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The Women’s National Basketball Players Association has tentatively agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement with the WNBA, and from what’s been released to this point, it’s a fascinating document that holds promise for the future of women’s sports and their compensation. Of course, one single sport or league having a quality CBA doesn’t mean all of women’s sports or all women’s leagues are suddenly fixed or the players are being paid fairly, but a high-profile league like the WNBA seeing vast improvements across the board is a noticeable and heartening start.
It’s worth pointing out that, before these negotiations kicked into high gear, the WNBPA opted out of their CBA entirely: it was time for major change, and backing out of everything agreed upon in the history of their Players Association was a massive signaling that they were ready for said changes. The risk paid off, as pay has nearly doubled with room for the biggest stars in the league to make more than double that new maximum, excellent benefits were introduced, and a true 50/50 split in league revenue is finally a legitimate possibility.
WNBA writer Howard Megdal had many of the details of the deal in the New York Times, and Britni de la Cretaz did a deeper dive on the maternity leave portion of things for InStyle. Both are worth reading to see just how much change is possible in one CBA, assuming the players unite together in what they want.
The quicker version of things, for our purposes, is this. The maximum salary jumped from $117,000 to $215,000. That salary can go even higher for the top players in the league, who will be eligible for up to $250,000 in a “league marketing agreement.” There are also contract bonuses and incentives that could, in sum, net the very best WNBA players over half-a-million dollars per year: a massive increase from the max rate of the last CBA.
It’s not just the stars who will get paid, though, as the $98,000 increase in the max salary attests. There is also a Commissioner’s Cup, an in-season tournament that features certain games as Cup games: the in-season tourney features a minimum $750,000 prize for the winning team. Better housing will be provided for players with children, the travel experience has improved — even if charter planes still aren’t an option for WNBA teams at this point — and, as mentioned, the maternity benefits are now top-notch.
As for that 50/50 split in revenue, the WNBA has to reach “certain revenue markers in broadcast agreements, marketing partnerships and licensing deals,” by 2021 per Megdal, and then the halfsies split would begin. Since this is an eight-year deal, not a shorter one, the wait for 2021 isn’t the majority of the agreement. It’s not a guaranteed split, obviously, but it gives a concession to a league concerned about failing if players make too much without creating an impossible, unattainable situation to get what the players want out of a revenue split. And it’s a worthwhile risk given the players, at present, only pull in 20-30 percent of the revenue.
Speaking of concessions, that’s the part of this deal I most want to focus on. WNBA players didn’t give up all that much to the league’s owners in order to make this contract happen. Sure, they didn’t get a guaranteed 50/50 split, but the max salary saw nearly a $100,000 increase, the top players have room to make more than twice that max, the benefits improved in a variety of life-changing ways, and the chance for 50/50 remains. And all they had to give up was the kind of behavior they only engaged in because the previous CBA terms were awful enough to walk away from altogether:
In exchange for these and other benefits is a new requirement that will be gradually phased in: Players must be in W.N.B.A. 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. Players, from superstars to rookies, have long supplemented their league pay by competing for clubs overseas during the off-season.
The year-round play of some players has had its consequences. Last year, Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart ruptured her right Achilles’ tendon while playing overseas and missed the entire 2019 season while she was the reigning Most Valuable Player Award winner.
That and other examples of players returning fatigued or injured have prompted the league and union to find ways to encourage players to stay stateside more.
I can’t speak for the WNBA’s players, but I can’t imagine they much enjoyed having to play basically year-round, around the globe, just to justify being able to play in the WNBA. Teams obviously didn’t approve of players showing up with less than a full tank, or, in Breanna Stewart’s case, at all: it’s kind of weird to consider that her injury, so awful and disappointing at the time, might have been a real catalyst for change in the end, though. And yet, here we are.
Concessions are what these agreements all come down to, and the WNBA’s players gave up very little. They’ll make more money, they’ll get maternity leave and benefits that help them freeze eggs if they’d rather finish off their playing career before venturing into motherhood, their travel and living conditions have improved, and the chance for revenue equality with the league’s owners exist. In exchange, they now get to work less and focus more on improving the WNBA itself, which, in turn, gives them a better chance at hitting the markers necessary to get that 50/50 split. It’s a masterwork of a CBA, barring any surprise detail we haven’t seen reported yet that puts things into management’s favor once more, and only possible because these women bet on themselves and their ability to stay unified.
Sometimes you have to burn it all down and start over, and that’s just what the WNBPA did. I’m thrilled to see what’s risen from the ashes, as we’re going to get a better league that better serves both its players and its audience.
Kind of incredible to not write about baseball this morning given how Thursday went down, I know, but this WNBA CBA really is a landmark agreement worth its own feature. Plus, I wrote my kind of angle on it already on Wednesday.
From people who are not me, David Roth nailed the day’s roundup at Baseball Prospectus, anyway, as did Emma Baccellieri at Sports Illustrated.
Michael Baumann focused on how Alex Cora’s firing (or mutual parting of ways, whatever) wasn’t the cure for MLB’s ills.
Nick Stellini covered how the Sox themselves are sort of rudderless, and that it was the case before Cora’s dismissal, even.
- I’ll have my own piece at Baseball Prospectus next week looking at some of the Jeff Luhnow Firing Fallout, so keep an eye out for that.