On Oct. 17, Lexie Brown became a W.N.B.A champion. She and the Chicago Sky defeated the Phoenix Mercury to win the first title in franchise history. Yet, four months prior, Brown was sitting at home wondering if she would ever find her way back into the league.
Brown expected to play for the Minnesota Lynx during the 2021 season, but the Lynx waived her on April 17. Days later, she arrived in Chicago for training camp.
“You have to deal with things like that,” Brown said. “Keep your mental, stay professional, stay ready for your number to be called.”
The Sky cut Brown at the close of training camp in May, signed her again, cut her again, then signed her for the remainder of the season on June 14.
“It’s been a very hard last few months for me personally,” Brown said in June, “but I think that Chicago is where I wanted to be. And even though it took a lot of nonsense for me to end up on Chicago, I’m really happy to be here.”
The hassle can pay off — Brown did win a championship, after all — but it can take its toll.
Each season, players are caught in a revolving door of contracts for 144 W.N.B.A. roster spots. Many people inside and outside the league believe now is the time to expand team rosters or teams in the league, or both. With only 12 teams and 12 roster spots on each team, the W.N.B.A. is harder to get in, and stay in, than the N.B.A., especially with most players’ contracts not being guaranteed. The relatively low salaries also push players to make tough choices about when and where to play.
The W.N.B.A. is seen as the gold standard for women’s sports leagues because of the level of competition and many of the benefits players have gained through collective bargaining. But Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the players’ union, is among those striving for more.
“I like where the league is now as far as people garnering attention around it,” said Ogwumike, a 10-year veteran forward for the Los Angeles Sparks. “I don’t like where it is with rosters, number of rosters, number of teams. And it’s not to say that, you know, it’s anyone’s fault. It’s just, like, we want to see growth.”
Ogwumike led the players’ union as it reached a landmark collective bargaining agreement that took effect in the 2020 season and will last through 2027. The agreement introduced a team salary cap of $1.3 million, an increase of 30 percent. Many saw it as a step in the right direction regarding pay equity. But it also illuminated another concern.
“The $300,000 increase in the salary cap was not significant,” said Cheryl Reeve, the head coach and general manager of the Minnesota Lynx. “It was highly lauded that we were doing better for the players. And, yeah, for the supermax players, there’s separation now.”
The minimum player salary for 2020 increased by about $15,000, to $57,000, and the supermax for veterans rose by about $100,000, to $215,000. The figures increase each year.
Teams that are looking to carry experienced players to make a deep playoff run now must play what Reeve called “salary cap gymnastics.”
“I’m doing far more general managing during a season than you want to do, and that was brought on, in our case, by injuries,” Reeve said.
The Lynx signed Layshia Clarendon to a contract for the remainder of the 2021 season on July 2 after three hardship contracts. The game of catch-and-release was necessary for Minnesota to remain within its team cap as the Lynx dealt with injuries and other player absences.
Clarendon started the season with the Liberty, and had tweeted on the season’s eve, “My heart breaks for players getting cut (yes, it’s part of the business) but particularly since there are ZERO developmental opportunities.”
Seven days later, after playing three minutes total in one game for the Liberty, Clarendon became such a player after being waived by the Liberty.
That opened the door for the Lynx. To alleviate the burden caused by player injuries, the W.N.B.A. can grant hardship contracts for teams with fewer than 10 active players. Each replacement for an injured player requires a new, prorated contract from the salary cap. Teams often must choose between cutting injured players to free roster spots or keeping them and competing with fewer active players.
Terri Jackson, the executive director of the players’ union, said the union had “made our position known” about adding injured reserve spots and expanding rosters during the last round of contract negotiations, but could not agree on terms.
Ogwumike said the players wanted to create a more “robust league.”
“I think the ideas are there,” she said, adding, “but, most certainly, we need more teams.”
‘Not enough for me to survive on’
To that end, some within the W.N.B.A believe a developmental league is a logical evolution.
The N.B.A.’s G League is a proving ground for unsigned players and also a way for developing players signed to N.B.A. teams to get playing time. Each N.B.A. team can have up to two players on two-way contracts who split time between both leagues. Teams can also call up other G League players on short-term contracts as needed if they have the roster space.
Jacki Gemelos, a Liberty assistant coach and former W.N.B.A. journeywoman, said “an extra two roster spots would be huge.”
“I would have been that 13th, 14th roster spot player that maybe is not necessarily good enough to make that 12 but a good culture piece,” Gemelos said, adding that the spots could be for “a specialty player, like a knockout shooter or, a really, really tall big player if you need it for certain games or even just for injury purposes.”
