The WNBA has taken significant steps toward improving conditions for its players under the current CBA, but the league has a long way to go.
For better or worse, there have never been more eyes on the WNBA than there are right now as the 2023 regular season approaches.
Only six weeks removed from a women’s NCAA Tournament that destroyed rating records, sparked controversy, and created new heroes, the WNBA will take centerstage next Friday. For 144 players, it’s a chance to showcase the sport at the highest level as they chase championship glory. For the league itself, it’s a moment of opportunity that it would be malpractice not to seize. Coming out of the height of COVID, we’ve now had two semi-normal WNBA seasons under the current collective bargaining agreement. In that time, we’ve seen several major changes for players specifically, from increased salaries to enhanced marketing opportunities.
But no CBA is going to fix every problem in every league, every time. As the league tips off its 27th season and the Las Vegas Aces look to repeat as champions, Boardroom explores where WNBA players stand as they remain the literal faces of the league.
Player salaries took a jump from the old WNBA CBA to the current one, and they will increase each year until the deal is up in 2027. Some rookies in 2019 made as little as $41,965, according to High Post Hoops. That increased to $57,000 in 2020 under the new CBA and will be $62,285 in 2023. The minimum salary for players with three or more years of experience is $74,305, up from $68,000 in 2020.
Salaries have increased on the upper end, as well. In 2023, players can make a maximum base salary of $234,936, up from $215,000 in 2020 and from $117,500 pre-current CBA.
In addition to salary increases, the CBA calls for increased resources for players to make money in other ways. That includes merit bonuses for team accomplishments, like $11,356 to every player on the WNBA championship team, and individual bonuses, like $15,450 for the league MVP. The league has also set aside money each year for top players to earn up to an additional $300,000 in marketing endeavors. Then there’s the Commissioner’s Cup, the league’s in-season tournament, that awards a prize pool of $750,000 for participating players.
The WNBA CBA also has a revenue-sharing section. The goal is to one day reach a model similar to what the NBA has, where players and the league split revenue 50-50. At first glance, it might look like the WNBA has this as well. But read the fine print in the CBA, and you’ll see that the players do not earn 50% of overall revenue, like their NBA counterparts. They actually earn 50% of the league’s incremental revenue, or the money the league makes beyond its target for the season. That target is set at 20% growth from the previous year.
Player Movement and Free Agency
It’s not a coincidence that this offseason just happened to be one of the wildest in WNBA history. In fact, something similar would not have been possible in recent years.
That level of player movement can only happen because the WNBA CBA has rolled back the power front offices have by using the core designation. The core designation allows front offices to own exclusive negotiating rights with one particular player. The current CBA now prevents a team from coring the same player more than twice — a key change, as Stewart explained at New York Liberty media day.
“The new CBA had a lot to do with the player movement because we were able to limit the core,” she said. “My first couple years, I remember Crystal Langhorne, she was the player that kept getting cored. And even if she wanted to stay, she didn’t have that option. Now, players are having those options to move freely and have an opinion and create a broader fanbase in multiple cities.”
The CBA also moved the service time requirement for unrestricted free agency from six years down to five — a small but significant change when you think about the typically short career span of professional athletes.
Perhaps the one issue that has caused the most controversy in the WNBA over the past two years has been the use of chartered flights. At the time of the 2020 CBA, the only requirement was that teams book players in premium economy seating on commercial flights if such seating was available.
After the league fined the Liberty $500,000 for chartering flights in the second half of the 2021 season, thus creating a perceived competitive advantage, talk picked up about why, exactly, some of the best basketball players on Earth are flying commercial. In response, the WNBA decided it would charter flights for teams in the WNBA Finals as well as the road team in the Commissioner’s Cup final.
The WNBA took another step in the right direction this year, adding chartered flights to all playoff games, the Commissioner’s Cup final, and select regular season games for teams playing on back-to-back days. The AP reported the expected cost to be around $4.5 million.
“I would like for it to be a thing that continually grows,” Stewart said, noting that the Liberty only have one guaranteed chartered flight this season. “I’d like to get to a point in the WNBA where our first response to a question is not a ‘no.’ It’s a ‘yes, maybe.’ Or a ‘yes, and.'”
She noted that this has a direct effect on how rested the players are. That, in turn, impacts player health and ultimately the product on the floor. Not every city has a direct flight to every other WNBA city. Not every flight a team tries to book is going to have adequate seating in premium economy. That matters especially for basketball players who, as you’d expect, are generally tall.
New to the WNBA in 2023, the concept of player prioritization is meant to make players choose their WNBA teams over any overseas commitments. As has been well documented, many WNBA players must supplement their income by playing basketball overseas in the offseason. The result is that many are then not back state-side in time for the start of training camp.
It’s not a good look for the league and it’s bad for the individual teams that need to navigate the preseason without a full look at what their rosters will be.
The solution, as laid out in the WNBA CBA, is that beginning this year, teams will be able to dock players’ pay for showing up late to camp, starting at 1% of the player’s based salary per day missed. If the player has not shown up by the time the regular season begins, then they may be suspended for the season.
Unfortunately for the players, with the minimum salary still only $62,285 and the cost of living not exactly cheap in WNBA cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, players may not have a choice but to go overseas. Now, they’ll have to choose between seeing a season through to its conclusion — and maybe winning a championship — or reporting to camp on time to avoid penalty.
The Path Forward
The WNBA has made real, tangible progress in player well-being over the past few years and it appears that trend will continue. The question is: Is the league doing enough?
It’s not as simple as looking at increasing salaries and deciding yes. Bloomberg reported last month that, as a proportion of league revenue, league salaries have actually shrunk to 9.3% from 11.1% in 2019. Remember — that figure is 50% in the NBA, whereas the WNBA’s supposed 50/50 split is highly misleading. The league is projecting about $200 million in revenue in 2023, which would be $30 million short of the 20% growth threshold to trigger revenue sharing.
As Kelsey Plum said during the offseason, the players are not looking to make the same as their NBA counterparts — at least not yet. They’re just looking for the same percentage of revenue, and the league is still nowhere near that.
The small steps forward in the chartered flight debate are a net positive but still don’t address the greater issue. Flying elite athletes commercial, where they have to deal with cramped seating, layovers, and delays, presents a clear health risk and contributes to overall fatigue. That detracts from the product on the court. Don’t expect that issue to go away until the league catches up with the times.
As for when we might see significant change to what it’s like to be a player in the WNBA, you might not have to wait too long. The WNBA Players’ Association is able to get out of the current CBA following next season and take the league back to the negotiating table. Expect every one of the above issues to be a topic of discussion if and when that happens.
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