The WNBA and the player’s union the WNBPA have tentatively agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that provides for major changes. These changes include a significant increase in cash compensation for the players. Top players will now have the opportunity to earn upwards of $500,000 per season. Players will also be afforded improved travel and living conditions. Also, players will now be provided with greater benefits while on maternity leave. Lastly, the players will benefit from expanded career development opportunities. The agreement will take effect this coming season and will last run through the 2027 season. There is a mutual opt-out provision after the sixth seasons.
The League Listened to the Players
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert referred to the new agreement as “historic” and “groundbreaking.” The players barginned effectively and got much of what they sought. One of the key changes is that the annual base pay for the highest-paid player in the league rises from $117,500 to $215,000. However, there are mechanisms in the new CBA for top players to earn in excess of $500,000. This would be triple what top players could previously make. Next, the 2020 salary cap will be increased to $1.3 million, up from $996,000 in 2019. Total cash compensation to the players is expected to increase by 53%. Cash compensation is comprised of base salary, prize pools, performance bonuses and marketing deals. The WNBA and the Union are both optimistic that there is a chance to reach a 50/50 revenue spilt starting in 2021.
As a part of the new CBA players are also guaranteed certain travel and living conditions. Under the old CBA players were not guaranteed their own hotel room and often had to fly coach. Now players will be provided their own hotel room while on the road. Also, players will now be assured premium economy class on all flights. The goal of these changes is to help ensure players can achieve peak performance during games.
Another product of the new CBA is the improvement of maternity benefits for players. Players are now guaranteed their full salary while on maternity leave. Teams are also required to provide players with a two-bedroom apartment in an effort to accommodate the child. Teams are also required to provide an annual child care stipend of $5,000 to a player on maternity leave. Lastly, there are also family-planning assistance options that can reimburse a player up to $60,000 in expenses for services like adoption.
All of the details and salary figures have not yet emerged. They are expected to be made public soon. The players have voiced significant support for the new agreement. The last step will be for the WNBA’s Board of Governors to ratify the agreement, which they are expected to do.
Changes to Free Agency
Another major feature of the new CBA are the changes made to free agency. One goal the players had was to increase player freedom and player movement. Players who have completed their contract and have accumulated at least five seasons of service are eligible for free agency. Unless they are designated a “core” player. A core designation gives the team exclusive negotiating rights with the player. Under the previous CBA a player could be designated a “core” player up to four times before becoming an unrestricted free agent. Under the new CBA players will only be allowed to be designated as a “core” player three times and then two times starting with the 2022 season.
How Will These Changes Impact the WNBA?
One issue the WNBA has faced for many years is the fact that many of the league’s top players play professionally overseas during the WNBA’s offseason. The reason for this is simple. Players stand to make significantly more money playing overseas than in a WNBA season. This is a stark contrast from the NBA. One can’t imagine a scenario where James Harden or Kemba Walker packed their bags and headed to Eastern Europe for the offseason to make some extra cash. The new CBA aims to remedy this issue by making it a punishable offense to report late to WNBA training camp. It is commonplace for a player to report late because of overseas commitments. New measures such as mandatory reporting dates and salary increases are expected to reduce the number of players playing overseas.
The WNBA doesn’t have the offseason player movement that other professional leagues like the NBA and NFL experience. This player movement draws attention and drives conversation creating year round leagues. The WNBA is lagging in this regard. The new CBA allows players to reach free agency a year earlier. It also reduces the number of times a player can be given the “core” designation. The hope being this will generate a bit more player movement and thus more attention in the offseason.
One potential implication of the new CBA is that the League may try to expand. Currently, the WNBA is comprised of 12 teams. A far cry from other professional leagues. The League was once comprised of 16 teams before organizations like Portland and Sacramento folded due to economic issues. With growing popularity the WNBA may try to expand again. The talent is present to support new teams. The WNBA plays great basketball. Hopefully they will be able to export it to a few new markets in the future.
The significance of this agreement cannot be understated. It represents a meaningful shift in compensation and resources that previously were not available to players. It also represents a meaningful shift in labor relations between female athletes and their employer/organization. The U.S. women’s national soccer team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation. Meanwhile female professional hockey players are fighting to create and maintain a sustainable league. In contrast, the WNBA listened to its players and bet on them. This CBA is a byproduct of that investment. One that both sides are confident will pay off.