WNBA Players Opt-Out of CBA, Ignore “Financial Realities” of Business

WNBA

The WNBA Players Association has notified league owners that it intends on exercising its right to opt-out of the current collective bargaining agreement at the completion of the 2019 season (2 years early). The league’s players are looking for “full” fiscal transparency, a larger share of league revenues (currently 20%, NBA players receive 50%), better working conditions (think: travel accommodations) and more marketing/promotion from the NBA (which owns 70% of the league) in the new deal. In a piece written for the Player’s Tribune, WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike said the players deserve “a fair and consistent work environment. A league that treats its players as the world-class athletes they are. A league that invests in its future.”

Howie Long-Short: The ’19 season will go off unaffected, but failure to come to terms could put the beginning of the ’20 season at risk; and that would appear to be a possibility. While the WNBPA seeks comparable treatment to their male counterparts (“not some LeBron money”), the league’s message is already out; negotiations are going to be “rooted in the financial realities of our business” (i.e. comparable treatment is unrealistic unless you generate comparable profits) and according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (NBA owns 70% of WNBA), the reality is that “we’ve lost over $10 million every year we’ve operated”. The NBA generated $7.4 billion last year.

10+ months would seem like plenty of time to hammer out a deal, but CBA agreements are rarely completed without the pressure of a deadline and electing not to play may be the only leverage the players have; though, it seems unlikely league owners are going to be motivated by a business in the red (WNBA said it lost $12 million in ‘18) going dark for a few weeks/months.

Ogwumike disputes that the “league is losing money”, while acknowledging the players have not seen the books. If she’s right and the league is profitable, calls for additional “investment and resources” deserve to be met, but what if we find out the league is in fact a money pit? The WNBPA President says the players are “opting out of our CBA because of the world we want to live in”, I can’t imagine she means one in which women’s sports are being treated as a charity.

The WNBA median salary is $70,000 (max. is $115,500); for comparison purposes, MLS’ median salary is $117,000. When you consider the WNBA’s 12 teams generated +/- $55 million in ’17 revenue ($4.5 million/team) and MLS’ 18 teams (23 now) in ’14 did just shy of $500 million ($27 million/team), you begin to wonder if WNBA players are in fact underpaid.

If you believe WNBA players aren’t getting a large enough piece of the league revenue pie, you should consider that the Seattle Sounders (2nd in league attendance, 40,600/game) spent just +/- 20% of their revenue on player salaries this season; it’s what the business can afford.

Fan Marino: Assumptions that only women are watching the WNBA are inaccurate. As we recently noted, a newly released Nielsen survey (51% of those polled were male) indicated that 84% of sports fans hold an interest in women’s sports. Those supportive of women’s sports say they’re “more progressive and inspiring, less money-driven, more family-oriented and cleaner than men’s sports.” Perhaps that explains why WNBA television viewership rose +31% in ’18 (best numbers since ’15), while ratings for the Big 4 sports are flat or declining (save the NFL, viewership up slightly over ’17 ratings).

It’s commendable that today’s WNBA players are willing to “bet on themselves” for “the greatest women’s basketball players of tomorrow”; and with TV ratings on the rise, league pass subscriptions up +39% YoY and merchandise sales having grown 66% YoY, they’ve never been in a better position to negotiate. At a minimum, it should help the players gain access to TSA pre-check in airports and exit row seats on planes (virtual eye-roll); it’s wild to realize that’s not already standard operating procedure within the league.

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Author: John Wall Street

At the intersection of sports & finance.

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