Now that the WNBA players have opted out of their collective bargaining agreement, what are their main objectives for the next one?
Obviously, salaries matter, and they'll push for more money. But a dramatic increase in salaries might not be the players' most pressing objective. They're looking for a better everyday experience -- from travel to training facilities -- for all teams. And they want the players to have more of a seat at the table in decision-making for the league, including with branding and growth initiatives.
Multiple players have shared this in conversations with espnW, and executive council president Nneka Ogwumike of the Sparks wrote it in her story in The Players' Tribune on Thursday. The players understand the league is still in growth mode, but feel that the last CBA was not really about moving the league forward. They considered it more about keeping things status quo.
"Seeing that the players overwhelmingly voted for an opt-out shows the unity and desire for a more fair CBA. We look forward to kicking off the negotiations with the league shortly." Terri Jackson, WNBPA director
That agreement, signed in March 2014, ran through the 2021 season. But the players decided they couldn't wait that long to try to make some important changes. Now the labor agreement will end in October 2019, after next season concludes.
Terri Jackson, director of the Women's National Basketball Players Association, has indicated a preference for getting a new CBA done well in advance of the 2020 season, rather than going down to the wire.
"Seeing that the players overwhelmingly voted for an opt-out shows the unity and desire for a more fair CBA," Jackson said. "We look forward to kicking off the negotiations with the league shortly."
It remains to be seen if that is also the league's preference; the WNBA released the following statement via a spokesperson Friday evening: "WNBA players are critical partners in growing our game and business and we look forward to continuing our work with them to strengthen our league."
There were already multiple issues the NBA was dealing with regarding the WNBA: the search for a new WNBA president (plus filling the jobs of two other senior WNBA executives), the search for a buyer for the New York Liberty (an original franchise that has been for sale a year), and the recognition that the league's branding/marketing have fallen short of what is desired after being in business for 22 seasons.
From the players' perspective, though, there's still plenty of room for optimism. While they seemed to get along well with recently resigned president Lisa Borders and considered her mostly a sympathetic ear, they are excited about the possibility of a new president working closely with them and the NBA on decisions that impact the WNBA.
Many WNBA players say they find out about too many things -- including advertising campaigns and charitable initiatives -- at the last minute, or after they've already been decided on.
The players want to be seen as fully invested stakeholders in the WNBA's present and its future. They want to be viewed as problem-solvers, which is why the requests they've made for seeing more detailed financial numbers about the league as a whole and the franchises individually will continue. The league, however, says it already has shared all of that data.
As for Jackson using "fair" in regard to the CBA, that's a broad term on which there might be a difficult time coming to a consensus.
Travel accommodations are a big issue. That was brought to the forefront with the Las Vegas Aces' decision to not play an Aug. 4 game at Washington -- resulting in a forfeit -- after travel delays that lasted more than 24 hours. The players cited health concerns and injury risk as the reasons for not taking the court.
"I think they may be the worst-marketed pro league in the world, in terms of what their messaging is. How do they better inspire people to watch the games?" UConn coach Geno Auriemma on the WNBA
Charter flights for all games aren't an option; it would be cost-prohibitive. But might teams be permitted a certain number of charter flights for particularly challenging road trips that include back-to-back games? If so, how would they be paid for? Some WNBA teams have greater access to charter planes, based on who owns the team.
Division I college teams more frequently charter, but they are under a different system and construct. Schools could face Title IX complaints if they chartered for men's teams but not for women's. Also, colleges are supposed to be committed to the student part of student-athlete, and charters allow players to miss fewer classes. That means players come from college to a starker reality as professionals.
"You shouldn't move up a level of basketball and have so much worse an experience travel-wise than in college," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who has several former players, including Dallas' Skylar Diggins-Smith, who've been outspoken about things they hope to see change in the WNBA. "I think they have to figure out some ways to make that better."
UConn's Geno Auriemma, who has multiple former players in the WNBA, voiced some frustration with the league's branding.
"It's a testament to the WNBA's staying power that the level of play improves each year," he said. "But what's the next step? I venture to say, as an outsider looking in, that more of a collaboration between the players and the league is needed.
"What are the players genuinely concerned about that impacts them and also could help the league? Salaries is a point that's been raised by the players, and how do we change the salary structure? But I also think they may be the worst-marketed pro league in the world, in terms of what their messaging is. How do they better inspire people to watch the games?"
These are all issues that have been wrestled with for many years by everyone involved with the WNBA. Will a newly negotiated CBA address them to both the league's and the players' satisfaction?
It's going to take real listening on both sides, openness to hard financial facts but also new ideas, and the belief that even just a little progress eventually might go a long way.