In her brief W.N.B.A. career, Gemelos played 35 games for three franchises. For players who don’t catch on in the W.N.B.A. or who hardly see the court, there have long been few avenues to get more playing time without going overseas. A new domestic league, Athletes Unlimited, which will begin its five-week season this month, is now an option. But for most players, international leagues are their best opportunity to play, and to get paid.
Even most of the highest-paid W.N.B.A. players go abroad to compete for European clubs and national teams during the off-season, and sometimes instead of playing in the W.N.B.A.
“If I’m not making that much in the league, if it’s not enough for me to survive on during the year, I’m going overseas and having the summer off,” Lynx forward Napheesa Collier said on the “Tea With A & Phee” podcast she hosts with Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson.
As a result, many overseas players arrive late for W.N.B.A. training camp, leave at midseason or miss the season entirely, especially in Olympic years. In the 2021 season alone, 55 players arrived late to W.N.B.A. training camp, and about a dozen players missed their home opener, according to The Hartford Courant. In the future, this will cost players 1 percent of their salary for each day they are late and full camp pay for those missing all of camp. The league wants players to stay in the United States, to minimize disruptions to the W.N.B.A. season and to reduce injury risk, but for some that is a difficult decision.
A top-tier player can earn $500,000 to $1.5 million for playing overseas. Diana Taurasi sat out the 2015 season after winning a championship with the Phoenix Mercury in 2014. “The year-round nature of women’s basketball takes its toll, and the financial opportunity with my team in Russia would have been irresponsible to turn down,” Taurasi wrote in a letter to fans.
Taurasi’s Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, paid her W.N.B.A. salary, $107,000, according to ESPN, plus her $1.5 million overseas salary to sit out the six-month 2015 W.N.B.A. season.
In 2021, Taurasi led the Mercury to the W.N.B.A finals despite an injured ankle, for a max salary of $221,450.
‘Don’t expand just for expansion’s sake’
Reeve, the Lynx coach and general manager, said she preferred franchise expansion over roster expansion, especially since the answer, either way, is more money.
“We need a greater commitment as a whole from the N.B.A. and the N.B.A. owners,” she said. “We need a greater commitment financially. We need greater investment. This league has been far too long about, you know, the revenues and expenses matching, don’t lose one dollar. And that’s not how you grow a league.”
When asked for a response to Reeve’s comment, W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said: “I disagree with that. I have a track record of building businesses and growing businesses, and that’s what we’re doing here.”
Engelbert said she was proud that the W.N.B.A. is the longest-standing women’s domestic professional league (among team sports) and of the financial commitment of the N.B.A., including having the W.N.B.A. as part of the brand identity.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think that we could be around if the N.B.A. hadn’t been so supportive over the years,” Engelbert said.
The N.B.A. owns 50 percent of the W.N.B.A., and five N.B.A. owners — of Phoenix, Brooklyn, Indiana, Minnesota and Washington — also own a W.N.B.A. team outright. Engelbert declined to comment on the operating budget for the W.N.B.A.
When asked about providing more support, an N.B.A. spokesman, Mike Bass, said in an email: “The N.B.A. has provided enormous financial support to sustain the operation of the W.N.B.A. for the past 25 years, and our commitment has never wavered. We’ve seen exciting growth for the league under Cathy’s direction and are confident in the ability of league, team, and player leadership to continue that growth.”
Engelbert said she also knows there are “inequities in the system” regarding viewership for women’s sports leagues.
“All signs and symbols point to league growth, but we’re not even close to having the economic model the players deserve,” Engelbert said.
Since becoming commissioner in July 2019, Engelbert has focused on economics and the experiences of players and fans. She has brought on more investors, such as Amazon as the sponsor of an in-season tournament with a prize pool of $500,000 for the two finalists. While that has increased player compensation opportunities, as has a provision for marketing deals, it does not address the underlying concerns about limited roster spots and better pay for players overall.
Engelbert said expanding the league is “part of a transitional plan,” but not now.
“If you want to broaden your exposure, probably need to be more than 12 cities in a country with 330 million people,” Engelbert said. “We’re going to absolutely expand down the road, but we don’t just expand for expansion’s sake until we get the economic model further along.”
Ogwumike hopes more financial commitments from sponsors will lead to the players getting what they want — bigger rosters and higher salaries — to keep the most prominent players in the W.N.B.A.
“These last two drafts have shown there’s a league sitting at home, and so we have to do something about that,” Ogwumike said, referring to the number of talented players who are not drafted. “I think that it’s really just the onus is on ownership, investment, people wanting to pump more into women’s sports. We have players that are ready to be a part of this league.”