Understanding Complexity And Significance Of WNBA’s CBA

By Pat Ralph

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On the night of Sunday July 1st, LeBron James shook the basketball world by signing a four-year, $154-million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. Over the next four years, James will make no less than $35 million in a single season.

After LeBron’s agent sent out the press release announcing James’ departure from Cleveland and arrival to Hollywood, Las Vegas Aces rookie A’ja Wilson chipped in with her own two cents on LeBron’s new max contract.

“154M ……….. must. be. Nice,” Wilson tweeted. “We over here looking for a M but Lord, let me get back in my lane.” The tweet included a GIF of a woman closing a door and walking away.

After the odds-on favorite to win WNBA Rookie of the Year tweeted out her thoughts on how much money NBA players are paid in comparison to their female counterparts, a heated debate took place on social media and across the league over WNBA salaries and how much players should be properly paid.

As a result, the discussion currently being had among players, coaches and media members has brought about another issue to the forefront that is sure to get even more attention over the next year: the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement.

The collective bargaining agreement, or more simply referred to as the CBA, is negotiated between representatives of the WNBA and the WNBPA, which is the players union. The CBA is renegotiated approximately every four years between both parties.

The last CBA was renegotiated in 2014, when both sides agreed to an eight-year deal after approval from the players and the league’s Board of Governors. The league and the players union agreed to expand rosters to 12 players and include a time-off bonus for players who played less than three months of basketball overseas.

But arguably the most interesting wrinkle to the 2014 CBA agreement was that either party could opt-out after the sixth year. Therefore, both the league and the players could opt-out of the CBA after the 2019 season. Either party must decide to exercise this clause by the end of October after this season concludes.

There is a growing notion around the WNBA that the players union is preparing to opt-out of the CBA to renegotiate a new agreement when the opportunity arises after next season. Two of the reasons for why the players could choose to opt-out of the agreement are over player salaries and travel conditions.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist for someone to figure out that NBA players make more money than their WNBA peers because of the revenue gap. The NBA generated almost $6 billion in revenue in the 2015-16 season, according to Forbes. Last year, the WNBA brought in only $51 million. That’s roughly eight percent of the NBA’s total revenue. Not to mention, the NBA plays a longer season and has more teams and players.

NBA players are given about half of the league’s revenue, while WNBA players earn no more than 25 percent of the league’s revenue. While the average NBA player makes over $6 million per year, the average WNBA player makes only about $85,000 per season. The top pay scale in the WNBA is roughly $121,500, while the minimum NBA contract comes in at around $550,000 according to Forbes. A minimum WNBA contract is estimated at about $40,000.

Some players have eyed 50 percent of the revenue, like their NBA counterparts, as a goal to achieve in the next CBA negotiations. Whether this is realistic or not is another question.

As a result of the current salary situation in the WNBA, many players are forced to play overseas during the WNBA’s offseason in order make enough money to provide for themselves and their families. Instead, many of the players would prefer to take some time off and rest.

The other issue that has taken center stage over the last week and is certain to play a significant role when the CBA negotiations ramp up is player travel conditions.

Last Friday, the Aces were expected to face the Washington Mystics in DC. However, due to flight delays, little to no sleep, traveling for over 24 hours, and arriving to town just five hours before tip-off, the game was cancelled after Las Vegas refused to show up and play. On Tuesday, the league announced that it would be counted as a forfeit loss for Vegas and a win for Washington.

While there are two very different opinions as to what the league or Las Vegas should have done to resolve the situation, almost everyone is in agreement that travel conditions for WNBA players need to be changed.

WNBA teams are forced to fly commercial when traveling to and from games, and this issue has moved even more into the spotlight as players have fought through the compacted schedule of the 2018 season. Therefore, many teams opt to fly out and leave on the first commercial flight in the morning in order to avoid delays and travel issues. If WNBA teams could charter planes, this would not be a problem.

Due to what took place this past week, player travel is all but certain to emerge now as an important discussion point during CBA negotiations between the players union and the league. The WNBPA and players are only more empowered and incentivized now to address this problem with the WNBA and league owners.

Terri Jackson, who serves as the Director of Operations for the WNBPA, said to WNBAInsidr that the framework for player discussions so far have centered around player salaries, the player experience and player health and safety.

“This framework is particularly helpful with an agreement that needs to catch up with the times,” Jackson said to WNBAInsidr. However, Jackson would not reveal specific player priorities in the upcoming negotiations.

Jackson also said that she is pleased with the players speaking up and voicing their concerns over issues facing the league.

“The players are being thoughtful and engaged in using their voices, while increasing their efforts to gain an even greater understanding of the matters that are important to them,” Jackson said. “The players are asking questions to obtain information that helps foster a necessary dialogue around many issues, including salary.”

Jackson said that fair revenue sharing is about valuing athletes and women. She also described the conversations and dialogue with the league office and team executives as “open, professional and productive.”

At her All-Star Game press conference in Minnesota last month, WNBA President Lisa Borders appeared to show interest and an open mind to increasing player salaries. She described herself as the strongest advocate for higher salaries and agreed that the players, let alone women, deserve more.

“Our incentives are aligned here with the players,” Borders said at her media availability. “There is no room for light between the league, the teams and the players. We all believe that the players should make as much money as they possibly can make, and we're here to enable that and support that. We are all in agreement.”

However, Borders quickly threw a wet blanket on her comments by saying that it is a business and that “the economics today don't allow us to pay more.”

So without an agreement between both parties, no league business can be conducted. That means no trades, no free agency player movement, and certainly no players taking the court to play games. No agreement likely results in a lockout.

Given how serious the players and the WNBPA are about addressing player salaries and player safety with the league office and owners, it seems as likely as ever that there could be a strike. Neither the players nor the union have said yet that they will strike, but there are lots of rumblings and discussions across the league that this might happen.

Not surprisingly, players are not being mum and quiet about these pertinent issues.

In an interview last month, Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury said that WNBA players need to be “willing to lose everything” and strike for higher pay in the upcoming CBA negotiations.

“We have to feel like we’re valued” Connecticut Sun forward and WNBPA Vice President Chiney Ogwumike said in an interview last month. “We give our lives for this game.”

"It's great that people are speaking out and saying what they feel,” Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne said to ESPN. “It's time we speak. We want answers, and we want to continue to grow."

Whatever happens, significant changes to how players are paid and travel to games could very well be on the horizon. Just like in other professional sports leagues, get ready for a potentially ugly CBA negotiation.