January 20, 2023
Free agency, prioritization and the toll on the WNBA’s middle class
'I just don't think we understood the magnitude of it'
Predictable has never described Kaela Davis’ basketball career. The subject of a controversial college recruitment story and of a blockbuster transfer that would end in South Carolina’s first national championship, Davis has rarely shied away from carving her own path. By the time she was drafted No. 10 overall by the Dallas Wings in 2017, it seemed like Davis would finally have somewhere to call home for a while.
In November 2022, she picks up the phone in sunny Puerto Rico, where she’s playing in the island’s professional basketball league, the BSNF. After hopping between three WNBA teams over the summer, Davis says she’s using the BSNF’s short fall season to rehab a mild ankle injury while continuing to train and play basketball. But once that season is over, Davis says she has “no idea” where her career will take her.
“Even by January, I don’t really know what’s gonna happen. So it can be difficult … as far as planning,” she says, then laughs softly. “Planning, I don’t even really think it’s a thing in my life anymore.”
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A far cry from the stability that might’ve once come from Dallas, Davis is a part of an increasingly isolated group of players in the WNBA’s “middle class” — not rookies, not superstars — who could soon find themselves all but forced out of a league they’ve fought tooth and nail to join. At the core of their mounting struggle is the WNBA’s incoming “prioritization” rule: a controversial clause in the league’s latest collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that one agent repeatedly described as “punitive.”
WNBA prioritization will require players with at least three years in the league to arrive by a set date before the season begins or face fines that get progressively steeper for each day missed, all the way up to a full-season suspension – the start of the regular season in 2023, the start of training camp in 2024. Though prioritization will become a reality just prior to the 2023 season, it’s already impacting some American players who earn their primary income playing overseas particularly hard.
“I’m not a rookie, but I’m not on like these nice [WNBA] contracts. I’m somewhere in the middle,” Davis told The Next. “What if I can’t ever really get out of that middle place, but I’m in a situation overseas where they pay me more?”
“It’s like, what do you do?”
“You make all the sacrifices”: Inside the fight for a women’s basketball salary
For women’s basketball players with professional aspirations, playing overseas has long been part of the equation. From around the 1970s, while American leagues rose and fell, playing internationally was a comparatively consistent avenue to earn a steady income playing basketball. As an example, two-time Olympic gold medalist Katrina McClain played overseas in four countries from 1989–96 before joining the ABL. In an episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30, McClain revealed she had made “close to $400,000” at points during her international career.
By the early 2000s, as the WNBA began to demonstrate staying power as a league, the picture began to shift. Suddenly, the majority of American WNBA players had two contracts for every year: one with a WNBA team and another with an overseas club.
“You make all the sacrifices because you know your window to play in the World Cup, to play the Olympics, to play [in the] WNBA is very short,” Ticha Penicheiro, a former WNBA All-Star turned player-agent, told The Next.
“You want to make sure that you take advantage of all the opportunities that you get, even if you have to sacrifice [time with] your family or your health.”
By 2018, just over 60 percent of the league’s players were going overseas in the offseason. Virtually all of the WNBA’s veteran role players, sixth women and players on the cusp, a group that typically cashes out less than $150k in WNBA base salary, were earning paychecks from overseas teams. To present day, it’s where they continue to spend the nearly eight months that the WNBA is out of season.
Even through the COVID-19 pandemic, the trend remained relatively steady — in 2021, 77 of the 155 players who touched a WNBA court that season were abroad the following offseason. Gabby Williams was one of them, later describing it as the most “economical” way to spend her limited time as a professional athlete.
“I’m making a business decision too,” Williams said during her media exit interview with the Seattle Storm. “I’m 25, I’m making as much money as I can until my body doesn’t let me anymore.”
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The WNBA reports that an average player tenure sits at just under six seasons. Under the 2020 CBA, at least two of those seasons will be spent making less than $80,000 on a Rookie Scale contract. That leaves just four years to cash in at the league’s 2022 median salary of $120,000, before the average player has overstayed her welcome and might need to find work elsewhere. That’s all before mentioning the limited resources available to players once they retire. Unlike the NBA, whose pension has existed since 1965, the WNBA offers a 401(k) and health insurance is out of the picture.
