How WNBA Owners Still Aren’t Betting On Women

Sue Bird – Photo by the Seattle Storm

Last year, the Women’s National Basketball Association announced the implementation of a new collective bargaining agreement with the WNBPA. It included several wins for members of the association, like increased maximum compensation thresholds and maternity benefits. There is still a gigantic gap in labor rights that the CBA actually entrenched for its duration, however: the WNBA’s role in the exploitation of collegiate athletes in the United States of America.

The WNBA’s owner-friendly draft policies and its use of the collegiate basketball system as a cost-free developmental league are the blackest stains on what was otherwise a series of wins for labor in the 2020 CBA. It’s largely on the ownership of the 12 franchises to address the issue, though the onus to push for more change undoubtedly falls upon the PA’s members.

Player entry drafts don’t promote parity

The sales pitch for player selection events like the upcoming WNBA Draft is that they promote parity in the league. This is a fiction that loses its miniscule ability to hold water upon even a remedial inspection.

The fact is that when compared with the performances of WNBA teams that selected later in drafts, the winning percentages of teams that selected early track over time almost identically. Coaching changes, free agent acquisitions, player injuries, player progression, and trades have as much if not more of an effect on the on-court product as player selection events.

In fact, many of the players selected in the WNBA Draft since it went to its three-round format in 2003 never hit the court for the team that drafted them. The ability to develop and evaluate talent, as opposed to consistently selecting highly in these events, is a better determinant of on-court success. The reality is that these events are just a commercial and a coupon for owners.

Drafts benefit ownership, not players

So, why is the WNBA holding onto this fixture if it bears little if any on-court relevance? The event is a source of revenue and a way to control labor costs for owners.

The franchises/league sell broadcasting rights to the event and sponsorships. The greater benefit for owners, however, is that rookie contracts in the WNBA represent a tremendous savings.

The current CBA essentially sets up draftees’ first contracts for players’ first four years of service time. The contract values for players’ first four seasons are slotted, decreasing in value as the draft progresses. After a third year of service, teams have a sole option to renew the contract for a year at the specified value.

WNBA Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield – Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Lynx

For example, the top four picks in the 2021 WNBA Draft will make $70,040 in base salary, with that figure rising to $71,441 and $78,856 in subsequent seasons. If their teams exercise their options, they will make $89,302 in the final years of their contracts.

This period comes after three or four years in a collegiate league that violates federal law in the US by refusing to share any of the revenue they produce with them. Currently, the athletes would also risk losing their eligibility to play their sport if they exercised their civil rights as adults and monetized their own images, likenesses, and names.

Thus, these workers are locked in a system where for as many as eight years of their prime value in their industry, someone else makes all their decisions and keeps the vast majority of the revenue their labor produces. It’s peculiar that US society is comfortable with these workers having their livelihoods dictated to them in a capitalist society that supposedly values individualism. Just because these workers are in the entertainment industry does not make them any less workers.

An apologist of the system could argue that a player has the option not to sign if she doesn’t like the situation with the team that drafts her and try the free agent market. However, that argument falls very flat in this context.

Why there aren’t a lot of other options for WNBA prospects

This is essentially like arguing someone doesn’t have to drive on a bridge to cross a river if the driver doesn’t want to pay a toll. The driver could, in theory, buy a boat large enough to ferry the car across. That’s a lot of additional cost and difficulty, though, that few people have the resources to manage. 

A draft prospect will have already forfeited any remaining collegiate eligibility by entering the WNBA’s draft pool, so she can’t return to her collegiate team and keep her skills sharp if she doesn’t want to sign with the team that drafts her. She would be taking a huge risk that another WNBA team would quickly sign her as an undrafted free agent.

It’s unlikely to happen because ownership has to maintain its power in this situation. If teams started offering contracts to players who passed on signing with the teams who drafted them, it would make the draft obsolete.

