Despite building up great momentum with increased ratings, new fans and the best season the league has ever seen, the WNBA players’ association (WNBPA) is willing to put a halt on competition and opt out of its collective bargaining agreement (CBA). For the 2019 season, games will continue, but unless the league and the players can come to some agreement, 2020 could be in jeopardy for all the new #WNBAintheUK fans.
This is nothing new to those that have followed the NBA in recent years: the league has dealt with work stoppages twice. The first occasion was in 1998. Michael Jordan had just retired and the players’ association (NBPA) didn’t have a lot of leverage. As a result, the NBA became the first US professional sports league to install a salary cap for teams and players, and the lockout was considered a major win for the owners.
The second time came in 2011, when the NBA had recovered its reputation from the previous lockout and a tough period of not great basketball and large-scale fights. LeBron James had emerged as a great personality to market the league around, in comparison to the more polarising Kobe Bryant (even with James having just made The Decision). There were also exciting teams like the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns that had made the game more watchable in comparison to the slow, grind-it-out style of the 1990s. With income ready to pour in, the owners blinked and the NBPA won the second round of CBA negotiations, being granted 50% of all basketball related revenue.
The WNBA is somewhere in between these two scenarios. The league is not considered profitable as a standalone business, but the play has never been better and the interest this year is cresting into a wave of new fandom.
The NBA owns a large percentage of the WNBA, and as a result the income figures are harder to decipher. Some WNBA teams have direct ties to an NBA counterpart, while others stand alone. The leagues share marketing, and the WNBA major network coverage is usually a throw-in on the back of the NBA broadcast rights – and many fans feel ESPN has buried it on sister channels in recent years.
A recently-dismissed Forbes contributor estimated that the players are paid somewhere between 20-25% of all basketball related income, compared to the 50% that NBA players earn. As a consequence, the greatest female basketball players in the world have to earn more by playing for other leagues around the world in between WNBA season because they often offer more money. These leagues occasionally cause clashes – some European competitions are still going at the start of WNBA season – and players are having to take on a year-long workload to earn enough to survive.
Some overseas teams – such as UMMC Ekaterinburg with Diana Taurasi in 2015 – have paid players to sit out WNBA seasons. Other players have avoided competing regardless of being paid to do so, simply because they need to rest their bodies – much like Emma Meesseman did this past season when her Washington Mystics needed her to compete in the WNBA Finals.
The average WNBA salary is roughly $70,000 (which equates to around £45,000). This is considered the average wage for someone with a higher education in the US. It’s a liveable income, but contracts are short and it is still greater than half of what the players could earn if the league offered equal share of the income as the NBA does.
A better way of life
A huge issue for the players has nothing to do with salary. For those who decide against playing elsewhere during the WNBA offseason, there are few ways to stay in shape. Playing to the highest level is a tough task, which is made even harder by lack of facilities.
Technically, franchises are under no obligation to open the gym for their players, but the practice courts are not even available. The WNBA teams often share courts with college teams, G League franchises or training spaces for NBA teams. They have to pay to join gyms to stay fit, and they have to beg schools and local community courts to open so they can work on their game – as Bleacher Report’s Mirin Fader in her story about Layshia Clarendon of the Connecticut Sun.
— Carolyn Swords (@CarolynSwords) August 3, 2018
Travel is also an issue. In the final few weeks of the season, the Las Vegas Aces’ had a 25-hour delay on the way to play the Washington Mystics. The team arrived in DC just hours before the game, and the league pushed tip-off back an hour to give the athletes more time, but the Aces expressed concern for their health and the risk of injury, so they didn’t play. The WNBA decided that the game would be a forfeit for Las Vegas as the team was in Washington but refused to compete. The Aces were in the hunt for a final playoff spot, and eventually missed out by a single game.
Cancelling games in the WNBA is unusual, but flight issues are not, in large part because teams have to fly on commercial airlines. While cancellations and delays happen, causing players to be tired and not perform at their best, the major struggle is the fact that they have to fit in seats clearly not built to support them. When you have a 6’9 Brittney Griner trying to squeeze her legs into a standard space over the course of three or four flights per week, the strain it puts on her body can’t be helping her performance or long term health.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addressed this in an interview with espnW and discussed the cost compared of private flights compared to the league’s income: “I think the players are being realistic there, too. What they are saying is there may be particular instances where we should be using charter planes, where it’s just so difficult to get from city A to city B.”
So, what next?
Play will continue as normal next year. When the 2019 season rolls around, you can expect to see most of your favourite WNBA players suiting up for their teams. But the CBA negotiations will be a major storyline.
While limited progress is expected to be made before the season, meetings should take place once everything is up and running and it will be a focus going into the playoffs and the off-season.
In comparison to the NBA lockouts, the negotiating parties are not being led by people with big egos and a long combative history. While David Stern did wonders for the league when he was Commissioner, and the then NBPA Executive Director Billy Hunter represented players with the zeal and passion you’d expect from a former American Football player, they were both known as stubborn guys.
Unfortunately, we don’t fully know who will be at the negotiating table. Terri Jackson started as the Executive Director two years ago. She has so far not approached the limelight in the same way Hunter did, but understands the importance of supporting players just as well – with her son Jaren recently being drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies.
But as far as representing ownership, the WNBA is currently relying on Mark Tatum. He took on the post as the interim person in charge – working up from his deputy post – after Lisa Borders moved on to the sexual harassment non-profit Time’s Up. A new President is expected to be announced before the 2019 season.
So with all this in the air and so much to lose, is now the best time to opt out? Los Angeles Sparks power forward and WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike explained why it is in her Players Tribune piece.
Should the players get a better contract? Yes. Will they get it? Probably. Will it be what they deserve? That seems unlikely. But if the league and its players can avoid a work stoppage, enough strides could be made now to lay the groundwork for better a fair deal and a more profitable business in the not-too-distant future.
Featured photo – via Earl Wilson / New York Times / Associated Press / Double Clutch illustration