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The WNBA union is at a crossroads

"We're not asking for millions. We’re asking for health care."

On April 7, 2003, during contentious negotiations over the second collective bargaining agreement in WNBA history, then-NBA commissioner David Stern issued a public ultimatum.

“We want to get a deal and work with the players,” Stern said. “But if that’s not to be, it’s not to be. We’ll know in the next 10 days if there will be a WNBA season.”

It was, without a doubt, a tumultuous time for the league. During the offseason, franchises in Miami and Portland folded, and the Orlando Miracle and Utah Starzz moved to Connecticut and San Antonio respectively.

The WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) had upped the stakes, bringing in leaders from National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Council of Women’s Organizations, to help frame the players’ need for better contracts as a women’s rights issue. They were fighting for modestly higher salaries, the implementation of free agency, and a shorter contract — they wanted three years, the league wanted five.

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Their demands, in short, were hardly outrageous. But the media was not having it. Pretty much every single article about the league painted the players as either delusional or greedy. When Stern issued his public deadline, the consensus seemed to be that the players would be absolutely bonkers not to cave immediately.

“The NBA has provided advertisers plus a TV network and all but forced Michael Jordan to wear a wig and suit up. All that, and it has yet to make a cent off the WNBA,” ranted David Whitley of the Orlando Sentinel. “When Stern issued his deadline, he said the NBA had voted an additional $12 million to subsidize its women’s league. You’d think the players would be happy their sugar daddy didn’t cut them off altogether.”

But while the public was laughing at the sports media’s self-appointed jesters, the WNBPA continued to fight. Stern’s deadline came and went without a deal, and the 2003 draft had to be postponed. Of course, there’s no need to create unnecessary drama, as you already know the end to this story: The second collective-bargaining agreement was signed, the WNBA’s seventh season went on as planned.

According to Pam Wheeler, who served as the WNBPA’s Executive Director from 1999 to 2014, the union always had confidence that a deal would be reached, no matter how Stern postured otherwise.

“David always threatened to shut down the league,” Wheeler told ThinkProgress last month.

Fifteen years later, the WNBA is still here, and still fighting many of the same battles they were in 2003. And now, they’re gearing up to face another test: At the beginning of this month, the WNBPA announced that it was opting out of the current collective bargaining agreement.

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Many of the battles sound familiar. The players want more money, better travel accommodations, and more exposure. The league says there is no money to provide those things. The current CBA doesn’t expire until after the 2019 season, so there is time to negotiate.

Now, as the WNBA players gear up for a fight that could define the league’s future, it’s time to look at the history of collective bargaining in the league, the unique battles this fifth contract negotiation presents, and the reasons why this time might be different.

“We’re opting out because women’s basketball’s potential is infinite,” WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike, the 2015 WNBA MVP, said in an essay on Players Tribune announcing the opt-out. “We’re opting out because there’s still a lot more work to be done. And we’re betting on ourselves to do it.”

History lessons

When the WNBA launched in the summer of 1997, it was actually the second professional women’s basketball league in existence; the American Basketball League (ABL) had launched in the fall of 1996. The ABL was independent league, without the support of a behemoth entity like the NBA, but it made an early splash. In 1998, ABL salaries ranged from a $40,000 minimum to $175,000, compared to the WNBA’s, which range from $15,000 to $62,500. (Players on the development squad only made $5,000.)

The ABL also gave its players a more vested interest by granting each stock options, making them essentially part-owners of the league. The players were also provided with year-round health care. 

The WNBA, on the other hand, had nothing of the sort.

“There were no contract guarantees, no group marketing licensing rights, no free agencies, no maternity benefits, no revenue sharing, no year-round health care,” Wheeler recalled. “It was pretty much nothing.”

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By 1998, most stars in the ABL had already migrated over to the WNBA. The ABL folded for good that winter. And, around the exact same time, WNBA players decided to unionize, under the guidance of the NBA Player’s Association. 

WNBA players got to play in NBA stadiums in front of more than 10,000 people per game the first couple of years. They were on highway billboards and had some games on ESPN and NBC. The NBA really did seem committed to the future of women’s basketball. Some thought that unionizing so early was a risk, that the players were asking for too much, too soon. That they didn’t understand how good they had it.

