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The WNBA needs to be a better partner with FIBA — here’s how to make it happen

meesseman vs lynx Ned Dishman, NBA/Getty Images

The 2017 WNBA All-Star Game happened on Saturday. The East lost to the West, 130-121. As a WNBA fan, it was a great game for many reasons. But for our purposes, the game was without any Mystics players. To be fair, Elena Delle Donne was named a starter, but she couldn’t play due to an ankle sprain.

That’s not all though. Emma Meesseman, a 2015 All-Star, missed all of June due to her EuroBasket Women commitment to the Belgian national team. If she played all season long, it isn’t unreasonable to see her in action for the East last week as well.

Meesseman isn’t the only European national who played in the tournament. Though Kia Vaughn, Epiphanny Prince, Courtney Vandersloot, and Sancho Lyttle also played in EuroBasket for other countries, most of them are also American citizens. Meesseman and Lyttle are really the only true non-American players to play in EuroBasket. It’s a concern, not just for the Mystics, but the WNBA as a whole.

For the Mystics, the issue with Meesseman and her national team absence is that it affects their team chemistry midseason. Because of that, Mystics fans are wondering when Meesseman comes back instead of cheering Belgium on.

In fact, I’ll admit it. As much as Belgium’s bronze medal run was great to see for Meesseman personally, I actually didn’t want Belgium to make the quarterfinals — and clinch a 2018 World Cup spot. It’s not because I don’t like Belgium or have anything against the Cats. I really don’t, until they play the United States in the World Cup next year perhaps.

I didn’t want Belgium to advance to the quarterfinals or win a medal in EuroBasket because I wanted to see Meesseman in D.C. for as long as possible during the summer. The Mystics acquired Elena Delle Donne and I want to see Meesseman develop chemistry with her. Unfortunately, EuroBasket Women hampered that.

If you’re going to tell me that’s messed up, I agree. But my frustration isn’t at Meesseman or FIBA Europe. I’m just frustrated at the WNBA.

As WNBA fans, we’re put into this type of a situation often when international professional teams or FIBA national team play gets in the way of the season. When other international players see how uninterested or aloof American WNBA fans are in FIBA continental tournaments, it’s not a surprise to see that many of their best players won’t bother playing in America. For example, Spanish player and EuroBasket Women MVP Alba Torrens is a 2009 third round pick for the Connecticut Sun. But it’s unlikely that she’ll ever play in the USA.

And we didn’t even get to the salaries WNBA players make in America vs. what they could make overseas yet.

The bottom line is this. Mystics and all WNBA fans shouldn’t be rooting against their players in continental tournaments in my opinion, as long as they don’t affect their home country. Furthermore, the WNBA’s inflexible scheduling is only hurting their brand to non-American audiences when there is no break or real respect for continental competitions. The league only adjusts the schedule for the Olympics and World Cup because the United States has dominated those competitions and earned byes from continental play.

So. how can the WNBA help its brand with those who aren’t American? Here’s a quick list of suggestions based on international competition, and even with professional clubs:

WNBA and international team suggestions

  • Coordinate FIBA continental tournaments so they happen in a one month period - EuroBasket is the most notable continental tournament. However, there’s also the AmeriCup, Asia Cup, and AfroBasket. Though EuroBasket happened in June, the Asia Cup is in late July, AmeriCup is in mid August, and AfroBasket is in late August. If ALL of these tournaments happened during a one month period, people can see more coverage on how World Cup or Olympic spots are being filled out at the same time.
  • Do NOT give the Olympic winners and FIBA World Cup Winners automatic berths to the Olympics - The Gold Medal winners from the Olympics get a berth to the next World Cup, while the World Cup winners get a berth to the next Olympics. The United States women’s team has won every Olympic and World Cup since 2008 so they’ve never had to care about AmeriCup. But in this universe, the AmeriCup gets an American boost now that the USA has to earn its appearances to the World Cup and Olympics by winning or placing in continental play. No one’s going to tell USA women’s head coach Dawn Staley which players to send to these tournaments. But it will give her more opportunities to develop young talent who become USA Basketball women’s national team members in the future. Quite frankly, that’s overdue for the backcourt where Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have played on the team together since 2004 and started together since 2008. Both are in their mid 30’s. Their backups are Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus, who are also in their early to mid 30’s.
  • Only allow national teams to practice during a sanctioned break in collaboration with the WNBA - During Olympic years, we’ve seen Australia and Spain spend the entire summer trying to design their dream game plan of beating the United States, while Team USA plays catch up until the tourney itself. That isn’t fair to the Americans. But in this new universe, the USA will play in the AmeriCup to qualify for the World Cup and the Olympics. So, in the spirit of fairness to everyone, national teams can only practice during the continental tournament breaks. This also applies during Olympic AND World Cup years.
  • Pause the WNBA season during continental tournaments - Now that the USA is in AmeriCup AND that this tournament will happen around the same time as EuroBasket, AfroBasket, and the Asia Cup, it’s a lot easier for the WNBA to pause the season. It also encourages interested international players to play in America as well because these players can’t practice with their teams in extended training camps.
  • Hold WNBA All-Star games annually - We don’t want to see years where the WNBA doesn’t host an All-Star game just because of the Olympics or World Cup. Let’s do it every year. And when you have all of these other measures in place, you’ll see more international stars — like Meesseman — make the game because she would be available all season long.

WNBA and international professional team collaboration suggestions

  • Hold an annual FIBA/WNBA Women’s Club World Cup - FIFA holds a similar tournament with men’s soccer clubs as the champions of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas compete for a world title. In most years, the European champion wins easily because ... that’s where the most talent is. But so what? They still do this every year. The WNBA should also do the same thing with FIBA by holding a tournament where the WNBA champions play against the EuroBasket Women champions, Asian, African, and the South American champions. Sure, the WNBA will probably win most of the time. But these matches should be interesting to see. To add an interesting twist to this tournament, if a player was on the WNBA champion AND a EuroLeague champion for example, let’s default her to ... the EuroLeague team! That will create some interesting matchups and rivalries!
  • Hold an annual game between a WNBA runner up and a FIBA EuroCup champion - If the WNBA champion gets a spot in the FIBA Club World Cup, let’s give the WNBA runner up a chance to play against the FIBA EuroCup, or the continent’s second tier champion each and every year. Again, we’d allow WNBA players on the EuroCup team to play for the European team because it creates some interesting matchups.
  • Hold WNBA games overseas - The NBA already holds a few preseason and even regular games overseas in the UK, China, and Mexico. So why can’t this be duplicated with the WNBA? These games could be held in countries with a stronger women’s basketball presence like Spain, France, and Italy.

I think that by doing these things, we’ll see more international players willing to spend time in the WNBA, even if the salaries aren’t like what they could be in Europe or Asia. The WNBA also becomes a partner with FIBA and to some extent, the international teams that they feel ambivalent about. And for Mystics fans, it also keeps Emma Meesseman happy and more engaged with her home continent even when she’s playing on this side of the Atlantic.

Any other ideas on how to better integrate the international basketball system into the WNBA without getting into the topic of salaries? Let us know in the comments below.