Eight years ago, Priscilla Annabel Karen, now 24, would regularly shoot hoops on a court near her house in Bekasi. One day, her brother invited her to play at GOR Rawamangun in East Jakarta. She didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of her pro basketball career.
“Before I started playing, Scorpio Jakarta was conducting a training session. [After their session] the club’s coach ordered his assistant to observe me. The assistant approached me and asked if I had joined any club,” Karen said, recalling the start of her journey to the big leagues.
It’s a different story for 25-year-old Yuni Anggraeni, for whom competitive basketball began in junior high school in her hometown of Purworejo, Central Java. At the age of 14, she was picked for Sahabat Semarang’s junior team, though she only spent a short time there in the beginning.
“I was afraid because I felt lonely and lived far away from my parents. I only spent two weeks [with the team] and then I went home,” Yuni said.
However, one year later, her passion for the game brought her back to Sahabat Semarang.
Juggling sports and studies is a never-ending struggle, with both Karen and Yuni often finding themselves at a crossroads of having to pursue their passion or the promise of a steady career a university degree may afford.
Their eyes were evidently set on the net, as both eventually prioritized the court to respectable degrees of sporting success.
It took Karen eight years of playing basketball to reach her desired goal: earning a call up to the senior national team.
“In 2015 I was called up for the SEA Games but I didn’t join because I was preparing for high school exams. I didn’t participate in the 2017 SEA Games either. I was determined to become part of the senior squad for the 2018 Asian Games and I was finally selected,” she said.
For Yuni, her best moment was when she led the Central Java women’s team to the gold medal in the 2016 National Games (PON).
“We were expected to maintain our previous achievement [her team secured gold in 2012]. It took a lot of effort to make our dream come true. I was also the captain of my team and I had to be a role model for my younger teammates,” she said.
Unfortunately, Yuni didn’t compete in the 2018 Asian Games due to a debilitating anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury in her right knee.
“Normally, it takes six months to recover. But in my case, I didn’t play for a year. I haven’t fully healed. Sometimes I still feel pain on my knee and it becomes swollen. I still undergo physical therapy,” she said.
Today, with the Srikandi Cup — the only professional basketball competition for women in Indonesia — ground to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yuni is writing her thesis while maintaining her fitness, which includes training with a limited number of teammates. Meanwhile, Karen is trying to balance her thesis writing with a home workout program.
The downtime from competitive basketball is undoubtedly frustrating, as female players’ time at the top is limited by social expectations and financial constraints in the game.
Tipped for short-term success
Most Indonesian female basketball players retire before the age of 30. Eko Widodo, senior sports journalist and basketball commentator, said many female players see no reason to continue playing beyond that age.
“In several conversations I’ve had with them, they told me they prefer to retire early, find a job, and then get married. I think they may also be influenced by the assumption that the period between 20 and 30 is the best time for a woman to have a child,” Eko said.
This is best exemplified by the fact that Scorpio Jakarta guard Mirantti, who turns 31 in September, is the only player over 30 in this year’s edition of Srikandi Cup.
By comparison, male players plying their trade in the Indonesian Basketball League (IBL) — the country’s highest-level club competition — have the privilege to play well into their 30s. The competition’s oldest player, Pacific Caesar Surabaya’s Donny Ristanto, is 42 this year.
Yuni theorized that the majority of female players opt for early retirement because many employers in Indonesia set an age limit for job applicants, even though the practice is technically illegal.
“Some companies prefer to hire younger people. Also, it’s not easy to find a job,” she said.
There are some outliers — women who were afforded the opportunity by their employers to continue their basketball careers. This was the case for Wulan Ayuningrum, a 35-year-old former player who currently works for a private company. In 2015, at 30, she decided to retire from basketball to work full time. After three years, she briefly came out of retirement.
“I made a comeback in 2018 because I wanted to participate in the Asian Games. Unfortunately, I wasn’t summoned to the national team,” Wulan said.
In 2019, Wulan was called up to compete in the SEA Games and helped her team win a bronze medal, showcasing how her workplace had played an important role to smooth her journey to the biennial Southeast Asian multi-sport event.
“To participate in the SEA Games, I was allowed to take paid leave for one year,” she said.
