May 24, 2023
Institutional Knowledge: Why did this year’s WNBA cuts resonate so much?
'I hope we see a roster expansion soon because I feel like that’s low-hanging fruit'
The WNBA celebrated the start of its season chock full of the world’s best women’s basketball talent. And plenty of talent watching from the outside, players that couldn’t crack a roster in professional sports’ most exclusive league.
The cuts, particularly the last ones that happened before the season openers, were painful.
They felt personal. They were particularly frustrating considering that we are still less than two months removed from a game-changing Women’s Final Four that featured players like LSU’s Alexis Morris, Iowa’s Monika Czinano, South Carolina’s Brea Beal and Virginia Tech’s Taylor Soule, who were drafted with high hopes to take the next step in their careers and ended up on the outside looking in. And that was before Charli Collier — the No. 1 draft pick in the 2021 draft — was waived by Dallas right before opening night.
“These are players that deserve to be in the league,” said Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud. “They are talented enough.”
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The resulting protests are louder than ever, if not unfamiliar. The WNBA needs to expand its rosters. The WNBA needs to expand, period. It should not be this difficult to go from collegiate star to WNBA player.
Except that it is. And has been for a long time. The WNBA has had the same number of teams since 2008, and the same number of roster spots (12) since it was negotiated up from 11 as part of the league’s 2014 collective bargaining agreement with the players.
Still, this is a league bringing in a significant amount of young talent. There are 40 players under the age of 25 on opening day rosters. And just seven over the age of 35.
Fifteen of 36 drafted players ended up on opening day rosters, down from 17 in 2022.
What’s different in 2023?
Expectations are different
As the college game grows in popularity and exposure, so do expectations that the collegiate players people want to follow will end up in the WNBA. After all, isn’t that how it works in the NBA and the NFL? Except that the WNBA has only 12 teams and not a lot of space to spread that talent around.
“This is not the first time that people are concerned about the people that get cut,” said Indiana Fever general manager Lin Dunn. “But there’s so much more visibility now. The media cares, social media cares, the colleges care. In the past people got cut, and nobody was really paying attention.”
Expansion patience is wearing thin.
The league hasn’t added any teams since 2008 — that’s 15 years for those good at the math stuff.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert has been talking about expansion in the hypothetical almost since she got the job in 2019. Just months ago, the timeline was 2024. Now it’s 2025 or later. The number of cities under consideration is somewhere between 100 and 10.
And currently, it looks like we are still at least two years out before perhaps announcing expansion. Englebert’s latest remarks suggest that the league wants to use it as a bargaining chip in upcoming media rights negotiations and the next collective bargaining agreement with the players. So the roster relief brought by adding teams isn’t coming soon enough for many.
“I hope we see a roster expansion soon because I feel like that’s low-hanging fruit that we would get accomplished within a year or two as opposed to expansion, which is in the next two or three years,” said Mystics guard Natasha Cloud. “I hope that develops.”
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NIL changes the financial game for players
The top college players are getting paid. Their high profiles are attracting sponsors and endorsement deals. And that raises the stakes on being able to continue their careers in the U.S. in order to maintain relationships with companies and businesses after their collegiate careers end. NIL deals ideally turn into professional endorsement deals. Much harder if you aren’t on a roster.
The overseas market has retracted.
Playing overseas is both an opportunity to get paid and an opportunity to grow and improve and come back WNBA-ready. Or at least more ready. But Brittney Griner’s situation has understandably cooled the desire of many players to go overseas. Russia, often a landing spot for the top stars, isn’t currently a viable option. Chinese and South Korean teams have been shut down to U.S. players during COVID.
Players who might have gone to Russia in the past are now going to European leagues and reducing roster opportunities for others. There are fewer opportunities and the number of players making big salaries is also down from previous years. According to the Associated Press, 67 of the league’s 144 players played overseas this past season. That was down from 90 players overseas five years ago.
The players are different.
They are telling their own stories on social media, including in some cases, when those stories include their disappointment or frustration from getting cut. Morris’ honesty about getting cut ruffled feathers — particularly the part of cutting vets over the age of 30 to make room for young players. But it was unvarnished and it keeps the spotlight on a conversation about how the league moves forward with its next generation of players.
There’s no question there is a lack of development opportunities in the WNBA. The way the league is currently built is, you are in or you are out. There is no equivalent to the NBA G League or the NFL practice squad. There’s no farm system.
Athletes Unlimited, following its second season, is a potential path for further development and growth.
Players who do go overseas play game after game and often that becomes the focus rather than honing skills.
The onus of improvement, on finding a way to the WNBA, is on the players, who need more experience in a league where experience is deeply valued.
The league is feeling pressure to examine this issue, particularly as the appetite for college basketball expands with fans and sponsors. Top collegiate stars bring fans — and broadcast viewers — with them. It can’t continue to be this hard, this exclusive. And the WNBA needs to be part of the solution. The league cannot just wait for someone else to build a developmental pipeline for their next generation of talent.
A plan similar to something the league has had in the past — with designated reserve players — who don’t travel, but have an opportunity with teams to develop and could be activated quickly in injury situations, may be the easiest thing to get up and running again.
When the WNBA finally moves forward on expansion, it has to be about more than teams and roster spots. It also needs to be about expanding opportunities for players to earn their way into the league that goes beyond a two-week training camp against long odds. And about an opportunity to come back and try again.
“For the players who got cut, I understand. I’m an underdog,” Cloud said. “I’m a mid-major kid who is not supposed to be here. I very much understand how hard it is to not only get in this league, but stay in the league. Look no further than players like Shey Peddy and Rebekah Gardner, who didn’t make a pro team until their 30s.
“Yes, you might have gotten cut this season, but you have the ability to stay ready, you have the ability to play in the AU, to go overseas and come back the following year with a chip on your shoulder and fuel to the fire.”
Written by Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.