Further complicating matters, the WNBA has long clung to an inflexible “hard” salary cap for standard contracts. Currently, teams must roster 11–12 players, with non-Rookies making between $74k and $235k in base salary. While the 2020 CBA virtually doubled the maximum and median salaries, it did so while only increasing the salary cap by ~$300k per team. Yet as teams began to roll out the carpet for their superstars, and salaries of $200k or more became commonplace, one figure was quietly free-falling behind the scenes: The number of standard contracts available to begin with.
From 2019 to 2022, the number of players on a standard, full-season contract dropped by nearly 26%. Most of the quickly evaporating contracts had been held by veteran role players, many of which began hopping from team to team on hardship contracts, which often paid less than $15k. With the chances of making a WNBA roster remaining slim, the value of that second contract — that overseas paycheck — increased in tandem.
But timetables for leagues outside of the U.S. have frequently overlapped with the start of the WNBA season, causing players at every level and payscale to arrive late to training camp, and in some cases miss entire months of play. In 2021, 55 players were late to training camp, and around 47 players arrived late in 2022 — including the reigning Finals MVPs in both years.
The WNBA, its head coaches, and owners, have long bewailed the state of early regular season basketball. With starters and role players still trickling in as training camps kick into high gear, team building that should’ve happened preseason spills over into real games.
After nine of the Connecticut Sun’s 22 training camp players arrived late in 2021, then head coach Curt Miller told The Hartford Courant, “It’s unheard of, thinking of any professional sports league that has to go through the entire training camp and not one day have your starters together.”
It’s a status quo the league has expressed interest in breaking. “[We are] trying to chip away at giving players a reason to stay home and a reason to prioritize the WNBA,” said Commissioner Cathy Engelbert ahead of the 2022 WNBA Finals. “We’re eyes wide open that some players may not choose to do that.”
But in 2023, trying to give players a reason to stay will be where the conversation starts, not where it ends. WNBA prioritization, the first real attempt to keep the WNBA’s talent in North America year-round, has the potential to push player agency to its limit, and to force both parties to bask in its consequences.
Between a rock and a hard place: Tensions rise between the WNBA and its players
For women’s basketball players, lucrative opportunities in overseas leagues that predate the WNBA by more than 30 years, have long allowed players across the board to earn many times over their WNBA incomes. Without exaggeration, it’s this seasonal relationship that has made playing professional basketball in a league that doesn’t know the security of a pension possible. Yet, consistently missing key players across the WNBA early every season seemed to create too much tension for the league and its owners to bear.
Multiple current and former members of leadership in the WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) say nearly all of the benefits included in the 2020 CBA, from increased salaries to maternity benefits, came with the understanding that players with at least three years in the league would need to commit to arriving for the WNBA on time. Starting in 2023, the rule, better known as WNBA prioritization, means that should those players return even a single day off of the start date, heavy fines and full-season suspensions will trigger.
“Basically any concessions that were made, it was because prioritization had to happen,” current WNBPA Secretary Elizabeth Williams said in a phone interview with The Next. “For [the WNBA] it wasn’t a matter of if, but when.”
Former WNBPA Vice President Sue Bird said in her exit interview with the Seattle Storm that “the league was in a place of not negotiating without it. We wouldn’t have got the money, the maternity leave, without it.”
And it wasn’t without good reason — despite the risks of a global pandemic, nearly half of the league worked internationally in the 2021–22 off-season. It caused many of the league’s stars, including Finals MVP Kahleah Copper, to arrive late for the 2022 WNBA season.
Williams says the WNBA viewed it as a way to bolster league marketing at the beginning of the season. “In their mind, something had to give,” she explained. “The [WNBA’s] idea was, the investment is easier to be made when players are here and when people can see our faces.”
Commissioner Engelbert has also pointed to the value veteran players in particular bring to their teams. “For the younger players, they can still go overseas and if their Cup play requires them not to be back on time, that’s okay,” she said ahead of the 2022 WNBA Finals. “But for the veterans we want them to come back and be with the team and build the chemistry needed for a championship culture.”
But even as prioritization looms ever closer, playing overseas continues to be a reality for many of the league’s players. As of publication, 57.2 percent of the league in 2022 is actively clocked in for an international team, right around the 56 percent it was in 2017.
