WNBA union touts 'historic' pay raises in new labour deal

The WNBA and its union announced a tentative eight-year labour deal Tuesday that will allow top players to earn more than $500,000 US while the average annual compensation for players will surpass six figures for the first time.

Top players can earn more than $500K, average salary to surpass $100K

Canada's Kia Nurse plays for the New York Liberty in the WNBA, then goes overseas to play in Australia during the off-season. The WNBA is aiming to avoid that situation for players with more financial incentive added in the new labour agreement. (John Locher/Associated Press)

The WNBA and its union announced a tentative eight-year labour deal Tuesday that will allow top players to earn more than $500,000 US while the average annual compensation for players will surpass six figures for the first time.

The deal, which begins this season and runs through 2027, will pay players an average of $130,000 and guarantees them full salaries while on maternity leave. The agreement also provides enhanced family benefits, travel standards and other health and wellness improvements.

"I call it historic," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a phone interview. "The CBA guarantees substantial [financial] increases. The way we are paying these players is different than the past. ... The top couple players are tripling [in pay] where they were. Other players are making $200,000-300,000. The average will be over $130,000. Everyone gets an increase here."

The deal, which must be ratified by owners and players, calls for 50-50 revenue sharing starting in 2021, based on the league achieving revenue growth targets from broadcast agreements, marketing partnerships and licensing deals.

"I was adamant on the 50-50 target," Engelbert said. "The league and players work together to market this league so we can share revenue with the players. We have to hit some targets."

The salary cap will go up 31% to $1.3 million in the first year — up from $996,000 and another $750,000 in prize money for special competitions arrives in 2021. Under this deal, the maximum base salary would increase to $215,000 from $117,500.

"You can pay your stars. That's how the league grows," Engelbert said.

'Collaborative effort'

This will be the fifth CBA in the history of the WNBA, which launched in 1997. Like the last CBA, there is a mutual opt-out provision after six years.

The CBA also proposes a minimum of $1.6 million in off-season league and team marketing agreements that would create up to $300,000 in additional annual cash compensation for select players.

The rookie scale for the No. 1-4 picks will rise to $68,000 — an increase of about $15,000 from this year — plus the ability to qualify for league-guaranteed money under the marketing agreement.

"It was collaborative effort,"' WNBA players' union president Nneka Ogwumike said. "I think that we really all had the same things in mind and had different way of getting there. We really put our heads together and came with some ideas."

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Ogwumike said the labour pact provides more financial incentive for players to stay in the off-season instead of going overseas to play. Former league MVP Breanna Stewart tore an Achilles tendon playing overseas last year and missed the entire WNBA season. Diana Taurasi sat out a season a few years ago because the Russian team she played for was paying her more than $1 million and wanted her to rest.

"This agreement is reflective of the game growing and the league growing and then the revenue share will grow," Ogwumike said. "Revenue sharing is putting your best foot forward."

Engelbert said the additional money needed to fund the CBA will come from a variety of places.

"Teams and owners are stepping up. The league is stepping up," said the commissioner, who started last July.

She also touted the new "Changemakers" program, with key sponsors supporting the WNBA in its transformation across marketing, branding and player and fan experiences. AT&T, Nike and Deloitte are the inaugural three businesses.

More to the deal 

The league will also expand its schedule by a few games and add an in-season Commissioner's Cup tournament this year. Other highlights of the CBA include:

—Travel improvements where players are given premium economy airline tickets as well as individual rooms on road trips. In the past, players flew coach and some shared rooms.

—A more liberal free agency system that allows players to become unrestricted free agents sooner beginning next year if they aren't given the "core" designation by their team. It also drops the number of times a player can be so designated from four to three beginning this year and down to two beginning in 2022.

—Players receive their full salary while on maternity leave, are given two-bedroom apartments for players with children as well as workplace accommodations that provide privacy for nursing mothers.

—The league is also introducing family planning benefits of up to a $60,000 reimbursement for veteran players for costs directly related to adoption, surrogacy and fertility/infertility treatment.

—Enhanced mental health benefits and resources.