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WNBA embarking on a new age of higher salaries, improved benefits


Danny Moloshok /Allsport

From the first day the WNBA did business in 1996, its players have admittedly been at a competitive disadvantage. Without the generous revenue streams that fortified the NBA, the women were forced to forge their futures through great personal sacrifices.

With top salaries well below $100,000 at the time, the best and brightest of the league’s players traditionally headed to Europe or Asia in the wintertime to make a living wage, something they still do to this day. The leagues there have always loved American college players and paid handsomely for them.

There were other issues to deal with playing domestically, logistical inconveniences like sharing hotel rooms on the road, flying coach class to games, dealing with substandard health care and being housed in small cramped apartments.

Over the years, with better financial footing fueled by local ownership, its national television contract with ESPN and increased marketing revenue, across-the-board improvements have incrementally made a difference.

But until earlier this week, WNBA players union has never had a relationship with the league that truly eased financial and personal concerns.

The WNBA and the players union came to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement highlighted by a dramatic salary increase for its stars from an annually base salary of $117,500 to $215,000.

What’s more, the new CBA offers more opportunities to boost compensation along with much-needed concessions in free agency, travel, motherhood and family-planning benefits, marketing and career-development opportunities and revenue-sharing potential.

“We believe it’s a groundbreaking and historic deal,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told ESPN. “I’m proud of the players; they bargained hard, they unified, they brought attention to so many important topics.”

If approved, the agreement runs from the 2020 through 2027 season with a mutual opt-out provision after six years.

Here are some of the other highlights:

The league’s top players could earn in excess of $500,000, beginning in 2020 when the salary cap will swell to $1.3 million from $996,100. The players feel this represents a fairer share of the league’s revenues than what’s been before (between 20 and 30 percent).

Players who have five or more years of service after playing out their previous contract can become an unrestricted free agent, unless they are tagged as a “core” player. The number of times a player can be tagged drops from from four to three this season and to two beginning in 2022.

“Frankly, the core is not necessarily the most popular part of the CBA,” said WNBPA executive committee president Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks told ESPN. “But we wanted to ensure that core is still reflective of what our system supports, while also ensuring our players have a little more freedom.”

Players will receive full salary on maternity leave, an annual childcare stipend of $5,000, and guarantee of two-bedroom apartments for players with children.

According to the WNBA, total cash compensation – performance bonuses, etc. – will increase 53 percent and that doesn’t count improved insurance benefits, housing and per diems, etc. The average cash compensation for the summertime league will now be around $130,000.

This will be financed by the league’s marketing partners and a new in-season event, a gadget called the Commissioner’s Cup, which will be detailed when the league releases its 2020 schedule.

“We will designate Cup games the first half of the season leading into the Olympic break this year,” Engelbert explained. “And then [for] the two teams with the best records, we will have a final in August as our first game back to re-launch the season. In 2020, the cash prizes will be more moderate, but in 2021, we’re going to step them up as we seek sponsors.”

Nneka Ogwumike

(Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

Perhaps one of the most important qualities of the new CBA is assuring the players of a better quality of life.

The WNBA is not solvent enough to provide charter flights and you can imagine what that means. Travel is subjected to inevitable commerical delays and the players are asked to squeeze into smaller coach seats. But now players will be guaranteed premium economy class. And each player gets their own hotel room.

“Those things may seem small to some people, but with the nature of our job, those things really matter,” Ogwumike said. “Those things do impact performance. You have more comfort on flights, and with your own room you’re not worried about waking your teammate or interfering with their sleep patterns.”

There is a price to pay on the other side. The commitments to European and Asian teams often keep players away from WNBA training camp. Some players even miss regular season games to accommodate overseas postseason play. That will end for all but those who have national team play or are in their first three seasons.

“We had to be incredibly innovative with this,” Ogwumike told The New York Times. “And to be honest, with what the league wanted, we understood that it would take some novel change to get the league where we want it to go. We wanted to ensure that it is still allowing players the opportunity to get the salaries that we are used to getting in both markets while also phasing in a system that will hold the league as a certain priority.”

If the deal is ratified, the league’s 34-game season will increase to 36-game, the accommodation to the Commissioner’s Cup. Starting in 2021, the prize money for in-season tournaments will be at least $750,000.

“We wanted to create a league in which it is clearly a viable option to play in the WNBA,” Ogwumike said. “So we’re providing a new starting line for those who come after us.”