WNBA, players negotiations: points of contention are as old as league itself

Photo by Charles Hallman W Commissioner Cathy Engelbert

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has a lot on her desk since taking over the league last month. It isn’t like she inherited a mess left behind, but rather variations of the same old mess the league has been dealing with for much of its existence.

Unlike any previous time in its history, the players are becoming more vocal, more demanding. This generation isn’t just happy and satisfied that there’s finally a U.S. pro women’s hoops league. 

They want more. They deserve more. The question is how much more the W will give them to reach both parties’ satisfaction.

Besides salaries, travel to road games has become a more public issue of late. Las Vegas forfeited a game last year after spending over a day trying to get to a game. Right after All-Star break, Chicago spent 12 hours in an airport, three hours on a plane, and 90 minutes trying to retrieve their checked luggage after arriving after 3 am.

All 12 WNBA teams must fly commercial to games as the league prohibits them from using charter flights. Most NBA teams, on the other hand, fly on charters. Delta signed a contract to carry 27 of 30 teams on planes retrofitted for the players’ height.

Many college teams also fly on charter planes. Several NHL and NFL clubs fly on charters as well.

League officials claim that it’s too costly to fly women hoopsters on non-commercial flights and their argument is sound: Costs vary from $7,000 to $15,000 per hour depending on the size of the plane. Still, something must be done to improve the players’ travel.

I suggest that the W somehow piggyback on the NBA-Delta deal — after all, that league isn’t playing in the summertime during the WNBA season. When American Airlines dropped carrying six NFL clubs in 2017, the NBA stepped in and allowed their contracted planes to be used by NFL teams if needed. 

Another suggestion: The NBA with their bountiful array of sponsors could help their sisters out in this matter. The men’s league in 2017 signed a $24 billion, nine-year television pact with Turner Sports and ESPN, which according to HuffPost represents “a 180 percent increase in the amount of money flowing into the league’s coffers.”

“One of my priorities is to tackle this issue of the economics of the league, the financials of the league and the owners, and be ready to tackle that in a very multidimensional way,” Engelbert told reporters during All-Star weekend. “Not just through CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement] negotiations, but through corporate sponsorships, through other models.”

Travel hassles and salaries are just a sample of issues both Engelbert’s league and its players must work out in the fourth CBA that must be in place at the start of the 2020 season.  Unlike the previous three agreements (1999, 2003 and 2008) where the players basically accepted whatever the W offered or risked losing the league, getting a new pact could be contentious.

Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, a member of the W’s first generation of players, has expressed some reservations, however. “If the numbers don’t add up, it’s hot air,” she stressed.

“If you don’t know what the numbers [are], you don’t know what to fight for. That’s very frustrating. We don’t have clear numbers of what is going on,” she said.

“We just signed a huge [television] deal… How does that help us as players?” Taurasi asked.  “How does that help the bottom line for us? I just don’t see it making a difference in our paychecks.”