The stability of that number is especially startling with the advent of Athletes Unlimited (AU), a state-side league that operates for five weeks from February–March, which offers a new opportunity for players to play in the U.S. during the off-season. As of publication, 13 players who were on WNBA rosters last season have elected to play the 2023 AU season. The average AU salary, according to The Athletic‘s Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, was $20,000 in 2022.
But even as players continue utilize the overseas market, those international opportunities, and the player autonomy they came with, are becoming scarcer than ever. “[Before], we can play overseas, we can play in the WNBA,” Kaela Davis explained. “That was our choice to continue to play year-round.”
Now, multiple agents say overseas teams are becoming wary of WNBA imports and potentially losing a key player right before domestic league playoffs.
“In the back of their mind, they’re scared the players will leave when it matters most,” Penicheiro said. Domestic playoffs frequently run into April and May, and with a May 1 deadline to report to the WNBA in 2023, leagues are either tightening their schedules or forgoing WNBA players altogether.
Rebekah Gardner, who plays for the Spanish team Spar Girona, told media during her 2022 exit interview that Girona just couldn’t “find another American to come,” and added it was likely because they were unwilling to adjust their schedule. On the other hand, the French domestic league, which has a notoriously long season running well into May, has attracted Gabby Williams and at least six others who were on WNBA rosters in 2022.
But for players who haven’t been on standard contracts in the WNBA, it’s an even bigger gamble. Davis, who falls into that group, described a scenario where, if she were to take a shorter overseas contract in order to return to the WNBA in time, just to get cut in training camp: “Now I lost money [overseas]. And now I’m not on a [WNBA] team,” Davis said.
Beyond cashing a paycheck, playing year-round comes with its downsides. For non-Americans, it frequently means missing a significant amount of time with family and friends; it’s a balancing act just to keep from burning out.
“It’s going to be a heavy year. Talking to players, they really suffered this season everywhere, players around the world,” said Marina Maljković, head coach of the Serbian national team and Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahçe S.K., at this year’s FIBA Women’s World Cup. She described a grueling schedule that takes players from club seasons overseas, to the WNBA, to their national teams and then back to club teams, in some cases without more than 10 days in between.
“I don’t know how I’m going to handle it,” Emma Meesseman, a WNBA veteran currently playing for Fenerbahce, told media in her exit interview. Meesseman has played virtually non-stop (excluding the 2021 season) since joining the WNBA in 2013. “For European players, we’re not robots, you know … I’ve been [playing year-round] for a very long time right now, and you start to realize that following my passion, it has that price of not seeing your people.”
Further complicating all of this are the inherent risks with playing in some of the countries that offer more lucrative contracts. In Brittney Griner’s case, it meant nearly 300 days in Russian custody that began days before Russian forces invaded Ukraine. In 2017, several WNBA players were at the site of a deadly nightclub shooting in Istanbul; in 2022, a major explosion occurred at an Istanbul pedestrian center, just 2km from the home arena of a women’s basketball team.
That’s all before factoring in the day-to-day difficulties players face. Everything from language and cultural barriers to racial discrimination and club teams running out of money before the season is even over. And, of course, there’s always a risk of major injury; in the past four offseasons, two of the WNBA’s top players, Breanna Stewart and Alyssa Thomas, have each torn their Achilles while playing overseas and missed the entire following WNBA season.
Yet, Thomas continues to play for USK Praha, in the Czech Republic, while Stewart landed in Turkey to play for Fenerbahçe. Playing overseas will remain part of the fabric of being a WNBA player, so long as players continue to find value there. After her 2022 WNBA season ended, Candace Parker spoke candidly about her experience playing overseas:
“The WNBA was my summer job,” she said. “Overseas is how my daughter’s in private school now, how we’re able to be in the house that we’re in. That was my job, that was my main source of income and I wouldn’t be able to do the things I do today without that.”
Negotiating the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement
The WNBA’s most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA) has been held in high regard by league officials and union leadership since its signing in January 2020. In layman’s terms, a CBA is a contract between an employer and a union (in this case, the WNBA and the WNBPA) that covers everything from salaries and benefits to standards for workplace conditions and worker’s rights.
