WNBA players to be paid June 1 as league, union work through details

WNBA players will receive their first paychecks on time June 1 despite the season not starting yet, league commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Friday in an interview with ESPN.

The league was to launch its 24th season Friday, but it has been delayed indefinitely by the coronavirus pandemic. The players have year-round health care benefits, which were extended to rookies starting May 1.

The exact details are still being worked out as to whether the players will receive full salaries now or a prorated version until a decision is made on the start date and length of the 2020 season. It does seem, though, that teams will need to cut some players without seeing them in training camps.

In normal circumstances, rosters would have been pared down to 12 this week for each of the 12 teams. They'll have to get to 12 players for paycheck purposes unless an amendment is added to the collective bargaining agreement, which does not appear likely.

"Because of the fluid nature of the season right now, we can't answer everything," Engelbert said. "But we thought it was important that they get their paycheck on June 1."

Women's National Basketball Players Association executive director Terri Jackson agreed. Both Engelbert and Jackson pointed out that players are working by staying in shape, studying video, participating in video calls with their teams, doing media interviews, and being active on social media with promoting themselves and the WNBA.

"The league and the teams are recognizing what it means to be a professional athlete working from home," Jackson said. "Particularly in these times, that sends a good, strong message: 'We value you.' That's what this union is all about, and we're continuing the conversation about valuing women in the workplace."

It's also of note, though, that the WNBA's new CBA -- which was agreed to in January -- does not have a force majeure provision. Past WNBA CBAs did not have one, either. Force majeure is a contract clause that typically frees both parties from liability or obligation based on extreme circumstances beyond either party's control, such as a global pandemic. Typically, force majeure clauses don't permanently limit liability, but do so during the extent of the crisis.

The NBA does have a force majeure provision in its CBA, which prompted the union and the league to agree to a 25% pay cut for players starting this week.

Jackson was diplomatic in pointing out the lack of a force majeure clause for the WNBA, which has salaries significantly less than those in the NBA. The NBA's salary cap for 2019-20 is $104.14 million compared to the WNBA's $1.3 million for 2020.

"We don't have the clause, but we know we are in the midst of a global situation with respect to public health and economic impact," Jackson said. "We recognize our league and our teams are not spared in this moment. However, we are certainly hopeful the league is doing everything it can to manage the current financial situation."

Communication has been key, Engelbert said. She said she and Jackson are in contact daily, and that the league frequently communicates with players.

"We've sent them FAQs and videos, we've done calls," Engelbert said. "The players are spread out, including internationally. We want to just continue to have a connection. I told them I'm proud of all of them and how they've been staying active on social media during this hiatus for us.

"We're trying to find every way to get players visible, so when we tip the season we're coming in with some momentum."

As for when that will be, there is still a wide range of possibilities. Engelbert said that while the WNBA shares in the same information from health care experts as the NBA, the women's league is developing its own plans. The WNBA could opt to open in one site and transition to its teams' home arenas, or start in its arenas.

All options are still on the table, although Engelbert said she doesn't feel very optimistic about fans being allowed into games, at least not during the regular season. But again, much could happen in the next few months.

"While the medical protocols are going to be very similar if not identical to the NBA's," Engelbert said, "there are a lot of operational, logistical, business elements to get into. We have been talking to other leagues, too, big and small.

"You're seeing some states start to open back up. I think what you're going to find is sports are all comparing notes, and I see that in the business world, too."

The WNBA normally has a 34-game regular season. That's followed by single-elimination first- and second-round playoff games, and then best-of-five series for the semifinals and finals. Because of the monthlong break that was scheduled for the Olympics, the 2020 WNBA season wasn't set to end until mid-October. Engelbert said the league right now doesn't have any last-possible-start dates in mind, although several players compete overseas in the winter months. However, that, too, is uncertain because of the pandemic.

"It may be too late to play our full season at some point; we're probably going to come up on that by early July," Engelbert said. "But as we look at some of the more realistic scenarios of the number of games we could get in with a competitive playoff structure, you could get later in the summer as a start time. And you could go to different formats; I think our players are open to that as well.

"A lot could happen across the country in the next four weeks. Let's get their paychecks out on June 1, and continue to have conversations that revolve around what the season structure is going to look like."