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The WNBA’s exclusivity is keeping it from reaching its full potential

Chicago Sky forward Diamond DeShields recently tweeted that the WNBA is very difficult to get into and more difficult to stay in. Team roster and league expansion can address her points.

Chicago Sky forward Diamond DeShields recently tweeted that playing in the WNBA is one of the most difficult jobs in the United States to get.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

On Feb. 18, Chicago Sky forward Diamond DeShields tweeted about how difficult getting — and keeping — a job as a WNBA player is:

DeShields makes a good point. Because of how the league is set up, it is difficult for players to get into the league and stay in. This should be true of every sports league on some level. But here’s why the WNBA’s particularly exclusive setup could be holding the league back instead of driving it forward:

Few roster spots available for new players

Each of the WNBA’s 12 teams must have a minimum of 11 players, though teams have the option to add a 12th player. Most teams choose to have 12 players for roster flexibility, meaning there are 144 roster spots available.

Besides the low number of spaces available, contracts are not guaranteed for first-round draft picks in the WNBA like their NBA counterparts. In the NBA, a first-round pick signs a two-year contract with team options for the third and fourth seasons. A team could renounce its first-round pick, but it rarely happens.

In the WNBA, contracts for first-round draft picks are not guaranteed according to the league’s current collective bargaining agreement. In fact, teams have sometimes cut first-round picks before opening day. The Washington Mystics cut LaSondra Barrett, the 10th overall pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft, and the Chicago Sky cut Toni Jankoska, the ninth overall pick of the 2017 Draft, before they even played one regular-season game. It is rare to see these situations happen, but a coach who prefers veteran rosters may waive a first-round pick because of a lack of available roster spots.

Veteran players aren’t safe, either

Since most WNBA contracts are not guaranteed, regular rotation players can be waived due to injuries so teams can free up that roster space to sign another player. Also, since most teams end up signing their first-round draft picks each year, that forces another player off the roster.

There are many young players, especially late draft picks, who are waived before opening day. But veterans also could have a tough time staying on teams because of the lack of roster spots. WNBA veteran guard Noelle Quinn retired earlier this month and became an assistant coach for the Storm. Quinn averaged under 3 points a game during each of the 2016-18 seasons, so it is possible that she may have been waived by Seattle if she decided to try to make the team again.

Quinn isn’t the only notable veteran who has been in a position like this. Longtime WNBA guard Ivory Latta wasn’t re-signed by the Washington Mystics, or any other team, when her most recent contract expired before the 2018 season. Latta averaged 8 points per game in 2017 and presumably had more left in the tank than Quinn. But she hasn’t found a roster spot or a training camp invite since then.

Two types of expansion can help

There are two things the WNBA can do to make the league less difficult to get into without hurting the quality of the product: increase the number of roster spots per team in the next collective bargaining agreement, and expand the WNBA itself.

WNBA rosters have been capped at 12 per team since the current collective bargaining agreement took effect in 2014. Before this expansion, rosters were capped at 11 players per team. One of the downsides of a small roster, whether there are 11 or 12 players per team, is that teams cannot hold 5-on-5 practices if a particular player is injured.

Expanding rosters to 13 or 14 players per team would give teams the flexibility to hold 5-on-5 practices without relying on assistant coaches or practice team players. It is true that a 13th or 14th woman on a team will not earn much playing time. But if there are injuries to key players, those players will already be familiar with the team’s systems, which could help a team weather injury woes more effectively than by signing players under injury hardships.

WNBA team expansion would address this issue in a different way. The WNBA has had 12 teams since 2010, and while no team was seriously in danger of folding, two teams — the Tulsa Shock and San Antonio Stars — relocated. Expanding the number of roster spots by increasing the number of teams will give additional opportunities for players to take on bigger roles than they could in a 12-team league.

The WNBA is the top women’s professional basketball league in the world, and it should be difficult to get in. However, the degree of difficulty of making and staying on a WNBA roster could also hold the league back from its potential. Hopefully, a combination of more roster spots per team and league expansion in the next collective bargaining agreement will help the WNBA continue to flourish for years to come.