Why substantially increasing WNBA player salaries is more complex than you think

Diana Taurasi has played overseas for more than 10 years to supplement her income as a pro women's basketball player. Now, she said, it's time for the younger players "to stay here in the United States, make a lot of money and be influential." AP Photo/Stacy Bengs

MINNEAPOLIS -- Hours before taking the court for Saturday's All-Star Game, WNBA players met for breakfast and a civics lesson at a downtown Minneapolis hotel. The Women's National Basketball Players Association was announcing a partnership with Rock The Vote.

The players listened to a presentation about what they could do to increase voter registration and the dangers of voter suppression. Serious topics before the fun of an exhibition game, but there was something else heavy on their minds.

"Are we going to talk about the CBA, too?" Phoenix's Diana Taurasi asked.

With that, media were excused from the conference room, and the All-Stars and union head Terri Jackson discussed the WNBA's collective bargaining agreement for about 30 minutes. The current CBA went into effect in March 2014 and runs through October 2021. However, both the league and the union have the right to opt out and terminate the agreement after the 2019 season. Either side has until Oct. 31 of this year to exercise that opt-out provision.

WNBA compensation has been brought to the forefront publicly in 2018 more than in any previous season. Several players have taken to Twitter, conducted interviews or spoken on media teleconferences about their view that the WNBA needs to more substantially increase salaries. That's something the players will have to try to successfully negotiate to their satisfaction in the next collective bargaining.

Sharing those opinions on Twitter has brought out the expected trolls, as well as some media who have cherry-picked or misconstrued WNBA players' statements, especially in regard to comparisons with the NBA. Some players avoid social media to discuss WNBA compensation for that reason, but others are undaunted.

"No matter what you tweet, there's always going to be some backlash," said No. 1 draft pick A'ja Wilson of Las Vegas. "So I try to use a funny twist to things if I can. If nothing else, we have people talking."

Aces teammate Kayla McBride added, "The thing that bothers me the most is the respect factor. In order to reach people who may not be very informed on the WNBA, you have to connect with them on a human level.

"What I try to tell them is, 'Just get to know me. Get to know the businesswomen, the scholars, the authors, the women of this league. And come to a game. If you hate it, OK. But if you've never been to a game, you're speaking about things you have no idea about.'"

The All-Star Game provided a chance for a group of the league's best players, ranging in age from 21 to 37, to discuss their future. Some are near the end of their basketball careers, and others are just starting. All have a vested interest in how compensation and amenities, particularly travel, impact not just each individual player but also the WNBA itself.

"We don't get many opportunities to get together," Taurasi said Saturday. "We've wasted a lot of All-Star opportunities in the past -- where we have 20 or so of the most influential players in the league -- to talk about stuff that's important.

"We got some time today to actually talk about substance, things that are realistic and things that are just unattainable. We need that feedback. Most of us are not [in the United States] year-round, so it's hard to get tangible information in a group setting. Hopefully, we had a good half an hour with the union to let them know how we feel."

"Look, we're not over here saying we should be paid the same as the men. We're realistic. We understand that this is a business and that their revenue is insane compared to ours. But there is a bias that exists." Sue Bird

There's an oft-stated desire for hard data on the financial status of all 12 WNBA franchises. While that's part of an age-old game of cat-and-mouse between management and labor in many industries, financial specifics with the WNBA have always been difficult to pin down.

"We need numbers so we know what we're dealing with and what we can actually ask for and attain," said Washington's Elena Delle Donne, an All-Star captain. "Nobody wants this league to go under. We just want it to be better and people to get what they deserve. I think it's going to be a long process, and it's going to take a lot of work.

"It's great that people are speaking out and saying what they feel. It's time we speak. We want answers, and we want to continue to grow."

Of course, not all the answers will be positive. How many franchises make a profit? It changes year to year, but usually it's about half. How much have some franchises lost? Some say in total, over the years, it's millions.

How much does an overseas market that has shrunk in recent years impact the players' bargaining position with the WNBA? It's a factor. How much do younger players -- who have been among the most outspoken -- truly understand about the history and economics of their league? Some might not realize that six franchises, including four-time champion Houston, have folded since the WNBA began.

"I don't know if we're all 100 percent knowledgeable about everything that goes on with the business and inner workings," Seattle's Sue Bird said. "But I think we all can feel and sense what's happening. I don't think it's ever as simple as we think. It's not just, 'We need the revenue share to be different,' or 'We need X, Y or Z, and then things will be better.' It's more nuanced."

Revenue sharing has been a big talking point, prompted in part by a story that gained traction last year written by David Berri, an economics professor who writes for Forbes. Berri took a shot at figuring out the WNBA's annual revenue, acknowledging that it was an estimation. Berri estimated that WNBA players were making about 22 percent of the league's revenue and contrasted that with the NBA sharing revenue 50-50 with its players.

Directly comparing revenue-sharing percentage, though, is problematic. The NBA as a business is 50 years older and substantially more profitable than the WNBA. Also "revenue" is not the same as "profit." A smaller pool makes equal revenue-sharing less likely, as owners' financial needs for running their teams (along with any debt from past seasons) must be taken into account.

The consensus of several players and agents who spoke to espnW, some on the record and some off, was that a 50/50 split was unrealistic, but the percentage needs to increase.

Salary is not the only concern regarding the next CBA, according to the union, which also focuses on what it terms "the player experience" and health/safety issues.

