Before the WNBA season started, reigning MVP Breanna Stewart landed awkwardly at the EuroLeague Final while playing for Dynamo Kursk and was immediately ruled out for the rest of 2019. Within 24 hours, the talking heads, blogs and websites, as well as WNBA Twitter – and even NBA Twitter – had their say.
While an injured league MVP is definitely newsworthy, it perhaps penetrated the mainstream outlets more than usual due to its relevance within the broader context of what will be taking place at the end of the season: collective bargaining agreement negotiations.
So far, the forthcoming negotiations have not affected the season. The main storylines this year have been Liz Cambage being incorporated into the Las Vegas Aces rotation, Minnesota Lynx’s hot start, and the Connecticut Sun taking the next step. Before it started, there were a handful of injuries that could have derailed the quality of play – Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Candace Parker and, of course, Stewart – but the league is still thriving.
The international component
Each of those star-quality players went down before the season started. However, Minnesota rookie Jessica Shepard tore the ACL in her right knee early in the season.
As a player with Notre Dame’s Final Four run in 2019, Shepard was playing until just days before the WNBA Draft and went straight into training camp after that.
While she obviously wasn’t earning money during college, the timing of Shepard’s injury compared to Stewart’s is perhaps another notch on the side of the ‘athletes should not play 12 months of the year’ argument.
The NBA wasn’t where it’s at now when it first started. The WNBA is going to take time.
It is well understood among WNBA team staff why their players have to compete in other leagues during the off-season, but that still doesn’t mean they are happy about it.
Speaking to Double Clutch, General Manager and Head Coach of the Lynx Cheryl Reeve said: “As an American, I would like to see the WNBA as the priority for any player. Whether it’s players who are natural born citizens of the US or whatever nationalities. The WNBA, just like the NBA, we’d like to see it as the highest destination; as the dream. Other leagues in the world are very good leagues but we have to flip it on its head. We cannot be the lowest paid of all the leagues. It cannot happen.”
Some players enjoy the opportunity to travel abroad. Imani McGee-Stafford enjoyed the cultural opportunities that came with playing internationally and said: “I love China. I love playing there, the food, the culture – all of it. One thing overseas basketball gives you is the ability to have confidence in yourself. The hard part of being an athlete, especially as a role player, is keeping your confidence high. When you go overseas, you’re like Jesus. You’re everything.”
And the high level of basketball overseas can help players develop, as Karlie Samuelson said: “Playing EuroLeague for the first time, it was kind of like playing my first year in the WNBA. The talent we were playing against was crazy. We played against Ekaterinburg, and I don’t know how many WNBA players they had, but even playing against other teams, it’s pretty crazy. When you lose games, you find a different part of yourself. It’s definitely made me stronger playing against those types of players.”
However, the high appreciation of women’s basketball away from home isn’t for everyone. The Connecticut Sun’s Courtney Williams travelled to Italy and Spain to play during the last WNBA off-season, but she prefers playing in the States. She said: “I don’t really like going overseas. It’s kind of what we have to do.”
After news of Stewart’s injury reached the US, Pablo Torre discussed the issue with Bomani Jones on ESPN’s High Noon, asking him whether the $56,000 salary Stewart received (according to High Post Hoops) was enough. Jones replied: “I’m pretty sure that her playing for Dynamo is her real job, and the WNBA is her secondary job… It’s kind of wild that American basketball players, regardless of gender, have to go overseas to really make money.”
Torre agreed by exclaiming, “we’re the EuroLeague” in reference to the WNBA’s global standing in women’s basketball.
"Just for PR reasons, you can't have the MVP of the league making print journalist reporter starting salary money. It's just a bad look."@pablotorre on Breanna Stewart tearing her achilles while playing overseas pic.twitter.com/xHHIdwRdih
— HIGH NOON (@HIGHNOONonESPN) April 17, 2019
Salary versus compensation
In response to a lot of the media criticism, the NBA PR team issued a statement that said: “There has recently been inaccurate information reported in the media regarding WNBA pay. In accordance with the CBA, the average compensation for WNBA players last season was $116,000. The top-paid player’s compensation was more than $187,000.”
But this didn’t sit quite right with McGee-Stafford, who told Double Clutch: “NBA PR wasn’t disputing how much we were getting paid. They were changing the conversation. Compensation includes benefits, includes housing and healthcare. It includes bonuses for players that win MVP or whatever. Compensation is a sum of all of those things. Salary is what you are being paid for your services. We have consistently been talking about salary.”
