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WNBA's new collective bargaining agreement reflects owners' interest in limiting offseason play in foreign leagues

WNBA president Laurel Richie spoke with media on Friday about the league's new collective bargaining agreement, including the importance of figuring out how to limit players' overseas play.

Hannah Foslien

It was clear from the beginning what the WNBA Players Association's priority was in collective bargaining negotiations with the WNBA's ownership: an expansion of rosters from 11 to 12 players.

They ultimately got that - plus undisclosed salary increases - in the recently finalized agreement, which WNBA president Laurel Richie discussed with media on Friday.

"We knew going in that that was very important to players," Richie said when asked about the financial implications of adding a player to the roster. "So we wanted to see if, through the process, we could create the possibility of a 12th player and we're happy that we were able to do that."

A WNBA spokesman clarified by email that teams are not mandated to add a 12th player, meaning that teams don't have to incur the extra cost that includes more than just the salary - as Richie mentioned during the call, "It is also the benefit of housing and a whole host of other things." As such, the league's hardship rule - which allows teams to sign additional players if their number of available players drops below nine players - thus changes only to require that a team must first fill their 12th spot before it applying for an emergency exception.

All-in-all though, the 12th player is a win for both the WNBAPA and front offices: the availability of an extra spot means more available jobs for players while the option of adding a 12th player gives teams a bit more flexibility, no matter how small, in holding on to fringe players who might help in the event of injury. Yet as much as that was an important negotiating point for the players, the league's priority was figuring out how to address the matter of players going overseas during the offseason to supplement their modest (by pro sports standards) WNBA salary.

"The notion of really trying to find a way to both recognize the overseas play but offer an incentive to players to limit their overseas play was very important to our ownership group," Richie said when asked about the league's priority during negotiations. "So for us that was a very important point and we're glad that we were able to reach an agreement in that area."

Under the previous CBA with 11-player rosters, the league's average salary was $72,000 with the minimum being $36,570. Overseas, a star player can make about eight times the WNBA's league average. Although that obviously takes a toll on players' bodies - if only evidenced by the number of players who have missed WNBA seasons as a result injuries sustained overseas - there's no way the league can compete with the salaries players make overseas at this point in its development.

But the league has made an attempt in their latest CBA negotiations by offering players a time-off bonus if they choose to limit overseas play.

"That is $50,000 per team, per year," Richie said when asked about the time off bonus. "That can be one player, that can be more than one player. The only restriction or guideline is that the player agrees to limit their overseas play from 0 to 90 days. So we think that's a great way to, from our standpoint, acknowledge that there's a market for players going overseas and we wanted to offer an incentive for players to stay stateside or limit their overseas play during our offseason."

Richie was clear that they wanted to allow the teams some flexibility in how they use that bonus, however there remains a question about just how significant a factor this will be in accomplishing the owners' goal of limiting players' time overseas.

Although $50,000 would double the salary of lower-end players under the old CBA, it's still a fraction of what a good player can make while playing in foreign leagues. That fraction would be diminished if a team had more than one player who might benefit from the bonus. And with a apologies to the 11th (and 12th) players on the league's rosters, they're probably not a team's top priority: Swish Appeal has also learned that the bonus will count against a team's salary cap in the "Salary Cap Year" that it's granted, meaning that it's not something to be doled out lightly.

By no means will the bonus time off more attractive than playing for more than 90 days, but it's also worth noting that it's not hard to think of options that players have during the offseason that could make one a candidate for such a bonus.

As just a few examples, aside from being physically unable to play:

  • Star rookies Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins have spent their first WNBA offseasons wuppin on Kevin Hart doing charity and promotional activities for various causes.
  • Washington Mystics veteran Ivory Latta and Tulsa Shock wing Nicole Powell are assistant coaches for tournament-bound college teams.
  • Connecticut Sun guard Kara Lawson continues her work as an ESPN analyst.
  • Indiana Fever Tamika Catchings has just decided to dedicate herself to the WNBA this offseason.

Assuming a team deems a player worthy of a bonus, there are certainly instances where you can imagine it being a reason to limit their foreign play.

In addition to incentivizing players to limit offseason play, the league is moving toward aggressively dissuading players from skipping WNBA commitments in favor of their more lucrative commitments.

This season, the league plans to implement "penalties" in the form of fines for players who miss any regular season or playoff game. Next season, the league will add penalties for missing training camp, not an uncommon occurrence as players wrap up their seasons overseas.

"As this unfolds there will be penalties for missing games - whether that's a regular season game or a playoff game - and not this year, but starting next year, for missing training camp, there's some repercussions for that," Richie said. "And that is for any reason. Whether that is playing for a team overseas or leaving in the middle of the season for playing wit a national team."

With the World Championships coming up in late September, we could see the impact of that before the offseason.

The question that remains to be seen is how much this two-pronged combination of incentives and deterrents will actually help the league accomplish the goal of persuading players to limit their time playing during the offseason: which players will be interested in a bonus? Which players will teams be interested in giving a bonus to? How will the salary cap implications limit teams' decisions?

Obviously, there will be 12 different answers to those questions that we won't truly find out until the next offseason. But even the addition of the bonus along with a 12th roster spot is encouraging for those trying to diagnose the vitality of the league: the owners have agreed to create a framework for spending more in the interest of improving the product. And all the league needs to stay alive is committed owners.

For more on the CBA, check out our storystream with commentary and highlights of the agreement.