SBJ/October 22 - 28, 2001/Labor Agents

Labor attorney Kessler: New WNBA structure would be a score for players

The NBA's proposal to restructure ownership of the WNBA to allow NBA team owners to take equity stakes in women's teams may be good news for players, said Jeffrey Kessler, a prominent sports labor attorney.

"It would be a wonderful thing for the players, and the main reason is these ... single entities have been terrible as a business model," said Kessler, who has worked as outside counsel to a number of player associations, including the NBA and WNBA players unions.

WNBA players currently negotiate their contracts with the league, meaning there's no competition for players among teams and resulting in the players being "poorly paid," Kessler said. Another reason WNBA salaries are low — estimated by the WNBA players association to average about $43,000 a year — is that "there are not enough revenues in the league," Kessler said.

SportsBusiness Journal reported earlier this month that league officials are considering the change in order to provide incentives for teams to operate more profitably and to increase team values. Although it is not clear exactly what form the new structure could take, such a change might enable players to negotiate with teams, instead of with the league.

Kessler said future WNBA team owners may want more say over players. "If you are an entrepreneur and you are interested in the team, you would want to have some control of the players you have because you want that team to be successful," he said.

The Women's National Basketball Players Association has formed a committee to study whether to reopen the current collective-bargaining agreement. The WNBA is in the last year of a four-year deal that gives both sides the ability to opt out if either side is not satisfied. However, the league cannot lock out players and players cannot strike in the last year.

More than 100 WNBA players meeting in New York in early September "expressed dissatisfaction on a number of issues, including salary, lack of free agency, severe marketing restrictions," said union spokesman Dan Wasserman. The players decided to form a committee to study the issue and have until Nov. 15 to opt out of the agreement, he said.

Pamela Wheeler, director of operations for the WNBA players union, said in a statement: "There has been a school of thought for some time that it would be preferable for the clubs to function with more autonomy with respect to a whole host of issues such as sponsorships, marketing, as well as player personnel decisions."

Paul Weiler, a professor who teaches sports law and labor law at Harvard Law School, said that giving individual team owners a stake in the league could make it possible for WNBA players to sue the league under federal antitrust laws.

But he added that he does not think an antitrust lawsuit is necessarily likely or advisable, because the players would also have to decertify the union to sue the league under antitrust laws. If they did that, they would "be giving up all of their [union] rights, including the right not to be fired if you are a union supporter."

SFX SIGNS ALEXANDER: SFX Football signed red-hot Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander for contract negotiations and marketing representation.

Alexander, picked 19th in the 2000 NFL draft, still has three years left on his contract with Seattle, but SFX will begin working on marketing projects for him right away, said Jim Steiner, director of SFX Football.

Steiner and SFX agent Mark Heligman will represent Alexander. He was formerly represented by agent Richard Katz.

RLR SIGNS BOWDEN: RLR Associates signed former Auburn coach and current ABC Sports college football analyst Terry Bowden for representation in broadcasting, as his multiyear deal with the network is set to expire next year.

"His ABC deal is coming up for a renegotiation, and we think that Terry's family name is certainly the biggest name in college football," said Gary Rosen, RLR vice president who will manage Bowden's career. "We think that Terry has the potential of becoming the biggest name in television when people think of college football."

Terry's father, longtime Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, is one of the winningest coaches of all time, and his brother, Tommy, coaches at Clemson.

Rosen said ABC and its sister company, ESPN, have been great about using Bowden in a variety of ways, and Bowden is interested in doing more in his new deal.

Bowden was formerly represented by IMG sports broadcast agent Sandy Montag.

IF SIGNS THOMPSON, JENSEN BROTHERS: IF Management signed former NBA player Mychal Thompson and tennis' Jensen brothers, Luke and Murphy, for representation in their broadcast careers.

Thompson, who played for the Lakers, Spurs and Trail Blazers, has broadcast experience on both television and radio, and has contributed to Grizzlies, Sonics and Trail Blazers broadcasts in the past.

The Jensens are probably best known for capturing the French Open doubles title in 1993. Luke Jensen is an analyst for ESPN.

IF agents Gideon Cohen and Howard Busch will manage Thompson's and the Jensen brothers' broadcast careers.

Please contact Liz Mullen with agent and labor news at lmullen@amcity.com.

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