New CBA is chief priority this WNBA offseason

10:53 AM ET


CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

The Washington Mystics won their first WNBA title on Thursday and then quickly celebrated Friday afternoon, as several players needed to move on to their next jobs. This has always been the reality of the WNBA: To maximize their earning potential during their window of opportunity to be professional athletes, most WNBA players also compete overseas during the fall/winter/early spring.

The Mystics announced they would have a championship parade in the spring of 2020, another time to reflect on their 2019 accomplishment. But now it’s all eyes forward, and here are three major topics we’ll be watching this WNBA offseason.

Labor negotiations

The WNBA’s last collective bargaining agreement was signed in March 2014 and was to run through the 2021 season. But the players had the opportunity to opt out early, which they did in October 2018. That didn’t affect this season, but a new agreement needs to be in place before the 2020 season.

At issue are not just salaries, but what the players and their union, the WNBPA, refer to as “quality of life” concerns, such as travel.

When the players opted out, the WNBA had an interim president. That changed in May when Cathy Engelbert was hired as commissioner; she officially took over in July. Engelbert previously was CEO of Deloitte’s U.S.-based operations.

“Player experience/health is very big. … And we’ll talk salary, of course.”

Elena Delle Donne on CBA negotiations

Engelbert seems to have made a good impression so far. Under her leadership, the WNBA used charter flights during the playoffs for two teams on the West Coast that needed to get to the East Coast after the second round to start the semifinals, with just one day in between games. Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer said it made a difference for his team in being more rested before facing Washington.

How much charter use will be allowed and how that’s decided are sure to be major topics of negotiation. And the WNBA’s salary structure and the parameters of free agency also will be key issues.

The core-player designation, in particular, has been a hindrance toward the movement of the league’s top stars. From its launch in 1997, the league has sought as much as possible to keep the playing field level and maintain competitive balance among all its franchises.

But the redistribution of talent is a major saga in most other pro leagues, including the NBA. More movement would mean more WNBA news during the free-agency period that starts in February. Would that draw in a lot of new fans, or would it just stir more interest in the offseason by people who are already paying attention? And is there a legitimate concern of hurting some teams that might not fare as well in keeping or luring high-profile free agents?

Percentage of revenue is another much-discussed issue: How much should be going to the players versus what is needed to run franchises.

All of this ultimately gets to what is at the heart of everything: Will the union and the WNBA see eye-to-eye on the financial details of each of the 12 franchises and the league as a whole? Will there be an agreement on those bottom-line numbers?

2 Related

What we know now is that everyone involved, at least publicly, has seemed in agreement in regard to the objectives in a general sense.

“We have the same goal here: To lift the players year-round,” Engelbert said. “To have the athletes in the WNBA receive the recognition they deserve.”

During the WNBA Finals, Washington’s Delle Donne, the 2019 MVP, voiced optimism about how negotiations seem to be going so far.

“Things are moving, but I know that when it gets closer to the end, that’s when things sometimes can slow down,” she said. “I’m just being realistic about it.

“I would say player experience/health is very big, and obviously, there are bullet points under that. And we’ll talk salary, of course. It’s about being aware of where this league is at and wanting it to grow, but also putting some pressure on the league in regard to having and finding more investment.”

Job openings

The Indiana Fever fired coach/general manager Pokey Chatman on Sept. 9, and the Los Angeles Sparks fired GM Penny Toler on Oct. 4.

Indiana needs a coach who can develop young players. That person might need to take over as GM as well, unless the Fever opt to hire two different people for those jobs. Los Angeles needs a GM who can step into a difficult situation, facilitate some fence-mending between coach Derek Fisher and the Sparks players and possibly make a big personnel move or two.

The Fever have been in rebuilding mode since Tamika Catchings’ retirement in 2016; she is now the organization’s vice president of basketball operations. Indiana finished ninth at 13-21 this season, and the young talent there appears to be jelling. The Fever will have a lottery pick (No. 3) in the draft for the third consecutive year in 2020. In 2018, they took Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell at No. 2, and last year they chose Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan at No. 3.

The Sparks went 22-12 and finished third under Fisher in his first season as coach. But they were swept by Connecticut in the semifinals, and Fisher controversially benched Candace Parker for all but 11 minutes of the deciding Game 3. Toler was fired after sources told’s Ramona Shelburne that Toler used racial epithets in a fiery speech to the team after Game 2 of that series.

Toler scored the first basket in WNBA history in 1997 and had been Sparks GM since 1999. Chatman had been a head coach in the WNBA since 2011, spending her first six seasons in Chicago.

With their departures, there currently are no African-American women as coaches or GMs in the league, although there are some in other executive positions, including Catchings in Indiana and Los Angeles’ president and chief operating officer Danita Johnson and senior vice president Natalie White.

Star status

The 2019 season was exciting despite the absence of some big names. Seattle’s Breanna Stewart (Achilles tendon) and Sue Bird (knee), and Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry (knee) missed the entire season due to injuries, while Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi (back, hamstring) missed most of it. Dallas’ Skylar Diggins-Smith took the season off after having a baby. And Minnesota’s Maya Moore is on a basketball hiatus to focus on criminal justice issues.

.@breannastewart is working on her return ?

(via @Cbrickley603, harrington1313/Instagram)

— espnW (@espnW) October 11, 2019

Stewart, the 2018 league and WNBA Finals MVP, said she hopes to return to play by February. At 25, she’s the youngest of the group. Bird turns 39 this week, Taurasi is 37, McCoughtry 33, Moore 30 and Diggins-Smith 29.

Bird, Taurasi and Diggins-Smith are among a core group of eight players who’ve committed to playing for USA Basketball over the winter months in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Los Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray, Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles, Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson and Delle Donne are the other five.

This group will be joined by other members of the national team pool for competitions in the coming months, including exhibitions against top college programs. Four of those college games are in November, with more to be announced later.

These games will provide a chance to see the players who missed most or all of this WNBA season and gauge how healthy they are. We’ll also have to watch Delle Donne’s status, as she battled three herniated disks in her back during the WNBA Finals.

As for Moore, she said she would be taking all of 2019 away from basketball. Will she return for 2020, and if so, what physical shape will she be in?

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