The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, January 15, 2020
Deeper meaning of the WNBA CBA — Player reaction — Must-click women's basketball links
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The deeper meaning of this WNBA labor deal
“We all win.”
That’s the message one WNBA figure texted me as I furiously dug into details of the new WNBA CBA this past weekend, working to make sure I fully understood, and could explain, the intricacies of how the league and its players will operate through 2027.
And that’s the top line, really: with salaries bumping up 83% for max players, significant jumps in rookie scale and veteran minimums, along with wholesale changes that improve both quality-of-life and off-the-court opportunities for WNBA players, this is a deal that offers massive opportunity for both league and players alike.
But maybe more important is the macro ways this resets so many of the working assumptions about the WNBA that have eaten away at the league’s ability to grow for quite some time now. Let’s take each in turn.
The WNBA is the priority now
There’s a ton of new investment from the league (and what that means, we’ll get to shortly), but in return the players gave up significant overseas leverage, with a phase-in of a requirement to have players in camp from day one.
This is no small thing when it comes to play on the floor itself — players will be incorporating their team’s WNBA system for several weeks as a unit, a dream fulfilled for many of the league’s coaches for years, and the quality of the early-season games will be boosted by both this continuity and full participation.
It will also mean that either European teams are comfortable signing WNBA players for a period that doesn’t include many of their most important postseason games overseas, or that players will come in well-rested, that recovery time vital to both quality of play and even increasing career length by limiting wear and tear.
There’s a larger, psychological factor here that is broadcast to one and all: the WNBA matters. It is first. So much of the casting aside of this league by media, fans, even the television partners comes from an ability to think of it in more casual terms. And players just showing up whenever their real jobs were over, well, that only emboldened anyone else. The players care deeply — this isn’t on them, the economics were what they were — but this change, the buy-in from the players, sends a very different message about the WNBA to the world. It’s hard to imagine there won’t be ripple effects.
The WNBA is back in the WNBA business
Think about the most successful restaurants you know. In their public-facing statements, do they say things like: “No one eats here!” or “We just can’t get people to enjoy our food!” or “The rent is killing us, maybe if more of you showed up we could give you bigger portions!”
They do not.
But for much of the WNBA’s recent history, that’s essentially been the message from the league, from Adam Silver on down. On how much money the league is losing, how the ratings and ticket sales aren’t any good, and the implicit blame of fans for not showing up.
It’s not how any business thrives. If the business itself is running itself down, who will promote it?
So the new initiatives that go along with the additional financial investment — between league and team (and differentiating is impossible, really, since the NBA’s teams own 50% of the WNBA, along with another five WNBA teams that are NBA-owned), we’re looking at around $1 million per team per year.
There’s no upcoming labor negotiation, the thing that leads most leagues to cry poverty for public leverage. There’s just nearly a decade ahead of the league and players to pull together and maximize return on this mutual investment (let’s be clear, players giving up overseas money is a significant investment, too).
The best example of why this matters comes from Silver himself, following the lead of David Stern. It has been clear the leadership of the NBA loves the NBA. (For a contrast, the evident contempt Rob Manfred has for MLB has helped baseball suffer a significant downward trend in the past several years.) You can be sure the lack of self-defeating storylines out of the WNBA will impact the way the league is viewed, and that is huge.
The league viability conversation is off the table
Look, there’s a different conversation to be had about how often media coverage of the WNBA focuses on either “why can’t the league break through” or “what can be done about the problem of the league, which will never grow”, with a lack of oxygen from media coverage often a key component of WNBA growth stalling. (You obviously agree if you’re here!)
That may not change fully — it is an easy out for many who haven’t dug into the WNBA to cover it in these terms, since it requires no real knowledge or wisdom and provides cover for journalistic institutions — see, we covered the WNBA, and see, we don’t have to do more because it isn’t more popular, didn’t you read our last story on the subject? — but things like the league itself trumpeting losses, and an unresolved CBA, make viability itself front and center.
There are innumerable storylines to cover in the year ahead, from Breanna Stewart’s return to Elena Delle Donne’s title defense to USA Basketball to Sabrina Ionescu’s pro debut, on and on and on it goes. There’s never enough time in my day, my week, my year for it all, which is as it should be — it’s why we need more, more, more people covering it all regularly. It’s a whole league! One person for a whole league is not a realistic way to cover the WNBA. (Neither, to be clear, is zero people for a whole league.)
And when sports editors grapple with how to properly staff and cover the W in markets where there’s a team, in national papers with wide reach, the permanence of the WNBA is going to matter. It cannot be as simple as: oh, that league’s still around? Why don’t I see it in my own publication more if it matters so much?
The visibility increases, and with that, more ambient knowledge. That makes it easier for sports editors to relate to and grapple with freelance pitches, to feel left out when something happens and gets big play elsewhere.
So this new WNBA reality requires an adjustment from players, from the league, but yes, from us in the media, too. And you can bet The IX will continue to hold all outlets accountable for it, while being here for you every single day.
