First in this offseason alone, WNBA teams have lost four All-Star caliber or better players due to injuries suffered during this offseason and/or as a result from the continuous grind of year round play who are Sophia Young, Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, and Asjha Jones.
Sure, this is could be a fluke year with injured stars sitting out this season, but this ultimately points at a problem that the WNBA has, even with League President Laurel Richie promoting that the league is taking its next step. The WNBA claims that it is the best women's professional basketball league in the world, yet it's not paying its best players like it is. According to the league union's CBA, which expires after this season, the maximum salary is $107,500.00 if a player is a qualifying free agent with 6 years with her most recent team, while it is $105,000.00 for other players.
As a result, top players have to play overseas where players, in particular top stars, can earn salaries and incentives that are considerably more (multiple times more) than maximum WNBA salaries as per Michele Steele in an article on ESPN last year. In this article, Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings, who is also the union presidents said that she would prefer to play in the WNBA only, but that "at the end of the day, it's definitely a business decision." In addition, she talks about her own injuries and the issues that come with playing overseas.
Bottom line, even with the league entering into a new era with new rookies who may or may not pan out, rules to make the game entertaining, and #iamlogowoman, the basketball that the WNBA provides is the most important thing for the league. Who cares about these marketing tactics if the basketball is not being cultivated and developed at its optimal level when players are playing elsewhere in order for their own financial security, at least to their liking?
Besides, the WNBA "Big Three" may be fun to see this summer, but they too, as well as the other rookies in this draft class will probably be playing overseas when the NBA season starts assuming nothing major happens, and if and when they get injured overseas or have nagging ailments later on in their careers and have to sit out the WNBA season because they'd lose less money than doing the same with overseas leagues, we will likely be talking about this same topic once again.
A possible remedy to curb year round play
One possible way to give an incentive to players, in particular star players considerably higher salaries to soften the salary cap rules in some form and allow teams to pay higher salaries to players. Currently the WNBA team salary floor is $869,000 and the maximum salary cap is $913,000 for this season according to the CBA.
In Major League Soccer, there are up to 30 players on a team and in 2012 the top 20 roster spots had a maximum salary cap of $2,810,000.00. However, up to three players can be called designated players, where a portion of their salaries would count against the cap depending on age, and the team could negotiate a much higher salary for them even if the total salary paid is above the cap. This is colloquially known as the "Beckham Rule" where British soccer star David Beckham signed a five year multi million dollar contract with the LA Galaxy in 2007 under this provision.
I have pointed out the suggestion of a Beckham Rule for the WNBA in comments in the past, but with only 11 roster spots a team, it only makes sense that each team designate only ONE player as a designated player assuming they choose to use it at all. Also if such a rule were implemented, it also makes sense that a player could feasibly make considerably more than $107,500.00 a year though that would presumably be the "cap hit." Lastly, any player that is a designated player should not be allowed to play overseas for another professional team under any circumstances. That's what this is here for.
While this sounds great in theory, there are cons. First, most of the rank and file and still many above average WNBA players will still have to play overseas. Second, we've also pointed out that most WNBA teams aren't profitable. Dishing out half a million dollars or more to one player may presumably increase losses. Third, with no theoretical maximum salary, this favors the richest WNBA team owners assuming they are willing to throw large dollar contracts at WNBA stars, like Jim Dolan for the Liberty, Ted Leonsis for the Mystics, and the Mohegan Sun for the Sun though this is not totally exhaustive. The team owners that are presumed to be the smallest, meaning those for the Seattle Storm, Atlanta Dream, and the Los Angeles Sparks, may be at a disadvantage if their top stars want to be designated since they may not be able to afford them if let's say, Candace Parker wants $1,000,000 a year from LA. And all three of these aforementioned teams have players who are worthy of being designated, at least in my opinion, like Parker. Fourth, the problem with designated players is with trades. Sure, the cap hit may not be large, but if a designated player was traded, she probably could only go to another team that can afford to pay her entire salary, which once again may shut out Atlanta, LA, and Seattle unless they presumably secure some major sponsorships to help pay those players. Lastly, like any other major player contract, it's always possible that designated players can't live up to the value of their deals due to underperformance which would "kill" their trade value.
The WNBA claims that it is entering a new era in large part due to its rookie class and augmented by its new logo campaign and new rules that should reflect a more athletic style of play. However, in light of star player injuries, and other notable players skipping the WNBA season in recent years and opting to play only overseas so they can have a break, this league needs to understand that without proper player compensation to star players, the WNBA is not going to be the premier women's professional basketball league in the world and may be a minor league to the EuroLeague in the long term. American players may feel sentimental about playing in the US, but at the end of the day, they're going to do what is best for their personal long term futures and I can't blame them.
I do think that a "Beckham Rule" type concept is something worth looking into with the next CBA but I also wonder how it may affect that smaller ownership groups as well. The WNBA has a very strong interest in making sure that its top players are healthy and playing during the season to the extent possible. Sure, it's not going to be cheap to keep the top stars in the W and still some very good players will likely have to keep playing year round but this may be a way to get a head start on ensuring that the WNBA remains the top league in women's professional basketball over the long term.