February 9, 2023 

WNBA figures react to league investigation of Las Vegas Aces

'We honor the rules. If there aren’t any. That’s cool. Just tell us.'

The defending champion Las Vegas Aces finally issued a statement Wednesday night over allegations levied their way by former Ace, Dearica Hamby, but privately they must defend themselves against a formal investigation by the league itself, as reported Wednesday morning by The Next. According to sources, Las Vegas is alleged to have made under-the-table payment offers to both current players seeking extensions and free agents in the form of below-market sponsorship deals requiring little work from the player. Such deals would violate the current CBA. 

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On Jan. 21, Hamby posted to Instagram following the announcement that she had been traded from the Aces to the Los Angeles Sparks. In her post, Hamby said: “I was promised things to entice me to sign my contract extension that were not followed through on,” and went on to describe treatment by team representatives regarding her pregnancy that she considered “unprofessional and unethical.” Following Hamby’s accusations, the WNBPA released a statement indicating their intent to “seek a comprehensive investigation to ensure that her rights under the collectively bargained provisions of the 2020 CBA, as well as her rights and protections under state and federal law, have not been violated.” The league’s investigation covers both Hamby’s treatment with respect to her pregnancy and team practices concerning extensions and free agent contracts, a league spokesperson told The Next.

The Aces have remained largely silent on the entire subject. On Tuesday, team officials dodged questions during their introductory press conference for Candace Parker, who signed a one-year $100,000 deal, after making $195,000 during her last two seasons with the Sky. The presser served as the team’s first media availability since Hamby spoke out. On Wednesday night, Las Vegas officially acknowledged the investigation and declined further comment. Meanwhile, other prominent figures around the league have been outspoken with their comments.

Larry Gottesdiener, co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, pushed back on commentary suggesting WNBA owners hold the league back by not investing in their players, saying the Dream “[A]re huge advocates of increased pay and charter travel. But we honor the rules. If there aren’t any. That’s cool. Just tell us.” His sentiment was piggybacked by Cheryl Reeve, President of Basketball Operations and head coach of the Minnesota Lynx, as well as general manager of the Indiana Fever, Lin Dunn.

What is increasingly clear is that a significant portion of the league wants to invest more heavily in women’s professional basketball than the CBA currently permits. While the CBA is a binding legal contract with an enforcement period, there’s nothing saying that document can’t change if a willingness exists on both sides to do so, but it would require the approval of both the WNBPA and the WNBA — specifically the commissioner, Cathy Engelbert.

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Engelbert has not specifically commented on the investigation into the Las Vegas Aces, but with recent momentum around charter flights and league expansion, Engelbert’s tangential thoughts on increased investment from ownership and sponsors have recently circulated through the media. With respect to chartering travel, Engelbert doesn’t believe a long-term, reliable sponsor exists, nor is she willing to burden owners or players with the cost despite their expressed willingness to take on the burden. She maintains that the money for chartered travel must come from the league’s next big media rights deal, which sits several years out. 

On the topic of expansion, Engelbert recently appeared at an event in Portland, where she promised expansion is on the horizon, but again, several years out. Meanwhile, MLS — a league similar in age to the WNBA — has rapidly expanded to 26 teams, with LA FC already valued at $1 billion. Engelbert claims all options for increased investment must be slow-played so as not to jeopardize the league. “[Y]ou need people like me at the league, who aren’t biased towards any one team and who are going to make sure that whatever we do, it’s fair and that we’re setting the league up for the next 50-plus years,” Engelbert said.

Arguments toward parity and fairness color every CBA negotiation in every professional sports league. There are always owners who want to spend less and owners who want to spend more and players who want their pay to align with the value they provide. The outcome of the league’s investigation into the Aces and any subsequent punishment will indicate how they choose to legislate fairness in the short-term, but it is unlikely to soothe the long-term tension between those who want to invest in the league and those who remain risk-averse.

Written by Kiri Oler

Kiri Oler has been a contributor to The Next as a news and feature writer since December 2022.

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