Money appears to be one of the main stumbling blocks in further developing female basketball in Indonesia. Despite being the country’s only professional basketball competition for women, Srikandi Cup’s operating costs are mostly covered by participating clubs, with the Indonesian Basketball Association (Perbasi) only in charge of assigning referees.
Deddy Setiawan, Srikandi Cup coordinator and the owner of Merpati Bali, said that many clubs have struggled to find sponsors.
“Since its inception [in 2017], the competition and the clubs have lacked sponsors. Clubs are mostly funded by personal money, not investors,” Deddy said.
Limited resources are preventing clubs from paying their players decently. A far cry from the glamor of established leagues, Srikandi Cup players are paid as little as half of the provincial minimum wage.
According to Wulan, at the peak of her career in 2013-2015 with the Tomang Sakti Mighty Bee, she received a base monthly salary of IDR5.5 million (US$390 by today’s exchange rate), putting her in the higher echelon of earners.
“In 2018, there was a player who was younger than me — not a rookie, but a 28-year-old with nine years of experience — who was offered a monthly salary of IDR3.5 million by a club in Jakarta. She preferred to join another club,” she said.
In 2018, Jakarta’s minimum provincial wage was IDR3.6 million.
“At the time, rookies in Jakarta were offered an average monthly salary of around IDR1.5 million,” she added, while acknowledging that despite the low pay, rookies and seniors often receive many incentives including accommodation, transportation, and even scholarships from their clubs.
“It is impossible for many club owners to pay female players IDR10 million monthly because women’s basketball is not profitable compared to the men’s competition.”
IBL, considered the most elite of basketball competitions for men in Indonesia, has state-owned oil and gas firm Pertamina as its main sponsor, thus affording the opportunity for players to earn decent wages and make a living from the game.
Unlike Srikandi Cup, IBL is privileged in that its current predicament is not the lack of funds to pay players, rather ensuring that clubs don’t have too much of a financial advantage over others.
“First, we have to set how much money is allowed to be spent on player salaries for any given league year. And then we will set minimum and maximum wage. We should regulate a salary cap to prevent big clubs from overspending,” IBL Director Junas Miradiarsyah said.
In 2017, Satria Muda Pertamina Jakarta’s Arki Dikania Wisnu signed a four-season contract with a monthly salary of US$3,000, making him the most expensive player in the league. Based on news reports from recent years, an IBL player earning at least IDR10 million a month is the norm, with the exception of rookies and bench players, who have to work their way up to higher salary brackets.
Srikandi’s not enough
Over the last five years, the women’s national basketball team has shown significant progress. In the last three SEA Games, the team managed to bring home a medal, though they fell short of clearing the last hurdle.
In junior levels, Indonesia notably ranked seventh out of eight in the 2018 FIBA Women’s Under-18 Asian Championship Division A in India. The achievement represented a steady rise for the team, which was crowned champions of Division B in the same tournament in Bangkok two years prior.
However, these achievements have not been followed by improvement in the women’s domestic basketball competition. In the three years since it was first established, Srikandi Cup has faced many challenges.
“In the last two seasons, the quality of the game has greatly improved. Unfortunately, women’s basketball still hasn’t attracted enough public interest,” Eko said.
This is partly due to the competition’s irregular schedule, in which each season consists of games that are crammed into four five-day series, making it difficult for them to attract a consistent stream of spectators to venues.
“As a result, there are more fans who come on the weekends than weekdays. Also, more people are watching the game on [Srikandi Cup’s] YouTube channel than going to the stadiums,” Eko added.
Right now, the Srikandi Cup is the most elite women’s competition in Indonesia. Nevertheless, it’s not enough to rely on one competition to develop women’s basketball.
“There should be more competition for women,” Yuni said.
“Players need a lot of competition because the more games they play, the better they become. If the Srikandi Cup could be played three times a year, it might be better for the development of women’s basketball,” Eko said.
For Deddy, the bottom line for the success of the competition, and for women’s basketball in general, is money.
“If there are more sponsors, we can create better competition. Due to the current COVID-19 situation, the clubs are struggling to even cover operational costs. As for me, the last time I paid the salary of my players was in March,” he said.