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The 10 biggest takeaways from the WNBA’s new CBA

The WNBA and WNBPA have announced a “groundbreaking” new CBA. Here are the details on the most important policies and provisions.

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Members of the WNBPA executive committee — Layshia Clarendon, Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike — are pictured with Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and representatives for the new WNBA Changemakers partnership.
Photo courtesy of the WNBA

Soon after the WNBPA opted out of the previous CBA in the fall of 2018, WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike penned the following in The Players’ Tribune:

And I want [girls] to dream about the league that I know ours can become. A league that has a fair and consistent work environment. A league that treats its players as the world-class athletes they are. A league that invests in its future. A league that believes in us as much as we believe in it.

With Tuesday morning’s announcement of a new eight-year CBA, the WNBA and WNBPA have taken a significant step toward realizing Ogwumike’s vision. As stated by WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, “We approached these negotiations with a player-first agenda, and I am pleased that this agreement guarantees substantial increases in compensation and progressive benefits for the women of the WNBA.”

“We found common ground in areas that confirmed the league’s and the players’ intentions to not only make meaningful improvements in working conditions and overall professional experience, but also to improve the business with strategic planning and intentional marketing that will keep the WNBA front and center year-round,” Ogwumike added.

Here’s an analysis of the top 10 takeaways from the new CBA, with the aim of determining if the WNBA has entered the “new chapter” the players had hoped for:

Much more equitable pay

WNBA stars will now have the opportunity to earn more than $500,000 in cash compensation each season. Understandably, that is the headlining takeaway for the new CBA.

This potential big number is the product of an increase in annual base pay (with maximum possible salary increasing from $117,500 to $215,000), bonuses for performance-based awards, prize money from forthcoming in-season competitions (more on that below) and new league and team marketing opportunities. Other top players can earn $200,000 to $300,000 in total compensation, with league-average cash compensation estimated to be $130,000. So yes, increased compensation for all players is excellent news (and long-overdue)!

However, these terms appear to demonstrably advantage star players. Stars certainly deserve more. It is the Sue Birds, Breanna Stewarts, Elena Delle Donnes, Candace Parkers and Liz Cambages who most drive interest in the league, both on the court and off. Yet, as Ogwumike emphasized in The Players’ Tribune, she is “one of 144 WNBA players.”

Does the new CBA equitably serve all 144 women in the league?

For the first time in league history, the average salary will be in the six figures. Yet, because maximum compensation can exceed $500,000 and average compensation is estimated to be $130,000, a not-significant population of players will be totaling not much more than $100,000 in annual compensation. While the top-line numbers are exciting, it is important to recognize that the majority of WNBA players will not be bringing home the big, big bucks. As new policies also might curtail overseas opportunities (more on that below), the disparity between the league’s superstars and and broader pool of players deserves monitoring.

Much less burdensome travel

Due to the power of social media, the often brutal travel experiences of WNBA teams have received increased attention in recent seasons. In 2018, the Las Aces Vegas elected to forfeit a game against the Washington Mystics in D.C. following a harrowing airport experience. This past season, Los Angeles Sparks head coach Derek Fisher used his Instagram feed to highlight the travel travails normal to WNBA teams.

As an indication of the impact of this increased awareness, the league provided teams with cost-covered charter flights for for Game 1 of the semifinals in the 2019 WNBA playoffs, and the new CBA reflects the effectiveness of public documentation of their travel troubles.

The new CBA mandates Premium Economy seating for all players for regular-season flights. A Player Advisory Panel will work with the league to address any travel concerns that arise, suggesting the possibly that the necessity of charter flights will be adjudicated fairly. Players also will enjoy upgraded hotel accommodations, with all players receiving their own room for away games.

In short, the new CBA goes along way toward ensuring that WNBA players travel like the professionals they are.

A freer free agency

Free agency has overstated the degree to which WNBA players have had the freedom to control their careers. Under the previous CBA, a player would enter unrestricted free agency after six years. Even then, the “core” player designation often prevented the league’s best from taking their talents to a new team.

With the new CBA, free agency will become freer incrementally. Players now will reach unrestricted free agency after five years and they will only be subjected to “coring” three times instead of the previous four. Beginning in 2022, teams will be able to “core” a player only twice.

While these changes might encourage more player movement, such potentially attention-grabbing offseason action is not why they are important. These changes are important because they provide players with the increased ability to chose (or not chose) to make moves. A freer free agency reflects a recognition of the players’ right to exercise control over their careers.

The possibility of greater revenue sharing

On the new CBA, WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson stated:

With cautious optimism and trusting the league’s renewed commitment and investment, the players demonstrated a willingness to ‘lean in’ themselves and show an even greater commitment and investment in the W.

The renegotiated revenue sharing terms testify to the “commitment and investment” that Jackson describes.

Previously, WNBA players received an estimated 20 to 30 percent of league revenue, a split that starkly contrasted with the approximately 50-50 arrangement between the NBA and its players’ association. Now, WNBA players have the opportunity to secure an equal share of league revenue. As outlined in the WNBA’s press release, a new 50-50 revenue sharing deal begins with the 2021 season and will be “based on the league achieving revenue growth targets from broadcast agreements, marketing partnerships and licensing deals.”

Thus, the new agreement incentivizes players to redouble their “commitment and investment.” In other words, players may be able to get paid fairly for the unpaid promotional work they already are doing. Conversely, by allowing for equal revenue sharing, the league is showing its appreciation of the players’ promotional work.

