The WNBA and its players’ union have signaled a radical shift in how female athletes are to be compensated with a tentative contract agreement that would sharply increase salaries and provide generous maternal benefits in a move Commissioner Cathy Engelbert called “a big bet on women.”
The implications of the agreement stretch far beyond basketball at a time when women around the world are demanding increased pay and benefits, on their own merit and as a challenge to historically unequal pay that leaves them earning less than men for similar work. The pushback has been most visible in soccer, where the U.S. women’s national team has sued its governing body, and star players like Megan Rapinoe have spoken out. But the fight also is going on in tennis, hockey, track and field and other sports.
The proposed WNBA contract, which still must be approved by the league’s board of governors and the union’s membership, would enable top players to earn more than $500,000, about triple last season’s ceiling and far more than had ever seemed possible since the league’s first season in 1997.
But amid a broader cultural reckoning over disparities in how society regards women and men, the league’s 12 teams have attracted increased attention, and its players have felt more empowered to push for better pay and benefits.
“What we have here is a multidimensional pay structure as well as benefit structure,” Engelbert said in a phone interview. “We’ve really gone all out here. We’re making a big bet on this league, a big bet on women, and that in professional sports, that the WNBA can lead the way.”
Low salaries and limited or nonexistent maternity benefits have been two of the most-discussed issues in the debate over compensation for female athletes. Under this deal, the maximum WNBA salary would increase almost 83%, to $215,000 from $117,500. And while some people think that the players, in pushing for better pay, have been asking to earn the same multimillion-dollar salaries as their counterparts in the NBA, the union’s leaders have insisted that what they want is a comparable share of their league’s revenue, which this agreement would allow.
The NBA, which created the WNBA in 1996 and shares ownership with the women’s teams, splits its revenue about 50-50 with the men’s players. In the WNBA, the players are estimated to receive just 20-30% of league revenue. By 2021, if the league reaches certain revenue markers in broadcast agreements, marketing partnerships and licensing deals, the WNBA and its players could be splitting revenue equally. The contract would last for eight years, through 2027.
This agreement also would provide maternity leave with full salary, a dedicated space in arenas for nursing mothers and a $5,000 child care stipend. Veteran players also would be able to seek reimbursement for up to $60,000 in costs directly related to adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing and fertility treatment.
“We have several mothers in the league, and we had players that talked to us about what they realized they needed while they were playing,” Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBA players’ union president, said in a phone interview Monday.
In exchange for these and other benefits is a new requirement that will be gradually phased in: Players must be in WNBA training camps from the start. No more reporting late, or even after the season begins, to finish commitments to clubs overseas, with exceptions built in only for national team play and players in their first three seasons. Players, from superstars to rookies, have long supplemented their league pay by competing for clubs overseas during the offseason.
“We had to be incredibly innovative with this,” Ogwumike said. “And to be honest, with what the league wanted, we understood that it would take some novel change to get the league where we want it to go. We wanted to ensure that it is still allowing players the opportunity to get the salaries that we are used to getting in both markets while also phasing in a system that will hold the league as a certain priority.”
The year-round play of some players has had its consequences. Last year, Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart ruptured her right Achilles tendon while playing overseas and missed the entire 2019 season while she was the reigning Most Valuable Player Award winner.
That and other examples of players returning fatigued or injured have prompted the league and union to find ways to encourage players to stay stateside more.
The league has agreed to add $1.6 million annually in what are being called league marketing agreements, up to $250,000 for any one player, Engelbert said. For a top player, this new deal could mean a single-season salary of $215,000, another $250,000 in a league marketing agreement, plus bonus incentives for things like All-Star appearances and awards that could push her total compensation above $500,000.
The WNBA also will team with other leagues — the NBA and its developmental league and college basketball — to promote its own players for potential coaching openings. And Engelbert said players coaching in the NBA could be paid market rate, even if the men’s team was affiliated with a WNBA team. This became an issue last season when Mystics guard Kristi Toliver, because of pay restrictions in the expiring collective bargaining agreement, could earn just $10,000 as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards. That is no longer an issue, Engelbert said.
The WNBA season also will change in some dramatic ways, if the deal is approved. A 34-game campaign in 2019 will become a 36-game slate next season. And the games themselves will be different, thanks to another innovation: the Commissioner’s Cup.
Certain games on the 2020 schedule will be designated as Cup games, with separate standings for this in-season competition. The two teams with the best records in Cup games will play for the Commissioner’s Cup title. Starting in 2021, the prize money for in-season tournaments will be a minimum of $750,000.
The players’ experience, too, will be improved in ways that reflect both their day-to-day priorities and lifestyle choices.
The league’s teams, which provide housing, will now guarantee two-bedroom apartments for players with children. Travel, long a source of frustration among players, will now include individual instead of shared hotel rooms for every player. But players will still have to fly on commercial, not charter, planes to games, though they will receive economy-plus flight accommodations.
Player movement, too, will become easier, echoing an NBA trend to give players more opportunities to change teams or sign new deals. In the last WNBA agreement, players could not reach unrestricted free agency until they had played six full seasons. That number would become five. The leagues will, over the next several years, reduce how many times a team can designate someone as a core player and thus prevent them, even as an unrestricted free agent, from leaving the team.
The sum of new investment, accounting for league and team-specific initiatives, is nearly $1 million per team per season.
Engelbert said she expected unanimous approval by the league’s board of governors. This was not, Engelbert emphasized, simply a question of fairness. Rather, she said she believed that a greater investment would pay off in ways that reflected both the rise of women’s sports and the WNBA’s position to lead on that front.
“We believe this is the best deal to drive a return on investment during the term of this agreement,” Engelbert said. “But no doubt, a lot of these elements are setting up the future for the next generation of players to be in a great place — for the current stars to leave behind a legacy for the next generation.”
Ogwumike said she had been too busy negotiating to think about her legacy, but she saw the definition of women’s professional basketball changing in a deal she expected to outlast her playing career.
“We wanted to create a league in which it is clearly a viable option to play in the WNBA,” Ogwumike said. “So we’re providing a new starting line for those who come after us.”