A little over two years ago, the WNBA and WNBPA agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
WNBA players had asked the league to “bet” on them. WNBA leadership and owners took that bet, agreeing to more equitable pay, changes to free agency, player opportunities with corporate partners and increased maternity and mental health support, among other new benefits.
But now, players are raising the stakes.
Liz Cambage’s biting reaction to new Las Vegas Aces’ head coach Becky Hammon’s million-dollar contract was an implicit critique of the CBA’s salary structure. This season, the player maximum salary is $228,094. In 2026, the second-to-last season of the current CBA, the supermax will increase to $256,721, a number that still will be dwarfed by Hammon’s payday.
Breanna Stewart recently offered another criticism of the limitations of the CBA. In a video call about her new one-year contract with the Seattle Storm, the 2018 WNBA MVP voiced her concerns about the CBA’s prioritization clause, which goes into effect in 2023.
Breanna Stewart told me that the one year deal was specifically because of the new Prioritization clause in the CBA kicking in 2023 and 2024. pic.twitter.com/QH6Gt0ndCc
— Storm Chasers (@WNBAStormChaser) February 10, 2022
The prioritization clause effectually requires players to “prioritize” their WNBA teams over their overseas clubs, with players facing financial penalties if overseas obligations keep them away from the WNBA. Starting in 2024, a player could have their pay suspended for the entire season if they fail to meet the demands of the clause.
However, these criticisms from Cambage and Stewart should not be considered as an indictment of the CBA. Rather, they should be seen as a sign of the CBA’s success.
The CBA and the subsequent growth of the league has raised players’ expectations, empowering them to share their dissatisfactions and call for better circumstances.
Why it is a good thing that players can criticize the CBA
It long was verboten for players to publicly criticize the WNBA, especially a former MVP who is one of the faces of the sport like Stewart. Critiques were understood as delegitimizing and detrimental, a threat to undermine the precarious progress of the league.
But in 2022, in large part because of the push players made with the 2020 CBA, the league’s foundation is strong enough for players to point out persisting fault lines. Only by drawing attention to the cracks and gaps in the league’s foundation can an even stronger, more stable foundation be achieved. Because of the CBA, it is now possible for players to imagine — and agitate for — a fully professionalized WNBA experience.
The prioritization clause always came with looming and legitimate problems
For Stewart and the many other WNBA players who significantly supplement their income by playing overseas, the prioritization clause could undercut their professional athlete experience.
In the celebratory aftermath of the 2020 CBA announcement, I shared my trepidation about the implications of the prioritization clause, writing:
Oftentimes, playing overseas is mentioned somewhat pejoratively. Yet, we are talking about women athletes who love basketball. Some might not love going to play overseas, but some might, especially non-American players. So, while the WNBA’s increasing of player compensation is an absolute positive, the way the increase discourages or even prevents players from playing overseas is not an uncontested positive. Such restrictions could drive some players out of the WNBA, especially those who do not earn above-average compensation.
At the time, WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike explained the prioritization clause, clarifying:
We had to be incredibly innovative with this…And to be honest, with what the league wanted, we understood that it would take some novel change to get the league where we want it to go. We wanted to ensure that it is still allowing players the opportunity to get the salaries that we are used to getting in both markets while also phasing in a system that will hold the league as a certain priority.
In short, in exchange for agreeing to provide players with increased salaries, owners wanted to guarantee that they would be able to maximize their investment. With the prioritization clause, organizations can almost explicitly require players be present for the entirety of the WNBA season, with a few exceptions. To secure better pay, players had to make this sacrifice, an understandable byproduct of the negotiation process.
Yet, it is worth considering if league leaders and team owners underestimated the potential consequences of the prioritization clause, consequences that do not just apply to players but also to the league and sport at large.
Stewie sheds light on the problems and pitfalls of prioritization
At her video conference, Stewart shared, “Prioritization is, like, the biggest topic of conversation in the WNBA for me, especially in the next couple of years.” She lamented how the clause could prevent her from playing for—and enjoying a significant income from— UMMC Ekaterinburg.
It’s something that, if I’m quite honest, I’m not the happiest about in our CBA. Because it’s just really limiting what professional women’s basketball players can do in their offseason and their ability to make money overseas.
Stewart also warned that prioritization is “going to affect a lot more players in the WNBA than people think right now.”
As an example, Stewart’s UMMC Ekaterinburg teammates include Brittney Griner, Jonquel Jones, Emma Meesseman, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley. Meeseman already has proven that the WNBA is not her number one priority, as she chose to devote her energies to the Belgian national team last season. Griner previously has expressed a lukewarm commitment to the WNBA. Additionally, amidst rumored differences between Vandersloot and the Chicago Sky surrounding negotiations for a new contract, it was speculated that Ekaterinburg was willing to pay her to skip the 2022 season.
It seems easy to imagine the EuroLeague powerhouse shelling out some significant money to entice the likes of Stewart, Griner or Jones to prioritize Ekat over the W. Stewart’s comments certainly suggest that her investment in the WNBA may not take precedent over a lucrative investment in her from Ekaterinburg.
The prioritization clause could undermine the growth of the women’s game
Would losing the services of former MVPs and a near-MVP be a win for the WNBA?
Would a potentially revolving carousel of stars sitting out seasons at the urging of their overseas squads contribute to ultimate goal of the prioritization clause: the increased and expanded visibility, and, in turn, marketability and profitability, of the WNBA?
With the prioritization clause, the WNBA is attempting to enhance its legitimacy. Yet, the effort to do so is dependent on delegitimizing other women’s basketball leagues. In the context of US sports culture, this WNBA-centric approach makes sense, as the league always is working to strengthen its foothold in the American sports landscape.
However, in the context of the wider world of women’s basketball, the prioritization clause does not grow the game. Women’s basketball is a global game and, since its founding, the WNBA has been a global league, with international players essential to the league’s sustenance and growth over the past 25 years.
Prioritization reeks of a WNBA nationalism, going against this tradition of open borders.
It also is bit curious, if not hypocritical, that the WNBA and its teams frequently highlight the overseas exploits and excellence of players, generating offseason #content and #engagement from players taking advantage of opportunities that the league ultimately aims to prevent players from taking advantage of.
Such highlights and headlines provide as much, if not more, league and player visibility as other marketing efforts.
Giving social media shine to players hooping overseas, in combination with sharing evidence of players’ other offseason entrepreneurial adventures, helps the WNBA establish a diverse portfolio of offseason player visibility, illuminating how the 144(ish) players who make up the WNBA are more than just WNBA players — they are individuals with an array of talents, interests, abilities and ambitions.
Isn’t this “the kind of world we want to live in”? The implementation of the prioritization clause could undermine such a world. So maybe the priority should be the continued global expansion of the game, propelled by WNBA players getting buckets, dishing dimes and swatting shots in Russia, Spain, Australia, and beyond?
Regardless of how concerns about prioritization are resolved, that Stewart felt secure enough to share her critiques suggests that, despite some shortcomings, the 2020 CBA has provided the foundation for a better WNBA.