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Volume 23 No. 23
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Shared goals led WNBA, players to reach historic new labor deal

Player president Nneka Ogwumike said the CBA offers resources that could keep more players stateside.
Photo: getty images
Player president Nneka Ogwumike said the CBA offers resources that could keep more players stateside.
Photo: getty images
Player president Nneka Ogwumike said the CBA offers resources that could keep more players stateside.
Photo: getty images

Neither the players nor WNBA league officials threatened a lockout or a strike during the months of negotiations that resulted in a historic WNBA collective bargaining agreement that substantially increases pay and living conditions for the players, the union chief said last week.

 

“We knew we weren’t asking for something that was unattainable,” Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA Players Association, said. “We believed the league was going to come to the table with the same approach. That’s how the negotiations started.”

After extending the old CBA twice, the WNBA and the WNBPA last week unveiled a new eight-year labor agreement that provides substantial increases in the salary cap, average salary and maximum salary. The deal includes improvements in quality of life and work issues, including better air travel and hotel arrangements, as well as full maternity pay and increased childcare benefits.

Former Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert, who was named WNBA commissioner last May, led the talks for the league. The presence of women on both sides of the table helped tremendously in attaining benefits for player moms, Jackson said. 

“The fact that you wanted to ensure that a player moving to a new city and coming to a team with a child could have that second bedroom in the team-provided housing — everybody at the table understood we were not asking for a luxury,” Jackson said. “Those were not difficult conversations to have.”

Key elements of new CBA

■ Minimum of $750,000 in prize money for special competitions
■ Minimum of $1.6M in offseason league and team marketing agreements
■ 50-50 revenue sharing beginning with 2021 season
■ Unrestricted free agency available to players one year earlier
■ Individual hotel room accommodations for every player
■ Premium economy class status for all players for regular-season air travel
■ Players receive full salary while on maternity leave
■ Enhanced mental health benefits and resources
■ WNBA will work with affiliated sponsors to provide offseason job opportunities

The average salary will jump from about $75,000 to $130,000 and the maximum will nearly double from $117,5000 to $215,000. The overall salary cap will increase from $996,000 to $1.3 million. Those numbers are small when compared to the NBA or other major men’s leagues, but the WNBA has not been profitable and much of the coverage in the media last week centered on whether the league could afford the raises. 

It remains to be seen if the new deal can solve the problem that has long faced both the players and the league: that the best women basketball players in the world must play overseas for much of the year if they want to maximize their on-court earnings. Players have wanted to be able to play in their home country and have an offseason, and the league wants players to report to training camps on time, among other things.  

The new CBA provides incentives for players to stay in the U.S. when the season ends, but some will still go overseas, Engelbert acknowledged on a conference call with reporters last week. 

“While we expect some of our players to continue to play overseas in the offseason, we hope that the expanded compensation package and other offseason employment opportunities, including these possible coaching positions for some players, will create an environment where more players will prioritize the WNBA,” Engelbert said.

The labor deal includes financial incentives for players to stay in the states. The league and teams will provide a minimum of $1.6 million in offseason marketing agreements. Under that scenario, a star player could earn as much as $500,000 by receiving the $215,000 maximum salary for on-court play and the maximum of as much as $300,000 in offseason marketing.

Additionally, the league will firm up its reporting dates so that players playing overseas will get to the league on time or face penalties.

The top players in the WNBA can earn in the high six figures and into the seven figures in women’s basketball leagues in Europe and Asia. The seasons there generally start when the WNBA ends, but their conclusions often overlap with the beginning of WNBA training camp in the spring. The league and teams have been flexible in enforcing reporting dates, but that is going to change under the new agreement. 

Jackson said that was the most difficult part of the new agreement to negotiate for players. New penalties could mean that certain players who miss reporting dates will be suspended for the season. But those penalties don’t kick in until 2024 and the rules harden in 2025. 

Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks forward and player president of the WNBPA, said that whether players still go overseas to earn more money will be a personal decision and one she thinks will be dependent on where each player is in her basketball career. “But I think that’s exactly why the new CBA agreement has the new league marketing agreement, job opportunity, and team marketing agreement structures to ensure that players are not going overseas for no compensation in the offseason.”

The WNBA, Ogwumike noted, is young — only 23 years old — compared to the NBA and other men’s leagues and there hasn’t been much change in pay and working conditions over that time. “This CBA really serves as a catalyst to get to the resources that we want available to make more money over here, but we have to start somewhere. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

As the new labor deal was touted, the WNBA also announced the launch of the WNBA Changemakers, a sponsorship program that will align with companies that can help elevate the league across marketing, branding, and player and fan experience.

The inaugural Changemakers will include AT&T, Deloitte and Nike. In addition to highlighting the WNBA, the partners are committed to the bigger effort of women’s sports in general and women in society.