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WNBA, players agree to new labor deal that includes increase in average annual compensation

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks at a news

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks at a news conference in Washington on Sept. 29, 2019. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

The WNBA and its players union announced an eight-year labor deal Tuesday that dramatically shifts the way female professional athletes are compensated.

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.

“Today is a groundbreaking day for the WNBA,” commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a conference call Tuesday. “The time is now for women’s sports.”

Said WNBA players union president Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks: “It’s monumental for women in team sports for us to have the investment moving forward. The fight doesn’t stop here, but I’m very proud to be a part of this.”

Under the new agreement, the salary cap will increase 31 percent to $1.3 million in the first year — up from $996,000.

The agreement also provides enhanced family benefits, travel standards and other health and wellness improvements.

The additional money needed to fund the CBA will come from a variety of sources, Engelbert said. The league has announced a new “Changemakers” program with three mega-sponsors --- AT&T, Nike and Deloitte – as business partners. Engelbert also said teams and owners are also stepping up their financial commitment.

“We’re optimistic for driving a new economic model not just for our league, but all of women’s sports,” Engelbert said.

The deal was ratified unanimously by the WNBA board of governors Tuesday. Ogwumike said the union membership also overwhelmingly supported the deal, with more than 90 percent of the players voting.

The players’ biggest concession in the deal is a new requirement that will be phased in gradually. Players must be in WNBA training camps at the start of the season and no longer will be allowed to report late or after the season stars as part of their commitment to overseas clubs. WNBA players have long competed for overseas clubs during the offseason, with many making much more money there than their WNBA salaries.

That year-round play and the stress it takes on players' bodies has hurt the WNBA product. Last summer, for example, Seattle Storm forward and then-reigning WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart missed the entire season after rupturing her right Achilles tendon while playing overseas.

The deal also calls for 50-50 revenue sharing starting in 2021, based on the league achieving revenue growth targets from broadcast agreements, marketing partnerships and licensing deals. The NBA, which created the WNBA in 1996, splits its revenue about 50-50 with the men’s players. In the WNBA, the players were estimated to receive just 20 to 30 percent of league revenue.

Engelbert, who was named commissioner in May 2019, is looking to market the league as a product that appeals to companies and fans who care about women and diversity. The new agreement includes several provisions aimed at exactly that.

Players will receive their full salary while on maternity leave. Previously, they had received 50 percent, though some teams had paid more. Players with children will be given two-bedroom apartments as well as workplace accommodations that provide privacy for nursing mothers.

The league also is introducing family planning benefits of up to $60,000 reimbursement for veteran players for costs directly related to adoption, surrogacy and fertility treatment, including egg freezing.

As part of the contract, the 34-game season will extend to 36 games, with certain games on this summer’s schedule designated as "Commissioner’s Cup" games, which will come with separate standings for this in-season competition.

The two teams with the best records in Cup games will play for the Commissioner’s Cup title, with prize money for in-season tournaments starting at a minimum of $750,000 beginning in 2021.

Highlights of the WNBA’s CBA deal

-- Top players will earn more than $500,000, other players will earn between $200,000 and $300,000, and the average salary will be nearly $130,000

-- Minimum of $1.6 million in offseason league and team marketing agreements, creating up to $300,000 in additional cash compensation for select players

-- Beginning with the 2021 season, 50-50 revenue sharing from broadcast agreements, marketing partnerships and licensing deals

-- Increases in cash bonuses for league awards and new cash bonuses for other designations, such as being named to the WNBA all-defensive first team

-- Better travel accommodations, including premium economy class status for air travel and individual hotel rooms for all players

-- Full salaries for all players on maternity leave, childcare stipend of $5,000, and two-bedroom apartments for players with children

-- A more liberal free agency system that allows players with five or more years of service who complete the terms of their contracts to become unrestricted free agents beginning in 2021, unless designated as “core” players by their teams

-- Enhanced mental health benefits and services

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