New WNBA contract aims to keep players in the U.S.

The+Chicago+Sky+finished+first+in+their+conference+last+season.+The+team%27s+first+home+game+is+May+16.

Grace Wiley

The Chicago Sky finished first in their conference last season. The team's first home game is May 16.

By Media Relations Editor

The WNBA and the Players Association signed a collective bargaining agreement March 7 that allows teams to expand their rosters from 11 players to 12 and offers cash incentives for players to stay in the U.S. during the offseason.

The agreement, which either side can opt out of after six seasons, includes a new “time off bonus,” which allows teams to award players up to $50,000 for limiting their play overseas during the three-month-long off-season. The agreement also increased the salary cap and the amount of revenue owners can share with the players.

In a March 7 WNBA press release, WNBA President Laurel Richie said the new contract caps a successful 2013 season, during which the league experienced a boost in viewership and signed a six-year deal with ESPN. The deal will allow ESPN to broadcast 30 live games, including coverage of the WNBA playoffs and draft.

According to Chicago Sky Head Coach Pokey Chatman, talks between both sides were “give and take,” and “unique in terms of how collective bargaining agreements normally go.”

Monique Maye, certified sports agent and assistant professor at Columbia, said she agreed the meetings went somewhat smoothly but said there are still some issues that both sides would benefit from resolving.

The time off bonus in the new contract gives the 12 owners of the 2013 WNBA leverage to stop their high-profile players from playing overseas during the off-season, where they could earn more money but are at risk of injury. Teams like the Chicago Sky, who are in one of the top markets in the U.S., can currently offer their top athletes incentives to keep them from competing during the offseason, according to Maye. The incentives include but are not limited to charity work, training and bonuses.

“If [high-profile players] get hurt, the fans are not going to come and watch the team,” Maye said. “[Owners] are depending on those highlighted players to sell tickets.”

But overseas teams also want to sell tickets, and American players who want more money can offer talent to foreign leagues, according to Ozell Wells, a former head coach of Russia Spartak, a professional women’s team in Russia. Wells said WNBA players make much more money overseas.

“It’s apples and oranges if you’re trying to make a life out of playing the game of basketball,” Wells said.

According to a Feb. 13, 2013 Examiner article, the most a WNBA player could make is $107,000, but they could receive the max after six years of service.

Wells recalled an instance when Lauren Jackson, who played a portion of her career for the Seattle Storm, was offered a $1 million base salary to play for Russia’s Fédération Internationale de Basketball. Jackson helped the Spartak capture two straight titles in 2007 and 2008. Maye said the 2014 agreement is a good start, but owners need to do more to shield their top players from the lure of competing in the Olympics and overseas during the offseason.

“This is how they get their exposure,” Maye said. “This is how they keep in shape as well. It’s not just about the money.”

Coaches are concerned about possible injuries. Last season, the WNBA had a high number of injuries, according to Chatman.

In addition to the bonus that could limit players’ time spent playing overseas, the league and players agreed that teams could add a 12th player to their rosters to combat injuries. Top WNBA draft pick Brittney Griner was stifled by a knee sprain and did not participate in the WNBA All-Star Game.

Chatman said the Sky is considering an additional player to address one of the team’s three mainneeds: rebounding, a point guard and a utility player.

“The deal just got signed and ratified a short time ago, so we are looking at every possible opportunity,” Chatman said.

The recent agreement will offer more job opportunities for women who are not WNBA-ready, Maye said. The option for teams to add a player to their roster and limit key players from playing overseas will give more women the opportunity to play in the WNBA and elsewhere, according to Maye.

“If owners are not going to allow their players to play overseas in the future, then there will be more jobs available for these young ladies … that don’t make it to the WNBA,” Maye said.