WNBA Team-Building has Entered a New Era

Washington Mystics general manager and head coach Mike Thibault says the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement has changed his job forever.

He’s right, and it’s a great thing despite the additional challenges for those in his profession.

Thibault gave an interview to Ava Wallace of The Washington Post after former Washington guard Kristi Toliver recently signed a three-year contract with the Los Angeles Sparks. He pointed to the CBA as an important factor in the Mystics’ inability to re-sign her.

You’re not going to see teams that have nine or 10 long-term, veteran players on them. It just is not going to happen. They’ll be [top-heavy] or top and bottom and not a lot in the middle. The biggest fallacy in all of this new collective bargaining agreement is that the cap went up 31 percent.

The reality is, if you pay two players, your top players, in the range of the individual max, which went up 85 percent, the reality is paying the rest of your team is not at that 31 percent raise. A few people get that, and a few people don’t get that. Managing that is going to be interesting for several teams.

Whether or not Thibault intended his comment to come off as lamenting the loss of a bygone era, that’s a valid reading of his words: His comments reveal how lopsided previous CBAs were.

WNBA’s New Collective Bargaining Agreement Reminds How Poorly Players Were Treated

Accomplishments and experience now warrant significant increases in compensation.

In previous years, franchises could afford to stock rosters with such players. From here on out, teams will have to pay up to have such credentials on their rosters. WNBA certified player agent Robert Koo agrees with this assessment of the situation.

The provisions of the new CBA will allow more fluid player movement within the league. Over the next several years there will be a reduction of how many times a team can designate someone on their roster as a “core player”, which prevents players (both restricted and unrestricted free agents) from leaving their current team for another club.

It functions analogous to a franchise tag in football.

Koo and Thibault both highlight a labor situation that has (finally) become more friendly to labor.

Thibault says that the offer he made to Toliver was close to what she received from Los Angeles. He also stated that the main difference was in the third year. He framed the situation as having to choose between keeping Toliver and trying to retain more of the young players who will hit free agency simultaneously soon.

He also says that he expects two of the team’s biggest stars last season, Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman, to re-sign. Because of this shift, the league’s top talent will actually receive top pay somewhere.

How Long Until We See WNBA’s First ‘Super Team?’

While the WNBA is a unique entity, it isn’t unfair to compare the league’s labor devices to those in other professional sports leagues.

In the NBA, top players earn many times what their teammates make. Of course, that hasn’t prevented NBA GMs from putting teams with quality depth on the court.

NBA GMs do have one advantage over executives like Thibault, however. He has to operate under a hard salary cap while NBA GMs merely choose whether or not to surpass a luxury tax threshold. Even within those constraints, it’s possible to put a solid roster together.

As Thibault states, it’s a matter of management. Conveniently enough for him, that very word is in his job title. Toliver’s departure is a template for the new normal. Fans should see that as a positive, not a negative.

Oct 6, 2019; Uncasville, CT, USA; Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault watches from the sideline as they take on the Connecticut Sun during the second half in game three of the 2019 WNBA Finals at Mohegan Sun Arena. Washington defeated Connecticut 94-81. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Emerging and proven talent like Toliver realizing their autonomy on and off the court is indeed a win for fans.

An example of this is Angel McCoughtry’s signing with the Las Vegas Aces. It came in concert with McCoughtry launching her own subscription service allowing fans to connect with her.

Efforts like that by players are crucial according to Koo:

I believe one of the paramount challenges, in general, for WNBA players is the lack of visibility. WNBA players do not receive nearly as much media exposure as their male counterparts in the NBA.

It is apparent that even marginally talented NBA players are more often discussed on television and radio than WNBA superstars Sue Bird, Candace Parker, et al. Hopefully, the additional allocation of funds by the league in offseason and team marketing under the new CBA will have a positive effect on leveling the playing field.

Koo’s words point to a device that Thibault and others in his position can use to manage the situation: Franchises can use their marketing channels to increase social capital for players.

That might entice free agents to seriously consider said franchise as a unique destination where they could represent real value for athletes and such investments don’t count toward the league’s cap.

Thibault was mum about to what extent, if any, Washington committed to devoting resources to building Toliver’s brand. Similarly, it’s uncertain at this point what kind of commitments the Sparks may have made in that regard—though being based in Los Angeles certainly can’t hurt the equation.

The same details of McCoughtry’s new situation aren’t public. However, the new CBA mandates an investment of at least $1.6 million in offseason marketing by franchises and the league. That could create up to $300,000 in additional cash compensation for players.

ATLANTA, GA Ð JULY 22: Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry (35) brings the ball up the court during the WNBA game between Atlanta and Seattle on July 22, 2018 at Hank McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, GA. The Atlanta Dream defeated the Seattle Storm by a score of 87 Ð 74. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

McCoughtry and Toliver could be among the first players to take advantage of this new perk, though that’s partially up to how well Las Vegas and Los Angeles execute. Both teams have several other high-profile stars to market as well.

For the Aces, that includes A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage while the Sparks have Candace Parker to consider. This is equally a management situation for executives like Thibault because a franchise’s marketing resources are limited and could be crucial for retaining future free agents, as he alluded to.

For everyone involved, this offseason is the beginning of a new era.

A more equitable labor situation for players means there are more considerations for WNBA teams. It’s possible for both parties to capitalize on these opportunities, but one thing hasn’t changed:

Resource management is pivotal in this league.

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