This week in women’s basketball
Loved this Lindsay Gibbs perspective on the new CBA.
Mechelle Voepel breaks down what Sabrina Ionescu does well, what needs to improve.
Charlotte Carroll captures Geno Auriemma providing a dose of realism.
Jackie Powell explains why the Walt Hopkins hire matters to the New York Liberty.
Michelle Smith looks at what Haley Jones brings to Stanford.
How does Aliyah Boston’s freshman season compare to A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates?
No, you’re crying after reading about the Kline sisters.
Taylor Robertson is blazing trails from beyond the arc.
Humblebrag: Freddie Fever liked this conversation I had with Marianne Stanley.
PJ Brown continues to kill it on the Arizona beat.
Barbara Barker explains why the WNBA CBA matters so much to women at large.
Tweet of the week
Five at The IX: Player reaction
Some tidbits from different WNBA players following the agreement on the new CBA, out of a conference call Wednesday.
NNEKA OGWUMIKE: It’s a momentous day for the league. The organization that I have the privilege to represent, the WNBAPA. The WNBAPA, it holds a distinction of being the first sports union for professional women athletes in this country. We’re proud of our history, proud of the pioneering, trailblazing women that came before us.
Not too long ago Tamika Catchings passed the baton of leadership and great responsibility to me. It was Sonja Henning who passed it to her. Coquese Washington, the first president of the WNBA started it all.
While I am the president, I am certainly not in this by myself. I have an Executive Committee, as Cathy has introduced, which includes Elizabeth Williams, Elena Delle Donne, and the entire body of player representatives from each team who worked tirelessly and diligently every step of the way.
Our player leadership provided what may be the most diverse representation of players actively involved in negotiations in a very long time. That is true as I was on the last PC (Players Committee), I’ve seen it grow to this point. We got to work as soon as we were elected and we really never looked back.
This was never really about any one of us. It was always about all of us, this generation and the next generation of women who love the game.
Q. What is the significance for you that the changes we see today with a new CBA were powered by black women for a league that has a large amount of black women? What impact do you see that having on society?
LAYSHIA CLARENDON: That’s a great question. I think it means a lot as a woman of color. I asked Cathy on our panel yesterday how she’s going to market women of color, how she’s going to look at this league as a league full of black women.
I think particularly the fact that we’re going to be more directed and targeted in our marketing with a league full of women and league of color and queer women is a big hit. I think for women who have often been underpaid, we know black women are underpaid, queer people, adds a layer on top of that, fight this fight and take our power back, have this moment.
I think it’s huge. It means everything. I think we’re still a little surreal that we’re announcing it today, like we set out a year ago with this goal that we’re going to bet on women, that we want more, that we’re demanding more, that we really deserve more.
I think it means a lot that it’s still sinking in for me in the moment, realizing what this means, the foundation we’re setting, what this means in the context of history, even social justice. I think it feels like I haven’t had a chance to fight for a lot of social justice publicly recently, but I realize I’ve been doing it behind closed doors with people like Nneka an our team.
How amazing to fight for the collective world of social justice that is going to set up women of color and all women and girls have an opportunity to play in this league.
Q. Sue, when you look back at your own career, the amount of time you spent overseas, how different would your off-season career path have been under these new rules going forward?
SUE BIRD: I mean, probably dramatically different. I think with this deal, you can’t sit here and try to predict what different players are going to do. What I’ve come to find out is everyone is different in their choices of going overseas, their priorities, what’s important.
For me personally, I think had something like this been available when I first came out of college, I probably never would have gone overseas. I never would have even tested the waters out there. Because I did, I know how much money was there, it makes it tricky for me to answer that question.
Again, I think that’s what’s so great about what we have moving forward. Everything that is in this deal, it’s pointing towards the WNBA being extremely successful and being the prominent league in the world.
It’s hard to answer going back. I think, again, right out of college, I don’t think I ever would have gone, to be honest. Like I said, each individual can only make that choice for themselves.
Q. Nneka, I’m interested in your perspective as a player about what this deal means for the broader sense of women in sports, outside the basketball realm, what this means for women playing soccer, fighting for equality, hockey players both with salary and benefits.
NNEKA OGWUMIKE: That’s a great question. Actually throughout this year, I’ve had the opportunity to go to several events and appearances in which I’ve been able to meet these soccer players, also hockey players.
It really occurred to us as an EC that we’re ahead of this race when it comes to women in sports. Specifically women in team sports. We mentioned that this morning on GMA, how monumental this is for women in team sports.
That is symbolized, too, in a lot of ways by the league marketing and team marketing agreements. Those aren’t as available to us as women in team sports.
For us to have that investment moving forward, it’s huge. It’s monumental. Quite frankly, the fight doesn’t stop here. But I’m very honored to be a part of an Executive Committee that represents the longest lasting women’s league and union that we know of. I look forward to continuing to broaden my awareness and also make more impact for women in sports.
We’re just happy to be here in this position to be able to lead the way.