The promise of the WNBA Changemakers partnership

WNBA Changemakers further highlights the league’s invigorated “commitment and investment.” With this initiative, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert appears to be flexing her corporate muscle, using her cachet in the world of big business to entice blue-chip corporations to partner more closely with the WNBA. Nike, AT&T and Deloitte (where Engelbert formerly served as CEO) are the inaugural partners.

The WNBA’s press release explains:

The Changemakers platform is designed to provide direct support to the WNBA in its ongoing business transformation across marketing, branding, and player and fan experience. With a fresh approach to sports sponsorship, Changemakers are deeply invested in driving positive change for the WNBA, women’s sports, and women in society. Not only are partners providing financial investment, but they are further lifting the league and players through marketing amplification and close strategic collaboration. This group of leaders is redefining what it means to live organizational values through business partnerships.

While details are not yet prevalent, the possibilities nonetheless sound promising. These big businesses possess the power to boost the WNBA and other women’s sports.

The intrigue of an in-season tournament

To its credit, the WNBA hasn’t been afraid to experiment. Unencumbered by the overly-precious traditionalism that often inhibits innovation in men’s sports, the WNBA willingly has tried new things to improve the game. An in-season tournament — the Commissioner’s Cup — represents the WNBA’s latest intriguing experiment.

Slated to debut in the 2020 season, certain games will be designated Commissioner’s Cup games, with results also tabulated in a separate Cup standings. The top two teams will play for the Commissioner’s Cup. In 2021, a pool of prize money will make this experiment more exciting. During the 2019 season, several new rivalries (often involving the ever-feisty Las Vegas Aces) began to burble. An additional, well-compensated competition should encourage more intense on-court action.

Call it the “Kristi Toliver Rule”

A little over one year ago, the New York Times exposed the absurdly low salary Kristi Toliver received for serving as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards. The new CBA rectifies Toliver’s situation, allowing any WNBA player who spends her offseason coaching in the NBA to be paid market rate. The WNBA also intends to encourage the NBA and other leagues to consider WNBA players as candidates for coaching opportunities.

Together, these provisions should help to establish a qualified, diverse and representative pool of coaching candidates, ensuring that WNBA coaches eventually look more like WNBA players.

Support for moms who ball

Somewhat shockingly, the previous CBA did not include anything about maternity leave or benefits. Motherhood and family planning guarantees represent some of the most promising, progressive elements of the new CBA. First, players are entitled to their full salary when on maternity leave. Second, players with children will receive an annual childcare stipend of $5,000 and two-bedroom apartments. Teams also will provide in-arena accommodations for nursing mothers. And veteran players can receive up to $60,000 in reimbursements for costs related to adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing and fertility treatments.

Shout-out to Skylar Diggins-Smith, in particular, for unabashedly voicing the challenges she encountered as she became a mom while striving to maintain her All-Star-level WNBA career.

Support for the well-being of all

The new CBA responds to players’ calls for mental health support. Last summer, Liz Cambage shared her struggles with mental health, asking, in regard to the NBA’s recently-announced mental health memo, “I mean ... doesn’t the WNBA deserve this same program? Along with “enhanced” mental health resources, the new CBA provides “optimize[d]” nutritional resources, reflecting a recognition of the connection between mental health and physical health.

The WNBA also is introducing a forward-thinking response to domestic violence concerns and incidents. According to the WNBA’s press release, the league is establishing “an augmented and holistic domestic/intimate partner violence program that includes education and counseling.” On the entirety of the new CBA, Commissioner Engelbert said, “We’ve really gone all out here. We’re making a big bet on this league, a big bet on women, and that in professional sports, that the WNBA can lead the way.”

Based on the new policies, the WNBA is, truly, betting on women — and not just on women basketball players. Instead of demanding that players sacrifice their well-being to be women athletes, the league is allowing its players to be women and athletes, understanding and addressing the messy, complicated experiences that all women, including those that play professional basketball, sometimes struggle through.

A change to overseas opportunities?

As outlined in the New York Times, “In exchange for [increased compensation] and other benefits is a new requirement that will be gradually phased in: Players must be in WNBA training camps from the start. No more reporting late, or even after the season begins, to finish commitments to clubs overseas, with exceptions built in only for national team play and players in their first three seasons.”

Oftentimes, playing overseas is mentioned somewhat pejoratively. Yet, we are talking about women athletes who love basketball. Some might not love going to play overseas, but some might, especially non-American players. So, while the WNBA’s increasing of player compensation is an absolute positive, the way the increase discourages or even prevents players from playing overseas is not an uncontested positive. Such restrictions could drive some players out of the WNBA, especially those who do not earn above-average compensation.

“We had to be incredibly innovative with this,” Ogwumike noted of this change. “And to be honest, with what the league wanted, we understood that it would take some novel change to get the league where we want it to go. We wanted to ensure that it is still allowing players the opportunity to get the salaries that we are used to getting in both markets while also phasing in a system that will hold the league as a certain priority.”

As overseas leagues feature teams owned and managed by sometimes curious, impetuous characters, this change could have unintended, even detrimental, consequences.

The new CBA is a triumph

The WNBA’s CBA has been described as “progressive,” “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary.”

It is.

But even as the new CBA allows the WNBA to enter the “new chapter” called for by Ogwumike and the WNBPA, progress must be sustained, new ground must be broken and the revolution must continue.