With the recent announcement that collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the WNBA and the WNBPA have been extended to January 15, (and with free agency set to begin February 1), it seems like the new CBA is imminent.
While there are many unknowns until the final document actually goes public, there are some educated guesses available now.
Because of the imminence of Feb. 1, it’s easy to believe the parties have resolved all the major points of contention. The final weeks of negotiations are likely “mop-up” time, finalizing the less-controversial matters of a new CBA.
What are those major points of contention?
From a labor perspective, there are two biggies: revenue sharing and travel accommodations. How players share in the revenue the league creates is a complex matter, involving everything from the structure of free agency to exactly how the league defines the term “basketball revenues.”
Attorney Kelsey Trainor has written on this topic as well. She shared with me what she perceives as a plausible pathway for the players (as a group) getting closer to equally splitting basketball revenues with franchise owners. It’s not as simple as interjecting language in the CBA that codifies a 50/50 split.
“Contractually, anything is possible,” Trainor said. “Realistically, I think there will be carve-outs that would effectively make a 50/50 revenue share unlikely. For example, revenue may vary year to year, like in the NFL, where it must be an average of a certain percent over a 10-year period.”
One way that owners could create those carve-outs is taking certain revenue streams out from under the “basketball revenues” umbrella. For example, public stadium subsidies are not considered “hockey revenues” that NHL players can claim a share of in the terms of. Trainor has her doubts about WNBA team investors playing that card, however.
“When money is involved, exclusions to keep money in the hands of one party are always possible,” she added. “I do think we see that the league and the players are looking to grow the game, which involves new revenue streams, and in order to do that, the league needs the players happy. So to the extent that may happen, I don’t know that it will be largely impactful.”
An accurate analysis of how the various tenets of the new CBA in the WNBA will affect players’ revenue share can’t be done until the document is available. That includes the aforementioned framework for free agency and how much franchises spend on travel. The current model, which is unfortunately compact because of players’ shortened offseasons, represents a missed opportunity for everyone:
One of the most team-friendly tenets of the current structure is the core player designation. It allows each team to designate a player who would otherwise be an unrestricted free agent each offseason.
With the tag applied, that team has exclusive negotiating rights with said player until the next season begins. There is some cost to that, however. The team’s restricted free agents, similarly bound to singular negotiation, become unrestricted. Additionally, each player can only receive the tag four times.
It’s unclear how much, if any, of that system will carry over to the new CBA. Trainor isn’t optimistic about the players obliterating the core designation or restricted free agency, however.
“I don’t believe that either will be eradicated completely, but that they will be modified,” she explained. “The core player designation, as is, is more of a burden than a benefit. It is too restrictive of a player’s earning ability and her ability to bargain. That and the restricted free agency period should be strong bargaining points for the players.”
While it’s easy to agree with Trainor that those are likely strong bargaining points for the players, that raises a huge question: What do the players, even as a group, have to bargain with?
Like athletes in every other league, (or laborers in any industry), the options are limited. The strongest bargaining chip is simply denying that labor. That’s unlikely in the WNBA, at this juncture anyway.
Entering its 24th season, the league is still fighting for an equitable share of investment and media exposure. A work stoppage, no matter how noble in intent, might further hinder those interests. As Trainor said, both parties want to continue to grow the game.
“I think we’re at a point for women’s sports where there is this momentum that cannot be denied,” she commented. “It should also not be wasted. The league recognizes that, and from a negotiation perspective that benefits the players.”
The owners likely see revenue sharing as an issue within their own camp as well. The difference between the “haves” and the “have nots” in the WNBA may not be as stark as in other leagues. At the same time, it’s foolhardy to imagine there aren’t some franchises that effectively subsidize others.
Again, the overall growth of the league likely trumps any animosity between owners on this issue. If league revenues continue to grow, especially if the players’ share of that expands, those feelings could heighten, however. Because of that, it will be interesting to see what measures are in the new CBA in this regard.
Another likely owner concern is the league’s growing media landscape. More games broadcast on national outlets like CBS Sports and ESPN are great for many reasons. It could cause internal strife in one big way, however. In no league are all the primetime national TV spots distributed equally. It doesn’t necessarily have much to do with winning, either.
Consider the fact that the World Series champion Washington Nationals aren’t down for a single appearance on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball next season. More national broadcasts subtract from teams’ ability to negotiate premiums with local broadcasters for the bulk of their games as well. The new CBA might include some language governing this going forward. That should include the future of WNBA League Pass.
Other pertinent items, like when players can opt-out of the new deal, will become clear when the document is available. Until then, however, it’s not hard to guess what the deal will entail.
Derek Helling is a TBW staff writer and freelance journalist who resides in Kansas City, Mo. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.