WNBA players are calling for expansion and the League says not now

On October 17, Lexie Brown became the WNBA Champion. She and Chicago Sky defeated Phoenix Mercury and won the first title in franchise history. Yet four months ago, Brown was sitting at home wondering if he would ever find a way back into the league.

Brown expected to play for Minnesota Lynx during the 2021 season, but Lynx gave up on April 17. A few days later, she arrived in Chicago for training camp.

“You have to deal with things like that,” Brown said. “Keep in mind, stay professional, be prepared to call your number.”

At the end of the training camp in May, The Sky Brown cut, re-signed it, cut it again and then signed it for the rest of the season on June 14.

“It’s been very difficult for me personally the last few months,” Brown said in June, “but I think Chicago is where I wanted to be.” And even though it took a lot of nonsense to end up in Chicago, I’m really glad to be here. “

The trouble may pay off – Brown eventually won the championship – but he can take his toll.

Each season, players are caught in the revolving door of contracts for 144 seats on the WNBA roster. Many people in and outside the league believe that now is the time to expand the rosters of teams or teams in the league or both. With just 12 teams and 12 rosters on each team, it is harder for the WNBA to break in and stay in the NBA than in the NBA, especially when most players’ contracts are not guaranteed. Relatively low salaries also force players to make difficult decisions about when and where to play.

The WNBA is considered the gold standard for women’s sports leagues due to the level of competition and the many benefits that players have gained through collective bargaining. But Nneka Ogwumike, president of the players’ union, is one of those who is striving for more.

“I like where the league is now when it comes to the people around it,” said Ogwumike, a 10-year-old Los Angeles Sparks veteran. “I don’t like where it is with the rosters, the number of rosters, the number of teams. And it’s not, you know, it’s someone’s fault. We just want to see growth. “

Ogwumike led the players’ union when it reached a groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement that entered into force in the 2020 season and will last until 2027. The agreement introduced a team salary cap of $ 1.3 million, an increase of 30 percent. Many saw it as a step in the right direction when it comes to equal pay. But it also shed light on other concerns.

“The $ 300,000 salary cap increase was not significant,” said Cheryl Reeve, Minnesota Lynx’s head coach and general manager. “It was highly praised that we were better for the players.” And yes, there is a department for supermax players now. “

The minimum player salary for 2020 increased by about $ 15,000 to $ 57,000 and the supermax for veterans increased by about $ 100,000 to $ 215,000. The numbers are increasing every year.

Teams that want to get experienced players to get to the playoffs must now play what Reeve called “pay cap gymnastics.”

“I do much more general driving than you want during the season, and in our case it was caused by injuries,” Reeve said.

Lynx signed a contract with Layshia Clarendon for the rest of the 2021 season on July 2 after three hardship contracts. The catch-and-play game was necessary for Minnesota to remain within his team, as Lynx struggled with injuries and other absences.

Clarendon started the season with Liberty and had tweeted on the eve of the season: “My heart breaks because the players are undercutting (yes, it’s part of the business), but especially because there are ZERO opportunities for development.”

Seven days later, after playing a total of three minutes in one game for Liberty, Clarendon became such a player after Liberty was released.

That opened the door for the features. To alleviate the burden of injuries to players, the WNBA may award emergency contracts to teams with less than 10 active players. Each compensation for an injured player requires a new, pro rata contract from the salary cap. Teams often have to choose between eliminating injured players to free up rosters, or keep them and compete with less active players.

Terri Jackson, the executive director of the players’ union, said that during the final round of contract negotiations, the union “announced our position” on adding injuries to the reserve and expanding rosters, but failed to agree on terms.

Ogwumike said the players wanted to create a “more robust league”.

“I think ideas exist,” she added, “but we definitely need more teams.”

To this end, some in the WNBA believe that the development league is a logical development.

The GBA NBA is a testing ground for unsigned players and also a way for developing players signed to NBA teams to gain playing time. Each NBA team can have up to two two-way players who split the time between the two leagues. Teams may also call in other G League players on short-term contracts as needed, provided they have a place on the roster.

Jacki Gemelos, Liberty’s assistant coach and former WNBA co-driver, said “two extra seats would be huge.”

