to lower ratings. This is a notion Gray disagrees with.

"It's definitely a cop-out," she said. "Because you don't know what you don't know. So if you're going to say 'Why would you watch golf?' Well, do you know golf, do you watch golf? Do you enjoy the game? I guarantee if they go to a game they will have fun, they will enjoy it, they will enjoy the experience, they will enjoy watching us play. The fundamentals, the athleticism. I mean we're not flying and dunking and we're not throwing alley-oops but I don't think that's all the game is about."

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At the moment, Gray and the rest of the players are gearing up for a fight with the league. Thirteen months ago, the WNBPA opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement. In negotiations, they've asked for a higher percentage of the league's revenue, better marketing around its stars, improved travel schedule and a more spaced out schedule.

"I think we should be treated in which we're a WNBA team. We're at the highest level," Gray said. "Why not have everything that's around us be that? With food, and the way we travel and the way we're paid. I think that's speaking to everything that we want."

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