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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

WNBA's new labor deal a major step forward for women's sports

Cathy Engelbert participates in the Yahoo Finance All

Cathy Engelbert participates in the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit: A World of Change at The Times Center in New York on Sept 20, 2018. Credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Evan Agostini

For years, women athletes have been told that the fact they make so little money is only a fair reflection of the fact that their sport brings in so little revenue.

I’ve never understood how this is just accepted as completely logical in the world of women’s sports, but it is also accepted as completely logical in the business world that a Silicon Valley startup can pay top dollar for talent and have a stock market value in the billions despite having never turned a profit.

Big-time companies that are looking to grow pay big bucks to get and keep the best people. That’s what Cathy Engelbert did when she was the chief executive officer at Deloitte, a multinational professional services network. Six months into her tenure as commissioner of the WNBA, she has applied a similar strategy to her labor negotiations with the players union.

On Tuesday, the league and the union agreed to a seven-year contract that gives its players significant raises and increased support. By doing so, the WNBA has bet not only on its product. It has bet there are plenty of potential fans and sponsors out there who believe the world would be a better place if women didn’t make a fraction of what men do and they had a workplace that was more responsive to both their career and family goals.

This is about being a leader on and off the court.

The contract, which begins this season and runs through 2027, will allow top players to earn more than $500,000, more than tripling their maximum compensation under the current deal. The average annual compensation for players rises to $130,000, marking the first time that figure has been above $100,000.

While these changes don’t amount to pay equity — only a handful of professionals out there make the $7 million a year that the average NBA player does — they are an important step forward.

At a time when women, including women athletes, are demanding increased pay and benefits for equal work, the WNBA has decided to take a leadership role. That it has done so separates the league from the governing bodies of other team sports. The women’s U.S. soccer team brought a gender discrimination lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation three months before winning the World Cup.  Female athletes from hockey, track and field and other sports have also been increasingly vocal about the lack of support they get.

Engelbert also believes doing this will make the WNBA more appealing to corporate America, which is looking for ways to make their workforce more diverse.

“Everyone is looking for things to lift women in their organizations,” Engelbert said. “What better role models than these WNBA players to help them with their own platforms around diversity inclusion. I think this is a movement, momentum around women's empowerment, a moment in society to support these women and women of color that we're certainly proud of and have a call to action around.”

The new contract also includes a number of perks that the league believes will help the players be the best they can be. Players will receive full salary on maternity leave and up to $60,000 in fertility and adoption benefits. Players with children will be given two-bedroom apartments, a childcare stipend and family-friendly work place accommodations such as private rooms for nursing mothers.

On the road players will not have to share rooms. (Can you imagine LeBron James and Anthony Davis being asked to share rooms?) They will also be upgraded from regular coach to premium economy class for air travel.

One of the most interesting perks is the league’s commitment to work with college basketball, the G-League and NBA to promote its own players for potential coaching openings.

The one giveback the players had to make is that they must make a full-time commitment to the WNBA, meaning they can no longer stay with their overseas teams once training camp opens The goal here, of course, is to make the WNBA a place where stars can play full-time and not worry about overtaxing their bodies by playing almost 12 months a year.

The league has decided if it invests in its product, if it invests in its players, the payoff will eventually come.

Said Engelbert: “I think this is a call to action for more companies to see the value in supporting these elite women athletes, step up and help us as we transform the league.

And the world beyond.

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