How the WNBA’s New CBA Will Pay Off
On April 14, 2019, Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) champion and 2018 season Most Valuable Player Breanna Stewart suffered a gruesome Achilles tendon rupture during a EuroLeague game against Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg, causing her to miss the entire WNBA 2019 season. Ironically, the injury was caused in a collision with Brittney Griner, a six-time WNBA All-Star. For fans new to the WNBA, the situation seemed rather odd: Why were they playing in a different country for different teams? For the majority of WNBA players, they simply do not get paid enough for their American professional careers to support them. The league lacks salary guarantees, forcing them to play for foreign leagues during the off-season. Stewart’s untimely injury simply added fuel to an already raging fire of complaints for drastic change in the WNBA. The WNBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was the league’s major way of addressing these pressing issues, as the new CBA reduces the chance of such tragedies occurring in the future. In one 350-page document, the Women’s National Basketball Players’ Association (WNBPA) revolutionized professional women’s basketball in America. At the beginning of the 2020 season, the salary cap per team will rise 30 percent, from $1 million to $1.3 million. This will raise the maximum guaranteed salary to $215,000 (up from $117,000). With performance bonuses, marketing royalties, and personal sponsorships, players can earn more than $500,000 annually. For the first time since the league’s inauguration in 1996, the average salary will be six figures. They will also be upgraded on team flights from coach to comfort or economy plus, and granted their own hotel rooms as opposed to shared rooms.
Arguably the most significant new regulations being implemented are the new motherhood and family planning benefits for players. This includes fully paid maternity leave, an annual child care stipend of $5,000, two-bedroom apartments for players with children, and new workplace spaces for nursing mothers. With the new CBA, ex-WNBA players will be eligible to claim up to $60,000 in reimbursed expenses related to motherhood, such as adoptions, fertility treatments, hospital bills, and so on. They also added a new policy to address domestic and partner violence. The new policy includes paid administrative leave and gives the WNBA the authority to remove a player from its team during the investigation in review of the accusations and evidence.
These unprecedented welfare benefits make the WNBA more attractive for star athletes, which will likely increase the viewership of the league. Just like Breanna Stewart and Brittney Griner, many WNBA players travel overseas in the off-season to support themselves. In addition to risking injuries, these players are contractually obligated to play in the EuroLeague playoffs, often causing them to miss WNBA reporting deadlines and sending the message that the WNBA is not a priority. With these new salaries, athletes are less inclined to play overseas in the offseason, allowing them to spend that time taking care of their bodies and promoting the league. Although the lack of attendance at games remains an ongoing issue, thanks to a new national television deal with CBS, 2019 ratings rose 64 percent from the 2018 season, with average viewership per game reaching 413,000 fans. This CBA only goes through 2027, but the WNBA is hoping that the increased advertising and increased promotion of the league by players will increase attendance and viewership, garnering enough profit to sustain these new policies.
The CBA places a risky bet on the growth of women’s basketball, but it also serves as a blueprint and baseline for equity in sports by sending an indirect message that women, too, create an entertaining market. The CBA won’t bring WNBA players’ salaries even close to the multimillion-dollar salaries of NBA players. However, the implementation of this new agreement indicates that the WNBA is at least moving in the direction of recognizing players’ needs and actively responding to accommodate them. By keeping players domestic, the WNBA is able to market themselves as the premier international women’s basketball league, which increases the leagues appeal to international players who could not previously afford playing in the states, and is also increasing the level of competition and quality of play. The growth of the NCAA women’s basketball market is also affecting the WNBA in a positive way such that some newer fans of the WNBA first became fans of specific college players and continued to follow them through their professional careers.
If the CBA succeeds and proves to be sustainable, it will become an important example for other female professional sports leagues to follow. This is much bigger than just basketball, it is about finally recognizing the worth of female athletes of all disciplines. In the words of WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, “We are betting on women in a big way here. Betting on the WNBA.”