The WNBA released the full text of its new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the WNBA Players Association. The entire 350-page document can be found here. The agreement will drastically change the WNBA landscape in every aspect and, hopefully, usher in greater investment in the league. A crucial piece of increasing the league’s footprint will be increasing interest in WNBA Free Agency.
The NBA has found success, at least in terms of buzz, by promoting and encouraging player movement. The new CBA tries to push the WNBA in that direction. Players will get paid more, will hit unrestricted free agency sooner, and generally face less restrictions on their movement between teams.
These changes will affect the 2021 and 2022 offseasons more than 2020 because all of the changes to free agency go into effect by 2022. For now, I’d like to focus on how the new CBA affects the top players of this year’s class. Several WNBA superstars, including Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, and Angel McCoughtry, are unrestricted free agents and they will all likely benefit from the new system.
Max Salary Raise
The most important change in the new CBA is the salary increases across the board. The CBA modifies the league’s revenue sharing system to give the players about 50% of the league’s revenue (subject to hitting revenue goals). Half of the players’ portion (25% of revenue) goes toward salary and the other half (25%) goes to marketing and promotional opportunities with the league.
While it’s still unclear how this will all shake out, the point is that more money is now available for WNBA players. The WNBA’s hard salary cap jumped by over 25% from approximately $976,000 to $1.3 million. The maximum salary jumped from $117,500 to $215,000 (not including cash compensation from bonuses or marketing and promotional opportunities).
Players signing a “supermax” contract in 2020 will get $425,000 more than if they signed one in 2018. The “Supermax” is available to three groups of players: (1) veteran players with over 6 years of service signing with their prior team of at least 2 seasons either as a free agent or on a veteran extension; (2) players signed pursuant to the core designation, explained below; and (3) drafted rookies extending their rookie contracts in their 3rd year.
For free agents with 4-5 years of service or free agents changing teams, the maximum salary (or the “minimax” as I like to call it) is $185,000 in 2020, up from $115,000 last year. Next year, players with 5 years of service will be eligible for the supermax.
Another thing to keep in mind is the limits on contract length, which are the same as in the old CBA. Teams can only sign players to a 3-year contract with two relevant exceptions (leaving out rookie scale contracts). Veteran free agents signing with their prior team of at least the last 2 seasons and rookie extensions can sign 4-year contracts.
If you’re unfamiliar with the core designation, it’s similar to the NFL’s franchise tag. A team can designate a player as a core player and offer her a 1-year contract at the supermax salary, called the “core qualifying offer.” Once the player is designated, she can only negotiate a long-term contract with the team that designated her (subject to the limits above) or accept the qualifying offer. The player could choose to sit out for the season. But even if they do, the team’s rights extend into the next season.
Obviously, this is a major restriction on otherwise “unrestricted” free agents. To counteract that, the use of the core designation is limited in two ways. First, teams can only use the core designation once a year. But teams cannot use it if any of its current players are under a contract signed while designated as a core player with that team. For example, the Connecticut Sun used their 2019 core designation on Jasmine Thomas and she signed a contract as a core player that lasts through the 2020 season so Connecticut cannot designate anyone as a core player this offseason.
The second restriction on the use of the core designation is on the player side. A player who has played pursuant to a contract signed as core player for 3 or more seasons cannot be core designated again. The limit drops to 2 seasons after 2021. Let’s use Candice Dupree to illustrate this. Dupree was designated as a core player in 2018 by the Indiana Fever and signed a 3-year contract through the 2020 season. When she is a free agent again, the Fever cannot core designate her since she has played as core player for 3 years (despite being designated as a core player just once).
Only three teams used the core designation this season: Dallas Wings on Skylar Diggins-Smith, New York Liberty on Tina Charles, and Phoenix Mercury on Brittney Griner.
Sign-and-trades were allowed in the last CBA, but hardly ever happened. The raises in the maximum salary will make them far more desirable for top free agents. Last season, the difference between re-signing a 1-year supermax contract with a prior team ($117.5k) and signing a 1-year minimax contract elsewhere ($115k) was just $2,500. The difference in the 2020 offseason is $30,000. When signing long-term, the differences are even more stark. A player staying with her previous team or leaving via a sign-and-trade can get an extra year on her contract and is eligible for the supermax.
I’m going to illustrate this with Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner, who is an unrestricted free agent. If Bonner decides to leave Phoenix and sign with another team, she can sign a contract for a maximum of 3 years and $571,817 total. If Bonner decides to stay in Phoenix or agrees to a sign-and-trade, she can sign a contract for a max of 4 years and $889,480 total. That’s a difference of $327,663. Even if she signs for the supermax in 2023 (which is unlikely at 36 years old), she would still make $92,727 more with the sign-and-trade option.
I think we should see some sign-and-trades this summer. Players who have been core designated can be signed-and-traded or have their exclusive negotiating rights traded as long as the player agrees to such a move in writing. When a player gets traded, her rights to the supermax and a 4-year contract go with her. Bonner, Diggins-Smith, and (to a lesser extent) Angel McCoughtry could all benefit greatly from a sign-and-trade and their teams would love to get a return on them, rather than letting them walk for nothing.