The 2020 WNBA CBA significantly increased the league’s salary cap, as well as player salaries across the board, tried to improve some of the league’s persistent travel issues, and implemented guidelines around maternity leave, childcare, and mental health for the first time. But even as the CBA introduced new benefits for all players, it’s no secret that the WNBA has been largely focused on its upper echelons.
Throughout the 2022 season, when asked about how the league is incentivising players to prioritize the WNBA, commissioner Cathy Engelbert repeatedly pointed to the league’s 10 player marketing agreements, prize bonuses, and a hypothetical maximum WNBA takeaway pay of $700k — though Engelbert acknowledged in an episode of Locked On Women’s Basketball with Howard Megdal that no player has earned that much yet.
The just under 30 league and team marketing agreements Engelbert says are available are hardly enough for the more than 144 players who may cycle through the WNBA in a given season. Layshia Clarendon, former first-vice president of the WNBPA, says the union pushed for concrete opportunities in the offseason, but never got substantial answers.
“I remember [WNBPA Executive Director] Terri Jackson was like, well, we need 144 jobs and opportunities and internships for people,” Clarendon, who interchangeably uses he/him, she/her and they/them pronouns, said. “What if the whole league decides not to play overseas? Like are you guys going to be ready to employ them?”
Further, Clarendon expressed concern over a lack of support for training during the offseason.
“I still think [this is] one of the biggest hurdles to people not playing overseas … if players stay home, like what are they doing?” he explained. “You can say, ‘Hey, you’re a professional, it’s up to you to figure it out.’ But I think if the league is asking and enforcing prioritization, what does training look like for people who stay home?”
For the WNBA’s lowest earners, finding time and space to keep up training and rehab can be cost-prohibitive, especially as the WNBA only guarantees health insurance until a player is cut from a roster. If a player has kids or is pregnant, the situation becomes even more complex.
Despite being the longest-tenured women’s league for a team sport in the United States by over a decade, the WNBA went without concrete policies on maternity leave, childcare and family planning until 2020 CBA went into effect. But Clarendon says getting the league to agree to those additions, which they say have been “such a relief” to the WNBA’s many working parents, was far from easy.
“The league is always like, that’s another expense, right?” she said. “Like, oh, this is more money, this is more money you’re asking for. More money is always the initial [response].”
But the WNBPA pushed back. Knowing they would need to concede to the prioritization clause, securing all the benefits that would improve players’ quality of life immediately was top of mind. “Our response was like, if you care about women, and we’re a professional sports league that has quite a few moms, you can’t not invest in people who are having children,” Clarendon said.
“We really had to push on the stipend being for egg freezing or fertility,” they added. “To say you’re one of the most progressive leagues but to not have these policies in place, it’s like resting on your laurels.”
Childcare was an additional hurdle to clear. The WNBA’s home cities are notoriously expensive to live in, with childcare frequently burdening parents who make around the WNBA’s median salary or less.
“It’s expensive and our schedule is demanding,” he said. “We’re expected to practice and be able to pick up and move at the drop of a hat, but then we’re not giving people the resources to take care of their children.”
Ultimately, the WNBA agreed, and the 2020 CBA features one of the most progressive maternity packages in professional sports. It was a well-highlighted feature of the CBA, but players are now paying the cost in the form of prioritization. In particular, it is becoming increasingly clear that players in the middle ranks of the league are juggling more conditions, terms, schedules and restrictions on their income than ever before. Former Dallas Wings center Imani McGee-Stafford clocked the disparity almost immediately.
“I know for a fact I’m not going to benefit the most out of this new CBA because I’m not a franchise player,” McGee-Stafford, who was a player representative for the Wings at the time of negotiations, told The Next. “I believe in this game, so I want it to look like something that can be sustained through the next 15 years … it was a decision that we all chose to make as a unit.”
‘I felt like I was in the twilight zone’: Players speak out
As the 2022 WNBA season came to an end, an increasing number of players spoke about the myriad of ways prioritization would affect them personally, and the league as a whole. Among them were not just the league’s top players, but plenty of players in the “middle,” and players who have long, well-established careers overseas.
For the most part, players were on the same page: while they understood why the WNBA might want its players to put it first, players disagreed that it was the right time, or the right way, to go about it. And some, like Gabby Williams, realized how much their world was going to change.
