The WNBA is approaching a crossroad.
The league’s collective bargaining agreement is set to expire at season’s end in October. Both sides are optimistic that a deal will be done in time for next season, but players have said they are willing to sit out the season if that doesn’t happen.
“We’re just fighting for what we want improved using whatever methods we can,” the Liberty’s Bria Hartley said.
For the women who play in the professional basketball league, this process is about more than just haggling over pay and benefits. They are concerned about the future, which is why the players union exercised its right last November to opt out of a deal that would have expired in 2021.
Liberty player Tina Charles told Newsday that “sitting out the season is always an option.” Long Island natives Hartley and Sue Bird have made similar comments.
Equal pay has long been a sticking point for female athletes, and the issue was once again brought to the fore this summer after the United States’ team won the Women’s World Cup in France. WNBA players, however, say they are not reaching for the sky and don’t expect contracts similar to NBA players.
Bird, a Syosset native, is vice president of the Players Association and a 17-season WNBA veteran.
“The reality is that we have to make a living,” Bird said.
“We have categories that we have highlighted as a union, areas that we really want to see change in, and salary is No. 1.”
The WNBA’s base salary is about $75,000, according to published reports, and average compensation is about $116,000, including benefits that include insurance and housing, according to reports.
For comparison, the minimum salary for a National Basketball Association rookie was $838,464 last season, according to published figures.
Jaren Jackson earned a base salary of almost $6 million as the first-round draft pick of the Memphis Grizzlies last season, according to published figures.
It gave his mother, WNBA Players Association director of operations Terri Carmichael Jackson, a first-hand look at the stark differences between life in the NBA, where all creature comforts are first-class, and the WNBA, which she categorized as a step down from a women’s status as a college star.
“Her experience as a professional athlete should at least be as good as, if not better than, her experience as a collegiate athlete,” Jackson said, adding that addressing this issue is a necessary step in “professionalizing the league.”
The WNBA has not been a profitable endeavor. Average attendance declined in 2018, partly due to the Liberty’s move from spacious Madison Square Garden to the 5,000-seat Westchester County Center in White Plains.
The league suffered $12 million in losses in 2018, according to the Associated Press, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver told the AP in October that “on average [we’ve lost] over $10 million every year we’ve operated.”
WNBA president Lisa Borders stepped down at the end of the 2018 season and the league hired Cathy Englebert, CEO of a financial services company, as commissioner.
“My priorities are to help the 'W become a sustainable and thriving business by expanding the fan base,” said Englebert, who played basketball at Lehigh University.
To do that, the league needs talent, and that talent is willing to fight for improvements in their situation.
North Babylon native Hartley, 26, is the Liberty’s union representative. She is also a single mother with a 27-month-old son.
“There are a lot of things that aren’t in our CBA that I think should be for moms, so I definitely try to advocate for that,” she said.
Hartley, who recently returned to the Liberty after representing France in the European Women’s Basketball Championship, pointed out that many WNBA players find it necessary to supplement their incomes by playing grueling schedules for overseas teams. In 2018, 90 of the league’s 144 players did so.
“It’s going to take people sitting down at the table and figuring out how to do it so players aren’t exhausting themselves and getting beat up,” said Bird, a nine-time all-star who said she, too, would sit out the season if there wasn’t a deal.
Jackson said she doesn’t expect that to happen.
“What I appreciate is the commitment to being in a union, standing tall and standing strong as a union,” Jackson said. “But the notion that there is a doomsday scenario looming? I reject that.”
Englebert, the new commissioner, said her goals include improving the player experience, driving additional revenue models, and enhancing the fan experience.
“Honestly, this change isn’t about us,” Charles said. “It’s going to come to those that are going to come after us.”
Charles, 30, compared the situation to the way original WNBA stars such as Teresa Weatherspoon, Becky Hammon, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo paved the way for her generation of players.
“All the things that they did, all the action that they took, it was to benefit us now,” Charles said. “So now it’s our turn to do the same thing.”
The future of women’s professional basketball in the U.S. could depend on it.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's first name as David.