The WNBA’s prioritization clause reveals the rift between the league and its players

LAS VEGAS – An hour before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, Commissioner Kathy Engelbert stood on a podium inside the Michelob Ultra Arena and defended the league’s lead. “Improving player experience and compensation has been a major priority,” she said.

Previous League Player of the Year Brianna Stewart criticized those meticulous efforts just days ago.

Welcome to the era of prioritization, where the league is looking to make its product the #1 priority for players while many of these players say the new rules attack their experience and compensation.

The prioritization clause, negotiated collectively in 2020, goes into effect next season and requires players with two or more years of league experience to report to training camp on time or by May 1, whichever is later, or face Financial penalty. They will be suspended for the year if they miss the start of the season.

Starting in 2024, players will be suspended for the season if they do not arrive by the start of training camp or at least by May 1.

A number of players are routinely late in the league because their outside teams are still active. Players from the WNBA regularly play in Europe and elsewhere to earn much more money than WNBA contracts pay.

Engelbert said: “The owners have really stepped up on the compensation side of the players in this collective bargaining cycle, and I think that kind of trade-off is prioritizing, showing up on time for our season. And quite frankly, after 36 years of working in my business world, there hasn’t been a time One where I was not required to show up on time.

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“We understand that the players will make their own decisions.”

The players emphasized those last sentiments.

Stewart, who led the NBA in scoring this season, has already signed with Fenerbahce in Turkey. She described prioritization as “one of the biggest disconnects between players, the WNBA, and the Board of Referees” at her press conference after being stormed out by the Las Vegas Aces in the semifinals. Chicago Sky star Emma Meeseman has also signed with Fenerbahce. Striker Sun and 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones have signed Cukurova in Turkey.

The Washington Mystics played their first five games in 2022 without Elizabeth Williams while finishing the season with Fenerbahce.

According to salary-tracking website Spotrac, Phoenix Mercury guards Diana Taurasi and storm guards Joel Lloyd and Stewart were the highest-paid players in the league this season, with $228,094. Engelbert said the highest-earning players can earn up to $700,000 including salary, commissioner’s cup, award bonuses, league and team marketing deals and other incentives.

“It’s not the same thing,” said Briona Jones, the sixth player in 2022 who played for USK Praha in the Czech Republic outside of last season. “Outside is guaranteed. If you sign a contract, it’s guaranteed offshore. Well, we have these opportunities but not for every player. So it is different.

“And yes, the big guys make more money and the juniors make more money, but then those average guys are still, like, in limbo. There are steps being taken, and they are moving in the right direction, but the conversation is not like the outside.”

The best players can earn over a million dollars each overseas season.

Sun’s teammate Dewan Boehner pointed out that the extra outside money is especially important for players with children. She said the new rule could eliminate free time and family time for foreign players in the WNBA.

Storm forward Gabe Williams, who was a Final Four player with Sopron Baskett in Hungary last season, will be a free agent in the WNBA and has discussed the possibility of leaving the league altogether.

“Money doesn’t touch what we earn in Europe, that’s just the truth of the matter,” Williams said. “I’m young, I have to make these kinds of decisions. I would like to go back to the WNBA. What the WNBA decided to do for players like me makes it complicated.”

She also lamented the fact that the prioritization rule does not allow individual teams to make their own decisions about whether to wait for a player to return.

Engelbert said she foresaw this conflict on the base with some players. She noted half a million dollars in those Commissioner’s Cup pools, half a million dollars in playoff bonuses and 1.5 million dollars in marketing money the league made available to make up for lost money overseas. Engelbert also noted that players in their first two years are not subject to prioritization rules.

“The players will do whatever they want, knowing their bodies will last for a long time,” Engelbert said. “The average tenure is less than six years, so we want them to have opportunities in their first two years to play abroad.

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“Again, we are not passive about playing abroad. We just want them to come back and prioritize the WBA when our season begins.”

The WNBA continues to grow towards the end of its 26th season, and having all players in full training camp and season can affect that growth. The owners want all of their players in the camp to build team harmony, and fans coming into early matches may not want to risk buying tickets when famous players are not available. Broadcast partners also don’t want stars to lose televised games.

The current media rights deal contains televised games on ABC and ESPN/ESPN2 through the 2025 season. The new deal is expected to be even more lucrative, as ratings have grown constantly, and this should directly affect the salary cap and player contracts. Engelbert said the league has seen the most-watched playoffs in 20 years after its most-watched regular season in 14 years.

For example, MLS recently sold its streaming rights to Apple TV Plus for $250 million annually over 10 years, according to Forbes.

“It’s probably the most important business issue I focus on,” Engelbert said. “Everything we do is up to the players and it will definitely help them. If you look at our viewership this year compared to some of the men’s leagues, we are doing well.”

This is something the players and the league agree on.

“It can change the game in many ways,” Stewart said. “More money means you’re not worried about going abroad.”

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