“I felt like I was in the twilight zone, like does anyone [sic] realize what this is actually going to do?” Williams told media in September.
“The money doesn’t touch what we make in Europe. That’s just the truth of it. I would love to return to the WNBA but what’s best for my career, what the WNBA decided to do to players like me, makes it complicated.”
Jewell Loyd, Williams’ teammate, said she doesn’t plan to play overseas this season in order to take time off and rest. But even for a player like Loyd, who’s making the WNBA’s maximum salary, her state-side paycheck is still far less than what she could get overseas.
“If we were paid the way we should be paid, a lot of people wouldn’t have to go overseas,” Loyd said. “Everyone else can work three or four jobs and you’re a hard working American, you know. For us, it’s like, ‘Oh you’re selfish, you’re thinking about yourself.’”
“If you want us to stay in America and have [the WNBA be the priority] then you’ve got to put the money where your mouth is,” she added. “We deserve better, we deserve more.”
Even Elizabeth Williams, the WNBPA’s secretary, says she’s skeptical about her future. “I feel like I’ve gotten close to that boat where it’s like, [my] reputation overseas is pretty significant. Teams pay more for post players overseas, that’s just the nature of how it goes,” she said in a phone interview. At the time of publication, Williams is in Turkey playing for CBK Mersin.
“It’s like, man, if I could just go overseas and not even play in the [WNBA], I can make that up in bonuses or whatever. So it’ll be really interesting, what your mid-tier players decide to do.”
But for Davis, who remains without a guaranteed contract for next season, weighing the costs and benefits means weighing the cost of a future in the WNBA.
“You hear [about] prioritization …. if you’re not back by X amount of time, they’re gonna fine you,” Davis explained. “You kind of laugh it off a little bit, but now that you’re in it, like now we really got to start having conversations and figuring out like, how do we work through it?”
“I just don’t think we understood the magnitude of it, really,” she said.
Sue Bird, a long-time leader in the WNBPA, echoed Davis’ concerns in her final press conference as a WNBA player. “A player like Breanna Stewart is really lucky, she has tons of options, both on the court and off the court,” Bird said. “I think there are some players that don’t make the max money in the WNBA and do make a lot of money overseas … and that group of players is impacted differently.”
“If I put my player hat on, if I was 28, 29, I wouldn’t be thrilled about this either.”
The era of WNBA prioritization is just around the corner, but its true impact and how long it will stick around has yet to be determined. The deadline to opt out of the 2020 CBA is two critical years away, an a new TV deal, with a potential massive infusion in revenue, is expected to arrive in 2025. And in the present, Clarendon says he suspects players are already looking ahead.
“[Opting out] has to be in the back of players’ minds,” he said. “About how, strategically, to start mining information on things that work and don’t work, and thinking about what 2024 will look like.”
Three locker rooms, three head coaches, three new sets of teammates: that was Davis’ reality for the 2021–22 WNBA season. After being cut by the Chicago Sky during their preseason training camp, Davis became a journeywoman hardship player. She bounced from team to team on seven-day contracts, filling roster spots for teams needing to replace an injured or otherwise unavailable player.
Then she landed in Phoenix, where she helped a battle-worn Mercury clinch a miracle playoff spot. When point guard Shey Peddy went down with a ruptured Achilles in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs, Davis was virtually all Phoenix had left. And as she has in make-or-break moments throughout her career, she delivered. Despite a 37-point loss to the Aces in Game 2, Davis posted a career-high-tying 23 points, six rebounds and three assists. It was the springboard she needed to cast away thoughts of leaving the WNBA behind.
“Individually, it was huge for me. I’ve been in the gym just working on my individual self and trying to get better and improve,” Davis said after the game. “To be able to have an opportunity to go out and showcase on that platform in a playoff game on ESPN, that meant a lot to me.”
Ultimately for Davis, the uncertainty won’t clear until she knows whether she’ll have a shot at making a WNBA team in April. For now, she’s made her way to San Sebastián to help IDK Euskotren finish the Spanish domestic league season. But Davis says she’s more optimistic about the future, while not being unrealistic.
“Now that [the door to the WNBA] is back open, it can turn into something that I’ve always wanted,” Davis explained. “It’s hopefully a situation that I can use to my advantage and not have [the WNBA] be something that I have to shut the door on.”