When a female basketball player graduates from college and isn’t drafted into the WNBA, she is often faced with a difficult decision: Do I play overseas or do I give up on a professional career altogether?
For some women, playing overseas may not be the best option. Playing in a foreign country can mean dealing with language barriers, culture shock and, in some cases, compromised safety. For example, in January, several WNBA players who play in the Turkish leagues during the offseason stated that they might leave the country due to multiple terrorist attacks in the area.
If a player chooses not to go overseas, then what? She can keep training and try out for the WNBA draft the following year. But the reality is, the number of professional opportunities for women to develop their game in the States is limited compared to the opportunities that male players have.
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The WNBA currently has 12 teams in the league, with rosters capped at 12 players per team. That means that the league has 144 players total, with few roster spot opening every year. On the other hand, the NBA has 30 professional teams, with 15 roster spots each, for a total of 450 roster spots—more than three times the number of player positions than the WNBA. In addition, the men’s league has another 40 minor-league teams managed by the NBA Development League, which helps give young players opportunity to be groomed for the professional realm. This doesn’t include other men’s minor leagues managed outside the NBA, like the Premier Basketball League, American Basketball Association and CBL Exposure League.
In 2015, former Seattle Storm player Janell Burse and her business partner Kre’Tonia Morgan decided that the math on women’s basketball didn’t balance out. That summer, they started working on building the Women’s Minor League Basketball Association (WMLBA) in an attempt to provide more opportunities for female players. The league will begin regular season play on May 13, with eight teams across the country.
“It’s really overdue to have a professional women’s minor league where women can play and be proud of,” Burse told Excelle Sports. “This is more than a business venture for me—it’s a way to give back to the sport that really blessed me.”
For Burse, developing a women’s minor league takes on personal meaning that goes beyond business numbers and books. The Louisiana native graduated from Tulane University and was then drafted as a second round pick by the Minnesota Lynx in 2001. Traded to the Seattle Storm in 2004, Burse completed seven seasons in the WNBA and played abroad a total of 10 seasons. While her playing resume is impressive, Burse realizes that not every player is lucky enough to get the exposure to start their careers.
“That’s the biggest thing [these players] lack in most cases because some of these girls are really good,” said Burse. “But nobody sees them play.”
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While the WMLBA could help develop and bring exposure to post-collegiate athletes who are good enough for the WNBA, the idea of women’s minor league basketball is hardly new. Since 2005, the Women’s Blue-Chip Basketball League (WBCBL) has operated nationwide with more than 40 teams today. While not as extensive, the Women’s Universal Basketball Association (WUBA), established in 2011, features 19 different franchises that play in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia. There have been other leagues over the years that have come and gone—some of which have helped to foster negative attitudes among potential players about minor league basketball, Burse said.
“A lot of girls have played in different little popup leagues and it just wasn’t what they were expecting,” Burse said. “Some of these leagues would pop up and say ‘Hey, we’re a developmental league,’ and it was just bad. Players are paying for uniforms, they are driving themselves to games. It’s just not what’s expected.”
In order to prove to potential recruits and sponsors that it’s different from earlier leagues, the WMLBA needs to bring a highly professional product to the market, she added.
In the men’s basketball world, the NBA and the NBA D-League work closely together to help develop players for the professional level; the NBA also provides funding to support its minor league. But the WMLBA will have no such partnership with the WNBA in its fledgling year and will primarily depend on outside sponsorships to fund its operations. In fact, none of the women’s minor league basketball leagues have affiliations with the WNBA.
“We actually did have a conversation with [WNBA president] Lisa Borders,” Burse said. “But right now, it’s just not a good time for the partnership to happen. There’s just some things that the WNBA needs to address internally before they can be open to the idea of branching off.”
Borders did not respond to Excelle Sports’ request for comment on the WMLBA.
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“Even without the partnership, these coaches in the WNBA could care less if we have a formal partnership or not,” Burse continued. “If there’s a girl in our league averaging 25 points a game, people are going to look at her regardless.”
Players interested in the WLMBA will have a chance to play on one of eight different teams: There are three in Texas and five different franchises dispersed between Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois and Michigan. And unlike the WBCBL and WUBA, neither of which pays its athletes, players in the WMLBA will receive $100–$250 per game. Uniforms and travel expenses will be covered by each team.
Since Burse is so focused on getting these players noticed, the WMLBA has developed WML TV, an online platform where recruiting scouts from all over the world can watch live footage of games. The league also plans to host a showcase every fall that would give coaches from the European leagues the opportunity to see WMLBA athletes play before they make teams selections every December.
In addition to growing and exposing new talent, the WMLBA also hopes to develop new coaches, Burse said. For example, her old Seattle Storm teammate Alicia Thompson, a former high school basketball coach, will now be head coach of the WMBLA’s Dallas Skyline.
“I really want to build a legacy of leadership, mentorship and opportunities for these young ladies,” Thompson told Excelle Sports. “I just want to be successful.”
For the WMLBA to succeed, Thompson knows that teams need to get fans into the stadiums. Since each franchise is responsible for its own marketing and advertising strategies, Thompson believes the key to creating loyal supporters is getting involved in the local community. She and her Dallas assistant coach Kimberly Greene have established relationships with area universities and colleges while recruiting local players to try to build a team that the community can get behind. Thompson also plans on hosting basketball clinics, camps and even yoga classes for kids to help get the younger generations involved.
“There are so many things I want to do with this team,” she said. “It’s important for us to give back and let kids know that the opportunity is here if they choose to go in that direction.”
Thompson’s desire to give back will not be unique within the league. The WMLBA has established a “Season of Giving” program that encourages players on each team to participate in community service like visiting hospitals and nursing homes or serving in soup kitchens.
In the meantime, when the WMBLA begins regular season play on May 13, Mother’s Day, both Burse and Thompson predict that the league will have a positive impact on women’s basketball.
“I have big expectations of putting a great product on the floor,” Burse said. “We want the games to be extremely competitive. We want to give [players] the exposure they deserve. We’ve set the bar really high to give these girls a league that they can be proud of.”