But most of the players felt that actually, this was a chance to secure that they had a say in their future. These weren’t all rookies right out of college; they were veterans who had been playing overseas for years, who had seen promises of professional women’s basketball leagues come and go many times over the years.

“The players decided after that second season to form a union and bargain collectively to make this venture something that could be a profession or a career, and not just a hobby you did in the side,” said Coquese Washington, the first President of the WNBPA and current head coach of Penn State women’s basketball. 

SEATTLE - OCTOBER 10:  Sue Bird #10 of the Seattle Storm looks on during Game 2 of the WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun on October 10, 2004 at the Key Arena in Seattle, Washington.  The Storm won 67-65.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
SEATTLE - OCTOBER 10: Sue Bird #10 of the Seattle Storm looks on during Game 2 of the WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun on October 10, 2004 at the Key Arena in Seattle, Washington. The Storm won 67-65. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

In that first contract, they were able to establish a $25,000 minimum salary for rookies and a $30,000 minimum for veterans, and ensure that contracts were guaranteed if a player was active at least half of the season. They also got a maternity plan in place, as well as year-round health care and dental, and established a 401K for the league. It wasn’t as much as they wanted, but it was a huge start.

In 2003, during the highly-contentious bargaining agreement detailed above, they still didn’t get as much money as they were hoping for, but they were able to get increases. And, they were able to secure what Wheeler considers her crowning achievement.

“Free agency is vital to any sport, so when we achieved free agency, to me that was the pinnacle,” Wheeler said. 

It’s easy to look at the financial realities of players in the WNBA today — with base salaries that range from about $41,000 to $115,000 — and feel like nothing much has changed for WNBA players in the past 22 years, that bargaining hasn’t yielded successes. But the truth is, the union has had to fight for every penny, for every benefit, for ever right. Wheeler still dreams of living to see the first million-dollar WNBA contract, and Washington is happy that players are are asking for more, but it’s important to remember how far they’ve come.

She still remembers trying to get the message out to the public in the early days: “We’re not asking for millions. We’re asking for health care.”

 

Biggest challenges

Ogwumike and other WNBA players feel that this upcoming contract is time to take the next step for the league, to get the NBA and WNBA brass to re-think what it considers “investing” in WNBA players. Last season, the Las Vegas Aces forfeited a game because of a 25-hour travel nightmare. What if teams had access to private travel in cases of emergency? What if 6’11” players didn’t have to sit in non-exit row commercial seats for a long flight the day before playing a professional basketball game? What if players got just a little bit money every summer, so that so many of them didn’t have to go overseas to earn a living between October and May, and more could stay in the U.S,, building their brands, resting their bodies, and making themselves available to the fans and the franchises in the WNBA? Wouldn’t that be better for everyone? It sounds almost too simple.

Los Angeles Sparks players celebrate after winning the WNBA championship title with a 77–76 win over the Minnesota Lynx in Game 5 Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, in Minneapolis. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone
Los Angeles Sparks players celebrate after winning the WNBA championship title with a 77–76 win over the Minnesota Lynx in Game 5 Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, in Minneapolis. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone

But, of course, there’s nothing simple about it. In 2018, management is telling the players what they’ve always been told — that it wishes it was realistic to pay the players everything they want, but that there just isn’t enough money. WNBA President Lisa Borders, who had built a good relationship with the players over the past few years, departed abruptly this fall to lead the Time’s Up movement. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has reiterated his commitment to the league, but doesn’t see getting more games televised on ESPN as a priority, despite his ongoing frustration about the league’s limited growth.

So far, the WNBA and NBA have been controlling the narrative. As Howard Megdal wrote for Deadspin, Terri Jackson, the Director of Players Operations for the WNBPA — the new Wheeler, as it may be — has been relatively silent over the past year. That’s not ideal, especially considering ESPN, which has such a big megaphone in the sports world, has such close relationships with the NBA and WNBA. The players are going to have to find a way to cut through that with a unified voice.