“I’d be the 13th, 14th player on the roster who may not necessarily be good enough to be 12, but it’s a good piece of culture,” Gemelos said, adding that the spots could be for a ‘specialist player,’ like a knockout shooter or, really, a really tall big player if you need him for certain games or even just for injury purposes. “

In her short career at WNBA, Gemelos played 35 games in three franchises. For players who don’t get caught in the WNBA or can barely see the courts, there have long been few ways to gain more playing time without having to go overseas. The possibility now is the new domestic league Athletes Unlimited, which will start its five-week season this month. But for most players, international leagues are the best opportunity to play and get paid.

Even most of the WNBA’s best-earning players go out of season to compete for European clubs and national teams, and sometimes instead of playing in the WNBA.

“If I don’t earn that much in the league, if that’s not enough for me to survive during the year, I’ll go overseas and have summer time off,” said Lynx striker Napheesa Collier on a “Tea With A & Phee” podcast she hosts with Las Vegas Aces striker A’ja Wilson.

As a result, many overseas players arrive late for the WNBA training camp, leave in the middle of the season or miss the season altogether, especially in the Olympic years. In the 2021 season alone, 55 players arrived late for the WNBA training camp, and according to The Hartford Courant, about a dozen players missed their home opening match. In the future, it will cost players 1 percent of their salary for each day they are late, and a full camp reward for those who miss the entire camp. The league wants players to stay in the United States to minimize disruption to the WNBA season and reduce the risk of injury, but for some it is a difficult decision.

A top player can earn $ 500,000 to $ 1.5 million by playing overseas. Diana Taurasi ended the 2015 season after winning the Phoenix Mercury Championship in 2014. “The year-round nature of women’s basketball takes its toll and a financial opportunity with my team in Russia would be irresponsible to refuse,” Taurasi wrote in a letter to fans.

Russia’s Taurasi team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, paid her WNBA salary, according to ESPN, $ 107,000, plus $ 1.5 million overseas to serve the six-month 2015 WNBA season.

In 2021, Taurasi led Mercury to the WNBA Finals despite an injured ankle for a maximum salary of $ 221,450.

Reeve, Lynx’s coach and general manager, said she preferred franchising expansion to expanding the list, especially since the answer is more money in both cases.

“We need more commitment as a whole from the NBA and NBA owners,” she said. “We need more financial commitment. We need more investment. This league has been too long for revenue and spending to match, don’t lose a dollar. And that’s not how you grow up. “

When WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert was asked to respond to Reeve’s comment, she said: “I do not agree. I have experience building businesses and growing businesses, and that’s what we’re doing here. “

Engelbert said she was proud that the WNBA is the longest-running domestic professional women’s league (among team sports) and the NBA’s financial commitment, including that the WNBA is part of the brand identity.

“Honestly, I don’t think we could be here if the NBA hadn’t supported us so much over the years,” Engelbert said.

The NBA owns 50 percent of the WNBA and the five NBA owners – Phoenix, Brooklyn, Indiana, Minnesota and Washington – also own the WNBA team. Engelbert declined to comment on the operating budget for the WNBA

Asked for more support, NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in an e-mail: “The NBA has provided tremendous financial support to keep the WNBA running for the past 25 years and our commitment has never wavered. We have seen the exciting growth of the league under the leadership of Cathy and we are convinced of the ability of the league management, team and players to continue this growth. “

Engelbert said she also knew that there were “injustices in the system” regarding the viewership of women’s sports leagues.

“All the signs and symbols point to the growth of the league, but we are far from having the economic model that players deserve,” Engelbert said.

Since taking over as commissioner in July 2019, Engelbert has focused on economics and the experience of players and fans. It has attracted more investors such as Amazon to sponsor the tournament this season with a $ 500,000 prize pool for two finalists. While this has increased players’ remuneration opportunities, as well as provisions on marketing agreements, it does not address the fundamental concerns about the limited number of entries on the roster and the overall better salary for players.

Engelbert said the league’s expansion was “part of a transition plan,” but not now.

“If you want to expand your operations, you will probably need to have more than 12 cities in a country with 330 million inhabitants,” Engelbert said. “We will expand absolutely, but we are not expanding just for expansion until we get the economic model further.”

Ogwumike hopes that greater financial commitments from sponsors will lead to players getting what they want – bigger rosters and higher salaries – to keep the most prominent players in the WNBA.

“These last two drafts have shown that the league is sitting at home, so we have to do something about it,” Ogwumike said, referring to the number of talented players who are not drafted. “I think it’s really just a burden of ownership, investment and people who want to pump up women’s sports more. We have players who are ready to be part of this league. “

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