This is what negotiations are. One side, rightly or wrongly, highlights certain data points and information to suit their argument and secure a stronger deal for its stakeholders. Meanwhile, the other holds up contrasting information to win the dispute.
The people caught in the middle are arguably team employees, so front offices and coaching staff will find it difficult. They want the best for their players. The team needs to trust them to make the right decisions in order to be successful, but at the same time, they will be signing player contracts on behalf of the owners, and will be responsible for the competitive and financial success of the organisation.
Dallas Wings Head Coach Brian Agler is in wait-and-see mode: “The league is talking with the union, they’ll sort it out. It’s out of my control, so when something is out of my control I tend to move on and not give it much thought.”
Agler’s role means that he only has to deal with the cards that are dealt to him, whereas several head coaches in the league also act as general managers. James Wade has dual responsibilities with the Chicago Sky, so he is taking a more considered approach: “I have to respect the negotiations too much to comment on it. I have an open ear and an open mind to everything, but I’ll just leave it at that. I want to focus on being a basketball coach. [I’ll focus on the CBA] in the off-season when it’s time to address those things.”
Having only taken up the role this year, Wade’s delicacy on the matter is understandable. For Reeve, who has been part of the WNBA for nearly two decades, she knows that any situation, injury or dispute could act as a catalyst for more discussion throughout the season, and it needs to be addressed directly: “We won’t be able to escape the fact that there is light being shown on that conversation.
“It’s an interesting dynamic between the players and front office staff, because this is not like the NBA side when there’s millions and billions of dollars being spoken about. That’s a different fight to what these players are going through. These are women, these are people who are not promoted in the right way or given the same amount of resources, so this is more about equality in that way as opposed to actual pay. It’s about investing in women. Everyone wants to see it grow, so we’re all on the same team on that. We’re all on the same side. We must be different. We’re 20 years in so it has to change.”
With that being said, Reeve acknowledged that her GM/head coach role has to have balance: “It always comes down to [us versus them]. It’s unavoidable that there will be conversation around it, as there should be, but I know that both sides are in deep discussions.
“I can’t engage in details with the players about the CBA, from that standpoint the conversations are about what elements do owners and teams want versus the players, but every day in my life I want them to feel empowered, to speak out and use their voices. That’s my job as a coach and as a leader but then I have to put my franchise hat on for some of the things that might be being discussed, but we want the same thing.”
That thing is not a sweeping change into how the WNBA is structured. Not immediately anyway. The organisation and its players understand that solving every issue, gripe and complaint they have – whether it’s regarding pay, quality of life, growth in revenue and competition – won’t happen during the negotiations coming up after this season.
Williams said: “I think we need to take baby steps. Everything is not going to work itself out overnight or in one sit-down. If we can get some key points and get those things handled and get more things the next time around. It’s going to take time and as we continue to grow, those things will work itself out. The NBA wasn’t where it’s at now when it first started. The WNBA is going to take time. Taking this step forward now will lead to the second step, third step, fourth step. As we continue to make steps, we’ll get to where we need to be.”
There has been limited public animosity between the two sides yet. So hopefully the league and the Players Association put a vision for the future together long before there is any danger of a delay to start the season in 2020. Even the new WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert stated as such in her introductory press conference: “I think it is important that we reach an agreement with the players as we get into the 2020 season.”
Most players and staff are optimistic that the forthcoming negotiations wouldn’t cause issues during the current season. Williams said: “The CBA is kind of behind the scenes. People know about it but if you ask the average person I don’t think they’d know what it is. So I don’t think it’ll take away from headlines or the actual product.”
And McGee-Stafford agreed that, providing all the parties are left to do their jobs, there shouldn’t be an issue: “We just leave it to the people that have the platform to talk about it. And hopefully, throughout the season, the games will be more interesting than this conversation.”
The games certainly have been so far, and the audience is responding. According to ESPN Press Room, this year’s first three WNBA games averaged 413,000 viewers across ABC and ESPN2, which is an increase of 64% compared to 2018’s first four games on ESPN2. This is another reason the CBA needs addressing. But all these extra eyes also means the pressure of staying civil and keeping disagreements about negotiations out of the public sphere is higher.
While it might be best to just focus on baby steps, there are significant issues to be resolved during this round of negotiations, and the last thing the league and the players will want is unnecessary arguments in public to make all the new viewers turn off.
Feature photo – Chicago Tribune / Joshua Huston / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington