WNBA mulls expansion ideas amid tight labor market for players

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Alysha Clark wandered the sidelines picking up water bottles and other discarded items after a 90-minute practice before sitting down and looking up. Dressed in an all-red Washington Mystics practice uniform with a long-sleeved blue shirt underneath, the 11-year-old veteran and two-time WNBA champion recalled his humble beginnings: after leading the division twice I of the NCAA by scoring at Middle Tennessee and being picked 17th in the 2010 WNBA draft, she didn’t play in the league for two years because there was no roster for her.

Situations like Clark’s are common throughout the WNBA, which opens its regular season on Friday. There are only 144 spots in the league, with each of the 12 teams able to carry 12 players. Due to salary cap maneuvers, many teams don’t use all 12 slots. These limited opportunities have led to tough decisions, especially with younger players.

The Las Vegas Aces traded their 2023 first- and second-round picks to get No. 8 and 13 picks in this year’s draft — then gave up those picks, Mya Hollingshed and Khayla Pointer. The Seattle Storm cut No. 17 pick Elissa Cunane, a second-team All-American from North Carolina State’s Associated Press. The Minnesota Lynx waived 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield and 2021 No. 9 pick Rennia Davis. The Indiana Fever previously cut the bait with 2020 No. 3 pick Lauren Cox and 2021 No. 4 pick Kysre Gondrezick. Examples follow.

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Forty-two percent of players drafted since 1997 have never made the roster.

“I’m one of those players,” Clark said. “I was cut the first two years so I had to go abroad to develop and go play and then hopefully come back and earn a place. It’s annoying because you never know. Because not only are you going there to try to grow, but now there’s a whole new generation coming in that you also have to compete with outside of the veteran presence that’s already there.

“Hopefully it gets to the point where this league is, we’re seeing expansion in terms of squads, but it starts with salaries and starts the salary cap and investment in our league.”

As with everything, money is where things get tricky. There has been a massive push to increase the number of teams in the league, and commissioner Cathy Engelbert has confirmed that the league is actively conducting a data analysis of 100 cities. That, however, is years away. A more immediate option would be expanding the spots on the team roster, which would involve revising the collective bargaining agreement and salary cap structure.

“I think the conversation about how many players make up teams also shows the depth of the quality of play in this league,” Engelbert said. “I mean, it’s amazing. It’s hard to make a team; There is no doubt about it.

“We want any new owner entering the league to experience the potential of a successful franchise. We’re still building that business model I was talking about, but we’ll definitely talk more about it this summer.

Engelbert comes from a business background as CEO of Deloitte before taking charge of the WNBA in 2019. Much of his focus has been on the financial stability and growth of the league. Some of that has been impacted during the pandemic, and there’s a reluctance to commit to lavish new plans that could jeopardize that stability. The league has increased investors in recent years with a $75 million capital raise and a WNBA Changemaker program that partners with companies including Nike, AT&T, Google, US Bank and Deloitte.

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Interest in the league has also increased. An expanded multi-year deal with Twitter was announced this week, which includes 12 games and a weekly Twitter Spaces segment. Last month’s draft saw a 20% increase in viewership on ESPN. 2021 regular season viewership increased by 49% over 2020. There will be a large-scale fantasy women’s basketball game on ESPN.com for the first time this season.

Former Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes sees an opportunity for measured expansion of teams and other logistics, such as private flights for teams. He pointed to more players in advertisements and an increase in interest from fans and players around the world wanting to play in the WNBA.

What I see here is an opportunity to define the league as the greatest league in the world, which is basketball,” Hughes said. “If you’re talking about the biggest league in the world, wouldn’t that go hand in hand to do the kinds of things that represent the biggest league in the world?

“I understand dollars and cents. . . . But I also think there’s an opportunity right now, you could even make this league even better by taking financial steps to define it so that the greatest players in the world – not just the United States – say: ‘Well, I’m going to play there.’ Just like the NBA. . . . There was a time [the NBA] went from commercial to charter and all that stuff, and I think that’s a logical step.

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This is where the dichotomy lies. Coaches and GMs would like to see these kinds of investments from the league, but the current CBA was signed in 2020 and will run through 2027. New funds keep pouring in, but Engelbert is wary of spending too much quickly and leave the league vulnerable. The current broadcast deal with ESPN spans the 2025 season, and the next one is expected to be worth more.

“Every general manager and coach, when it’s not about their own pocket and salary, would love to have a bigger roster,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. “That, ultimately, is an owner’s decision.

“[Larger rosters] would also allow for longer player development, that we could take some players and let them develop at the rate they need to develop rather than cut them and hope they develop when they leave foreign. It’s a very big Catch-22.

The league does not have an affiliate option for borderline players to grow within an organization. Coaches need bodies to get through the season, so it’s hard to hold on to someone who isn’t ready to compete on a daily basis.

The trend isn’t new, but the topic is being discussed more than ever with so many eyes on the league.

“There’s no way we should have a league where the top draft picks aren’t on a list,” Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike said this week.

About Catharine C. Bean

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