They also have to get on the same page about their exact demands. Ogwumike’s essay for the Player’s Tribune was powerfully written, but it was sparse on concrete details. During the 2018 season, players said they wanted a bigger slice of the pie — NBA players split 50 percent of the revenue, while it seems that WNBA players only get about 20 percent of the league’s revenue. But they also want better health care, improved travel conditions, and improved television contracts. Retired players that spoke to ThinkProgress voiced support for the establishment of a pension plan — a long sought after goal. There is a lot that needs to be accomplished.

But the biggest challenge that the players face is that the status of one of the league’s marquee franchises, the New York Liberty, remains in flux. James Dolan, who owns the Liberty, has made no qualms about the fact that he wants to sell the team. Already, the team has been moved from Madison Square Garden to a glorified high-school gymnasium in Westchester. The more that the WNBA can make it seem as if the league is struggling financially, the harder it will be for the players to fight for higher salaries and better resources. The current state of the Liberty helps the league play the poverty card.

I don’t know if there’s ever been a time in the history of collective bargaining where a team folded in the midst of negotiations.”

The 2014 CBA, which the players just opted out of, has been much-maligned. When asked about that contract — the last one she negotiated — Wheeler says that there was an incredibly good reason for that: The Los Angeles Sparks almost folded, after the owner decided that she could no longer afford the team because she was losing so much money.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been a time in the history of collective bargaining where a team folded in the midst of negotiations,” Wheeler said. “All of the arguments from the league are around the fact that they’re losing money. So how do you counter that?”

Why this time might be different

Sometimes, looking back at WNBA headlines, it can feel like déjà vu. Take this article from the Los Angeles Times from 2000, “Season starts today with players unhappy they receive only a third of earning potential in Europe.”

In 2003, when Stern issued his ultimatum, he said the NBA was losing $12 million per year because of the WNBA. This summer? The NBA said the exact same thing.

Today, players in the WNBA still only earn a modicum of what they earn overseas. They still have to play compressed schedules, travel in coach, and only get a small fraction of the media coverage that their NBA counterparts receive.

So, with all this being said, why should this time be any different? Is there any hope that the players will end up with a contract that’s more favorable than the one Wheeler negotiated back in 2014? Believe it or not, there is.

First of all, there’s the fact that the quality of the basketball itself is far better than its ever been. “The product on the floor compared to 20 years ago is incredible,” WNBA legend Ticha Pichanero, currently a WNBA agent, told ThinkProgress.

And people are noticing. This has led to increased ratings, and exciting new partnerships with companies such as FanDuel and Twitter. (The attendance likely would have been up this year, too, if not for the Liberty’s aforementioned move to Westchester.)

But the biggest reason to be hopeful? It’s the players themselves. In 2016, the WNBA fined its players for wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts doing warm-ups to commemorate the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers. The players from across the league came together in the wake of that to fight back, and along the way learned a lot about how to communicate, organize, and make sure that they are heard. Now that it’s time for bargaining, they have a stronger foundation to build upon than they have ever had before.

And while there are still out-of-touch media outlets like The Federalist writing articles about how greedy WNBA players are for daring to ask for better salaries, the general public and the sports media are better clued in this time around and understand that the players aren’t asking for LeBron James money, just a more equitable distribution of resources and a bigger investment to help the game grow at a faster rate.

“The advice I would give is to be together and to stay strong.”

It also helps immensely that women in other sports — such as hockey and soccer — have had recent, successful campaigns to win more equitable contracts from their governing bodies. Of course, the WNBA is a league, not a governing body, so it’s not an apples to apples comparison, but the same principles are in play. The public feels more primed for this fight, and since the media can be such a powerful tool in these fights, that’s not a small thing.

Washington is incredibly proud of how far the league has come, and says if she learned anything from her time leading the WNBPA, its that unity and messaging are key.

The advice I would give is to be together and to stay strong,” Washington said. “There’s definitely going to be some differing of opinions, but they have to stay together, stay committed, and know what it is that they want and not settle for anything less than that.”

 

CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to clarify that the $5,000 minimum in 1995 was for players on the development squad, and that in 2018, $41,000 to $115,000 is the range for base salaries in the league.