One of the biggest current facility issues is the New York Liberty's playing in the Westchester County Center, a small, aged arena that has met with scorn from fans. The Liberty, one of the WNBA's original franchises, previously played at Madison Square Garden, save for a three-year stay at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, during Garden renovations.

The Liberty franchise is for sale by MSG Company, so new ownership and a different facility should be in place before CBA negotiations. But practice facilities for some franchises will still be an issue.

"And, of course, how teams travel," Jackson said.

She was referring to teams' flying coach -- franchises aren't allowed to charter even if they want to -- and players who have four years' or less experience in the league having to share hotel rooms. Travel woes and fatigue have been even bigger concerns this year because of the compacted schedule due to the FIBA Women's World Cup at the end of September. The WNBA regular season opened May 18 and wraps up Aug. 19, as the teams jam 34 games into 13 weeks. (The 2017 regular season lasted 16 weeks.) Then the WNBA playoffs are immediately followed by the World Cup. And then most players will join their overseas teams.

The almost year-round playing schedule has been the way things are since the WNBA began in 1997. With the relatively short window of an athletic career, players go overseas to earn as much money as they can. A lot of them have earned more in leagues outside the United States than they have in the WNBA, but that has always had its ups and downs, too.

Right now, agents acknowledge, the overseas market is down. A rule change in South Korea about the number of foreigners allowed has cut that number from 12 per team to six. One of the top teams in Turkey surprised everyone by folding recently -- after some prominent WNBA players signed contracts to play there this winter. They were left scrambling to find other jobs.

"Now, you have a handful of teams that pay really well, but the average salaries have gone down," said Ticha Penicheiro, a native of Portugal who played in the WNBA for 15 years before becoming a player agent. "And then you have a league like in France, which is run well and very professional, but their season goes into June. So players can't go there and be back in time for the WNBA season."

However, if a couple of clubs overseas decide to up the ante, it could help turn the tide. Overseas compensation has been a free-market roller-coaster, in contrast to the predictable but rigid WNBA, which has a hard cap and salary structure.

This season, the maximum veteran salary is $115,500, not including potential bonuses. The league minimum for a player with two or fewer years of service is $41,202; for three or more years of service, the minimum is $56,100. Rookies are on a scale from $40,000-$50,000.

Each team is allowed $54,000 in bonus money to award at its discretion to players for not playing overseas. Teams can give all the money to one player or spread it out among several. There are bonuses for awards such as league MVP ($15,000), All-WNBA first team ($10,000) and second team ($5,000). Bonus money for playoff appearances ranges from a little more than $1,000 per player for a first-round loss to just more than $11,000 a piece for winning the championship.

Combine the salary structure with the core designation -- essentially a franchise tag for each team -- and you get a restricted amount of free-agent movement, especially among the most elite players. That has been the case throughout the league's history.

This prompted Taurasi, who has spent most of her overseas career in Russia, to provide one of her trademark sound bites. It's humorous and contains a seed of truth, but it also requires disclaimers.

"I've said the WNBA is the most communist business you'll ever be in," she said. "And it's funny, I spent 12 years in a communist country feeling the benefits of a free economy. It's bizarre to me that I've lived in this paradigm. I've lived the American dream somewhere else.

"Now I'm 36 and have played 95 percent of my career, and I can look back on that and say, 'I don't want it to be like that for A'ja and the younger kids coming in.' I want them to stay here in the United States, make a lot of money and be influential in our own country."

However, the WNBA sends its paychecks on time, and they don't bounce. That can't be said for all overseas teams. Plus, the WNBA provides health insurance and a 401(k) program.

Also, the free market in the United States is precisely why the WNBA has had to be so rigid in containing salaries and trying to maintain a level playing field for all its franchises: The league has yet to sell itself to corporate America and the ticket-buying public to the degree it aspires to.

That's understandable, though, considering that the WNBA has been in business for less time than a rookie has been alive. Whatever its flaws, the WNBA is more tenured and secure than U.S.-based pro leagues for women in team sports such as soccer, softball and hockey, which are still trying to establish themselves.

There remain societal challenges in building professional women's sports that men's sports never faced. Men's pro leagues had to work to establish financial viability, but men didn't face scorn, derision or resistance for simply being athletes.

"As a women's league, we need to go to the heads of major companies, and even just the casual fans who won't support us, and really ask them why," Bird said. "The fact that our viewership is up. Clearly, it's a good product, and interest is there. What makes some people feel like they need to put this league down on a regular basis?

"Look, we're not over here saying we should be paid the same as the men or anything like that. We're realistic. We understand that this is a business and that their revenue is insane compared to ours. But there is a bias that exists, and some people won't even acknowledge that it's there."

Whenever the next CBA negotiation is -- depending on a potential opt-out -- there will be new voices involved. Neither WNBA president Lisa Borders nor the union's Jackson were in their current positions for the previous CBA negotiations.

On Saturday before the All-Star Game, Borders took the expected diplomatic stance that she definitely wanted to see the players paid more, but the league's franchises weren't yet in a position to do that. Borders said she would be the players' "biggest advocate," but in reality, that's Jackson's job. Jackson said the CBA "needs to catch up to the times."

A player such as the 26-year-old McBride sees it all in personal terms.

"I have a 12-year-old sister," she said. "If she has it better in the WNBA someday than I do, then I did my job."