The WNBA and the players’ union announced Tuesday that they have come to tentative terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. We don’t yet have full details on the new CBA, but the document is expected to be released publicly, likely later this week. The WNBA and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association had been negotiating since the players in 2018 opted out early from the previous agreement, which then ended after the 2019 season. Here are some of the main things the new agreement will address.
1. Did the players mostly get what they were hoping for?
It seems like they did. Players knew there wouldn’t be drastic increases in salary, but there will be what appear reasonable increases. The 53 percent raise in total cash compensation is a way to reward top players a lot but all players some, and that’s OK. One of the goals was to find ways to convince the best players, in particular, to not play overseas, or at least limit their play there.
This CBA made at least some progress with that. The players wanted travel conditions improved, and got gains there. They looked for other “quality of life” upgrades, and those are in this deal, too. Overall, there appear to be more mechanisms in this CBA to allow the players to be a bigger part of decision-making all around, which is also something they’ve long sought.
2. Are the changes to free agency enough?
Progress here is more gradual, including players being able to reach unrestricted free agency a year earlier, and a reduction in how many times a player can be given the core designation. It still won’t be like in the NBA, where player movement seems to draw more speculation and get as much coverage as the games themselves. But there is a bigger disparity between franchise wealth in the WNBA; just five of the 12 teams are under the same ownership as NBA franchises. And among independent owners, some like Connecticut and Las Vegas also own the arena they play in. Thus, the need to more tightly orchestrate competitive balance means the core designation — like a franchise tag — is more necessary.
This CBA will reach a point in 2022 where a player can be cored just twice, so top players should feel a little less hemmed in if they’re someplace where they aren’t happy. For perspective, WNBA free agency was first introduced in the 2003 CBA, and there was a time when teams could core two players. So while the changes won’t necessarily go far enough to please all players — or those observers who like to play fantasy general manager — they at least push free agency forward.
3. Was there enough concession from the league on travel?
Charter flights were not going to be an option at this point for the league because of cost, so increasing the comfort level was progress. If you travel much, you know a few more inches of space on flights can make a difference, as can your own space in a hotel room. These are upgrades that can impact performance, and at least acknowledge one of the players’ bigger concerns.
4. How key were improvements for players who are moms?
For the league’s mothers, there are more things in place to make them feel they have a better support system. Players union executive director Terri Jackson, executive committee president Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert stressed that it was important to all the players to feel there was the strongest support possible for those who already have children or are contemplating it during or after their careers.
Teams previously had to guarantee a player on maternity leave half her salary, although they had the option of paying all of it. Now, all is guaranteed. A child-care stipend, workplace accommodations for nursing moms, having at least a two-bedroom apartment for players with children, all make the WNBA more industry-standard for working mothers.
5. What other improvements stand out?
Dallas’ Skylar Diggins-Smith, who had a child last year and didn’t play during the 2019 season, spoke later in the year about dealing with postpartum depression, and not feeling she had the full support of the organization. The Wings countered that by saying they had tried to accommodate Diggins-Smith by giving her space during the season and that mental-health professionals were always available. Both sides seemed genuinely surprised at the other’s point of view, which was an indication that the improvements for moms and enhanced mental healthcare and resources were key in the CBA. The Wings seemed to sincerely believe they were doing everything possible for Diggins-Smith.
Going forward, these changes should make it clearer to franchises what players require in any situation where mental healthcare is needed. And in regard to the provision about education and counseling for intimate partner violence, that has been an issue that has affected certain players in the league, including this past season.
6. Does the CBA help players spend less time overseas if they so choose?
It won’t dramatically change that, but it makes more progress toward that objective than any previous CBA.
Going overseas always has been an individual choice, but most players in the WNBA’s history have spent at least some time competing outside the league. For some it’s been a lot of time, as they try to maximize their income in the relatively short window of a pro athlete’s career. For a variety of reasons, including how leagues are funded in other countries, a lot of players have made more money overseas than in the WNBA.
But the WNBA is universally seen as the most competitive league, as it has drawn the best from everywhere.
A lot of players still will go overseas in the winter/spring, but there’s also a more enhanced commitment to help them find employment opportunities and training in the United States. That, along with the cash-compensation potential, are at least stronger steps toward helping players not have to play near year-round. Admittedly, some of this philosophically is geared more heavily toward American players, but that’s still the majority of the league.
7. Does the CBA help in regard to future expansion?
It doesn’t appear that will be specifically mentioned, but the much broader and less specific term of “growth” is a key component of the CBA. The players wanted to be more involved in all aspects of making the WNBA more visible, and expansion could be one of the outshoots of that. The league at its biggest was 16 teams, but that was only into the early 2000s, as the WNBA in retrospect tried to expand too quickly. One of the failed markets back then was Portland, for example, where women’s college basketball wasn’t nearly as popular at that time as it is now with the success of Oregon and Oregon State.
Ideally, the league would like to get back to at least 16 teams, so that might include places where franchises previously didn’t get enough time to grow, like Portland, or had success but then folded because of more global economic issues, like former champions Houston and Sacramento in the late 2000s. There is nothing indicating that expansion is imminent, but if this CBA helps spur growth, the chances of more teams increases.
8. What seems most innovative about the CBA?
Probably the sense that the league listened to the ideas the players had more than ever before. There has long been a frustration from players that decisions were made without truly taking into account their input. That they might have been asked what they thought, but sometimes only in a cursory way. The league seems more committed to incorporating players in the decision-making about everything, including marketing and growth.
The league also announced, in conjunction with the CBA, the formation of a collective called the WNBA Changemakers, which it says will bring together businesses who lead the way in the advancement of women through sports. The initial changemakers include AT&T, Deloitte (where Engelbert worked previously for 30-plus years) and Nike.