Why Core Player Designation is Hurting WNBA Free Agency
By Lyndsey Darcangelo
When NBA free agency rolls around every July, Twitter is instantly lit up with smoldering hot takes and firework reactions, breaking news and enough drama to keep everyone talking for weeks and months well after summer is over. When WNBA free agency rolls around every February, there’s hardly a bleep on the Twitter radar. It’s often overlooked by mainstream media sports outlets, and the discussion over player movement is over as quickly as it begins.
Part of the reason is because the WNBA doesn’t receive a mini-fraction of the same amount of media coverage as the NBA and other men’s sports. But that’s a conversation for another day.
The main reason why the WNBA free agency period is so lackluster is because of the way it is setup. There aren’t many free agents who are able to dictate their own future, because of the current rules that are in place. Players have little to no autonomy and it’s hurting the league’s growth and evolution, as well as attraction.
It’s fun, exciting and beneficial to be a veteran free agent in the NBA, because players have the ability to market themselves and their abilities to perspective teams (think LeBron inviting multiple NBA teams to court him with unique presentations before he ultimately made his live “decision” on ESPN to go to the Miami Heat in 2009). They can also negotiate terms and salaries, and add “opt-out” clauses to their contacts.
Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Al Horford, Kemba Walker, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, DeAndre Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, Marc Gasol and a handful of other big-name NBA players will be free agents this summer. That’s a lot of player movement. That’s a lot of shake up. That’s a lot of autonomy. And it’s why NBA free agency is so exciting—for the players and the fans. Imagine if WNBA players had that kind of autonomy.
Imagine if the WNBA had that kind of player movement?
This year’s WNBA Unrestricted Free Agent class has a few big-name players in Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Allie Quigley. They are free to look around at other teams in the league and free to sign wherever. But some key veteran WNBA players don’t have that same luxury thanks to what’s known as the Core Player designation. When WNBA teams assign the Core Player tag to someone on their roster, it functions similarly to the
Franchise Tag in the NFL. That particular team has exclusive negotiating rights with the tagged player, and WNBA players can be tagged up to four times throughout their careers.
So talented, All-Star veteran players like Tina Charles, DeWanna Bonner, Angel McCoughtry and Maya Moore often end up getting designated as a Core Player. And whether they want to or not, they have to stay and negotiate with the team that tagged them. Bonner is going on her third year in a row tagged as a Core Player by the Phoenix Mercury. Charles is on her second for the New York Liberty. And then there’s Moore, who has been tagged by the Minnesota Lynx for the 2019 WNBA season. As one of the most decorated WNBA players of all time—she’s won four WNBA Championships with the Minnesota Lynx, the league MVP in 2014 and Rookie of the Year in 2011—the Core Player tag hinders her ability to choose where she’d like to play at this point in her career and use her achievements and status as bargaining chips in the process.
The rest of the WNBA free agency player breakdown goes likes this:
• Teams also own the negotiating rights of reserve players—players with three or fewer years in the WNBA.
• Restricted Free Agents—players with four or five years in the WNBA—are allowed to test the waters, but their prior team can match any contract offer they receive. If the offer is matched, the player stays with the team.
• Unrestricted Free Agents are free to sign with any team—unless they receive the Core Player designation.
Moore has played eight years in the WNBA. At this point in her career, she should be afforded some autonomy as an Unrestricted Free Agent. But since she’s been tagged as a Core Player by the Lynx, her options are limited. And now there’s speculation that Moore is unhappy with this because she considering sitting out for the 2019 WNBA season. If that is in fact the case, she’s making a necessary statement.
We see the drama between teams and players unfolding in the NBA all the time, the most notable at the moment surrounding Anthony Davis. Davis has said that he doesn’t plan on signing a contract extension with the New Orleans Pelicans and that he wants a trade. And what about Kyrie Irving. Will he resign with the Boston Celtics or see what else is out there? Does that make him selfish? Is Davis being a diva? Or do these players just want to improve their situations, look out for their professional interests and careers, and have a definitive say in the paths of their careers?
In November 2018, WNBA players opted out of their current collective bargaining agreement. And when negotiations take place for a new CBA (hopefully sometime) before the 2020 season, player salaries, marketing and improved travel accommodations will be high on their list. But a change in the free agency structure should also be a top priority.
WNBA players deserve more autonomy and negotiating a new CBA is a big step in that direction. Over the past few years, the league has undergone a growth spurt and fan engagement has increased and evolved. It’s time for the WNBA to evolve as well. Give bigtime players like Moore the opportunity to make a sizable splash in a free agency pool that is in serious need of some waves during the offseason. Let them cause some shakeups, the kind that beget creative headlines and hot takes and “WOW” GIFs on Twitter. Let them be the topic of basketball conversations and the captain of their own careers.
Turn what’s usually a cold and barren free agency period into hot one. Even if it is in February.