Why you should care
Because this fight could determine whether the league survives.
Women’s National Basketball Association players are fighting to take control of their future. They opted out of their collective bargaining agreement with the league in November, giving themselves more than a year to negotiate a better contract. After years of being an afterthought within the NBA conglomerate, these 144 female athletes are demanding attention.
In August, the Las Vegas Aces forfeited a road game that cost them a playoff spot when commercial flight delays left them on the road for over a full day. The team forfeited the game seemingly in part to magnify problems with WNBA travel conditions compared with other pro leagues’ charter jet, five-star hotel life. Players are also increasingly talking about their low salaries, which max out at $118,000. These athletes are telling their side of the story more loudly than at any point in recent memory.
Management’s explanation is that they are losing money, with executives saying the WNBA finished 2018 $12 million in the red. Union leaders say the league has not shared financial details with them, while the league says it did.
The WNBA doesn’t want to be a charity, but it can be a trailblazer in terms of talented women being treated the right way.
The WNBA is playing a long game, battling cultural biases against women’s sports and a slanted media culture. Ratings and attendance for the best teams are rising, but instability at the bottom has made it difficult for the league as a whole to gain traction: Only three of the league’s eight original teams exist today. Growing a league is difficult when there is little push from executives to keep fans happy.
“We have an opportunity to make the league better for current players and the fans but also [for] future athletes coming up behind us,” says WNBA Treasurer and Aces center Carolyn Swords. “We want the league to succeed. We want it to be stronger and improve the lives of our players.” While better salaries and more comfortable travel arrangements are important, the league must do more to market its stars and open up new professional avenues for them.
The NBA grew into a multibillion-dollar behemoth via marketable superstars like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, leading to today’s social-media-heavy, personality-driven coverage. The WNBA has no such exposure, in part because its players disappear during the league’s winter offseason to play overseas and make money.
Finding money to support its players more effectively is the WNBA’s primary issue. “It is not a charity,” Phoenix Mercury Chief Operating Officer Vince Kozar says of the NBA’s guidance of the WNBA. “We want it to be something that stands on its own two feet. We want the reason the players are making more money or the reason teams are spending more money … [to be] because our revenues have increased.” From a business perspective, the idea is sound: Spend evenly, be patient, market the product aggressively.
Right now, it can be difficult for players to supplement their salary with additional work. The New York Times recently reported how Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver, who is an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards during the WNBA offseason, was only allowed to make $10,000 because the two teams are under the same corporate umbrella and a teammate was already making $40,000 out of WNBA teams’ $50,000 allotment to pay players in the offseason. On the other hand, Mercury guard Briann January makes an extra $112,000 per year as an assistant coach for Arizona State University’s women’s basketball team, according to a student newspaper database.
One possibility under discussion would allow a larger maximum salary for one player on each team, similar to the NBA’s designated veteran extension. This would lock down faces of franchises for longer and potentially encourage them to stick around in the offseason to promote their team.
Respecting elite athletes by paying them what they’re worth is vital for a sport that struggles to be taken seriously and to be seen as a legitimate option for young women beginning their careers, especially in an era where women’s equality in almost every industry is being taken more seriously. The WNBA doesn’t want to be a charity, but it can be a trailblazer in terms of talented women being treated the right way.
Thirty-six-year-old Minnesota Lynx star Lindsay Whalen ended her playing career after the 2018 season to become head coach at the University of Minnesota. The Dallas Wings still await a decision from Liz Cambage, who finished second in most valuable player voting last season, on whether she will return to the WNBA or stay with her national team and pursue a career in Europe. Think about that: One of the best young players in a professional sports league might simply walk away because her greatness is challenged by the very conditions in which she works. For the WNBA, this is more than a labor negotiation. It’s an existential crisis.
Read more: Double duty — a WNBA star turns to broadcasting.
Correction: An earlier version of this story did not include the WNBA’s contention that it did share financial details with the players’ union.