In most cases, team owners would rather protect their long-term labor control interests than add specific players given the small rosters. There are international leagues for women who play basketball at a high level, but most of them happen in the WNBA off-season. The instances of US players who find roster spots in those leagues while passing on playing in the WNBA are low.

The system is intentionally set up to force players who wish to play in the WNBA into owner-controlled terms for years. It doesn’t have to be, though. There is a better way.

A complete makeover of player entry

The answer to these issues is more investment by franchise owners and their partners instead of relying on exploitative, outdated methods to preserve revenue. The outcome will be sharing of even greater profits.

The new system starts with the creation of a WNBA-funded and operated developmental league. Players could sign contracts with these teams right out of high school with professional representation and not only work where they want to but with whom they desire to work with and negotiate all other commercial terms like compensation and publicity rights.

This will allow the WNBA to enter new markets, with new consumers and sponsors awaiting their presence. Many potentially lucrative markets where MNBA franchises perform well, like Boston and Philadelphia could make tremendous sites for WNBA D-League franchises. Many in Detroit would love to see the Shock revived, even if just on a developmental level for the time being.

This would also allow the WNBA and its franchises to get more value from the top prospects coming out of scholastic ranks in North America. The individual franchises could have more control over the development of those prospects as well.

For the workers, this would provide a superior alternative to the exploitative collegiate model of “amateurism” that they essentially have to sacrifice years of their life to in order to have a shot at a WNBA contract. For many, that dream will never be fulfilled, and they will have wasted years of potential monetization of their talents in college athletics’ plantation-esque, chattel economy.

Do WNBA franchise owners have the resources to fund and operate a developmental league? Absolutely. They simply choose not to.

The hypocrisy and the payoffs for the WNBA in the status quo

In exchange for allowing colleges/universities to enjoy the value that these workers create for years, the WNBA benefits from the completely free developmental system that the collegiate ranks currently represent. In that way, the WNBA is guilty of enabling the exploitative collegiate model of “amateurism” to continue.

There is no doubt that the resources exist to have a developmental league, even if you don’t consider the tremendous resources of the MNBA. Consider the following facts:

  • The Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky are owned in principal by Larry Gottesdiener and Michael Alter, respectively, who are the chairman and president of two of the largest real estate firms in North America
  • Among minority owners in the league are musical artist Michelle Williams, Beyoncé Knowles’ father Mathew Knowles, Orbach Group chairman Meyer Orbach, and Kathy Munro, the former CEO of Bank of America’s Southwest region
  • Joe Tsai, who also owns a minority stake in the Brooklyn Nets and has a reported net worth over $11 billion, owns the New York Liberty
  • The Mohegan Tribe, whose holdings include Jersey Mike’s Subs and some of the largest gaming facilities in North America, owns the Connecticut Sun

The bottom line seems to be that instead of “betting on women,” as the league likes to trumpet, the ownership of the WNBA’s franchises would rather not spend the extra capital it would take to let these new, young workers share in the value they are creating, even if that would mean a bigger take for everyone.

Yet, if players wait on owners to see the folly in their own ways, it will likely be decades before this change happens. The constituency of the WNBPA has to push for a more labor-friendly entry system in its next CBA negotiations. It isn’t too early to start advocating for it now. The dignity of future generations of 18-21-year-old workers depends on it.

By Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who splits his time between Chicago and Kansas City, Mo. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa, earning undergraduate degrees in Journalism and Sports Studies. The list of companies who have had the audacity to buy and make public his words include The Equalizer, FOX Sports, Legal Sports Report, and Ozy among a bunch of others he can’t remember because he’s almost 40. Recently, Helling is most proud of his contribution of a chapter on the NFL to Kendall-Hunt’s undergrad textbook Sport Finance: Where the Money Comes From, and Where the Money Goes and the fact he has somehow managed to keep a pair of Munchkin cats alive for five years. If you hate fun like he does, you can follow him on Twitter @dhellingsports.

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