Over the second half of the WNBA season, ESPN’s M.A. Voepel and Alexa Philippou asked 34 players, almost 25 percent of the league, “What’s the biggest issue in the WNBA?” On Monday, they published the results, providing valuable insight into players’ perspectives of their league.
Voepel and Philippou organized the issues identified by players into six categories:
Travel: 18 players
Other concerns: 7
Salary structure: 3
Roster spots: 2
As the authors note, the current CBA, ratified in January 2020, expires at the end of the 2027 season. However, there is a mutual opt-out provision after the 2025 season. Before then, the league and WNBPA can amend the CBA through side letters, meaning the issues raised by players could be addressed ahead of a new CBA.
The Las Vegas Aces’ Kelsey Plum, who serves of the first vice president of the WNBPA, expressed an eagerness to press for change, saying, “I have no problem having a confrontation…They might hate me, but I’m going to stir the pot and make it more uncomfortable. Because I feel that’s the only way we’re going to start moving that needle.”
Below, we won’t “stir the pot” as aggressively as Plum might, but we will offer additional commentary about and context for players’ concerns that fall under travel, salary structure and visibility.
Unsurprisingly, more than half of the players surveyed emphasized the need for charter flights.
Recent reporting by The Next should further encourage players to voice their dissatisfaction with the league’s travel policies. On Wednesday, Howard Megdal reported that a WNBA internal memo, released to teams this past week, revealed “that as many as six teams could be forced to take a commercial flight during the playoffs after winning a series.” According to Megdal, the memo reads:
Between rounds, teams will have the option to charter from the home market or directly to Game 1 of the following round (only one route permitted, not both). Therefore, teams will need to plan their own commercial flight(s) if and when necessary, depending on their choice.
This scenario certainly undermines what Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said about the league’s 2023 travel arrangements at the WNBA Draft, when she announced, “We will have charter flights for all postseason games.”
Our @howardmegdal reveals the details of the #WNBA playoff travel memo, along with the frustration around the league about the exceptions to “full playoffs” chartering promised by commissioner Cathy Engelbert https://t.co/IoaB4Lzep1
— The Next: A women’s basketball newsroom at The IX (@TheNextHoops) August 30, 2023
A team official aptly told The Next, “You came out and said you were going to have charter travel for the playoffs. Now you say, charters, with asterisks, unless this happens.” And as players, like the Aces’ Alysha Clark, became aware of the policy’s fine print, they called out the the Commissioner for the seeming duplicity.
And if a team is within 200 miles of the other you can’t charter? Like what? This isn’t what we talked about nor is it what you publicly said. @TheWNBPA
— Alysha Clark (@Alysha_Clark) September 1, 2023
The “charter flights for all postseason games” bait and switch appears to fit a pattern. Based on comments shared with Voepel and Philippou, a large part of players’ frustrations with travel comes from a sense of unfulfilled promises. Or, if one chooses to be more cynical than players were in their survey responses, it could be suggested that announced travel improvements are more about generating positive PR than substantially upgrading the player travel experience.
For instance, the league permits teams to use a public chartering service, JSX. Yet, JSX does not operate in a number of WNBA cities, and teams are prevented from working with the company to establish alternative flight paths.
As the Connecticut Sun’s DeWanna Bonner told ESPN, “You’ve got extra legroom in the seats, but it’s crazy that I’ve been here for 14 years and nothing much has changed about the travel.” Bonner’s comment intersects with the more generalized concerns of her teammate Ty Harris, who cited the biggest issue as professionalism. “Probably just treating us like we’re professionals. Coming from college and going into the pros should be a step up, but I feel like being in college was more than being here at the pros. Outside of basketball, traveling, commercial flights, hotels,” Harris shared.
For Minnesota Lynx teammates Kayla McBride and Napheesa Collier, a higher maximum salary stands as the league’s most pressing issue. Collier noted a new television deal that paid the league “what we’re worth” could permit the supermax salary to rise to $500,000.
The Los Angeles Sparks’ Layshia Clarendon, formerly the first vice president of the WNBPA, suggested that moving from a hard salary cap to a soft cap would advantage both players and teams. Clarendon specifically emphasized the benefits of allowing teams to exceed the cap to pay veterans, saying:
Changing the hard cap to a soft cap is one of the biggest issues, with the way it has impacted rosters and not incentivized teams to keep veterans because of tight cap space. Veterans are the backbone of our league and help make the product really good. But the league has not budged on it.
The two issues introduced in this category—a higher maximum salary and a more flexible salary cap—highlight how a player’s position in the league influences their perspective and, in turn, can lead to divergent priorities.
A three-time All-Star poised to make her second All-WNBA team, Collier views salary concerns through a superstar lens. Whether the league has a hard cap or a soft cap, she will be in position to earn a maximum salary. She thus would like to see that salary be as large as possible. In contrast, Clarendon was out of the league last season, cut by the Lynx despite spearheading the team’s turnaround during the 2021 season. And earlier in 2021, they were cut by the New York Liberty, even after leading the team through 2020 Wubble season. In short, Clarendon is intimately familiar with the vagaries to which veterans often are subjected, vagaries that are exacerbated by a hard salary cap.
It’s usually smart to listen to Candace Parker. The Las Vegas vet explained why visibility is the league’s most pressing issue, telling Voepel and Philippou:
I grew up a Bulls fan, and we didn’t like Detroit. Establishing those rivalries builds visibility. The visibility builds everything else. It’s not just having a game broadcasted, but where and when. With visibility comes marketing, which brings more money. That leads to charter [flights], bigger salaries.
On Monday, the same day of the publication of the survey, ESPN 2’s broadcast of the final regular-season game between Parker’s Aces and the Liberty would become the most-watched game on the network in five seasons, a data point that substantiates Parker’s suggestion that rivalries generate visibility.
However, the previous two matchups between the two teams—the Aug. 15 Commissioner’s Cup Championship and an Aug. 17 regular-season game—were broadcast on Amazon Prime Video. While the league benefits financially from the broadcast partnership with Amazon, it limits the kind of visibility Parker calls for. Not only is there an additional financial barrier for viewers, but Amazon inadequately promotes its WNBA games.
The absence of Bally Sports RSNs on the most popular streaming services also takes eyeballs away from games. In light of the difficulties with Bally, which includes the bankruptcy of its parent company, Diamond Sports, the Phoenix Mercury began to broadcast games for free on Arizona’s Family, a local, linear television channel.
In future negotiations, the WNBA and WNBPA will have to haggle over the ultimate priority: maximizing visibility or maximizing profit. Possibly, sacrificing profit for visibility in the short term will, as Parker describes, lead to long-term benefits.
The sustainability of women’s professional basketball—as a league, as a career, as a sports entertainment product—unites the issues raised by players.
And from their perspective, such sustainability will not be achieved by a slow, steady and conservative approach, but by pressing on and pushing through boundaries that too long have limited the business of women’s sports.