The WNBA’s CBA Prioritization rule (Section 9) was designed with the intention of ensuring players hoop in the WNBA for the entire season, thus prioritizing the league versus their overseas play. It achieves this by punishing players for reporting late to training camp by suspending them for the entire season. Which means they forfeit their entire WNBA salary.
Critically, it goes into effect in 2023, which is just a year away. Its impending enforcement is already making waves across the league, and influencing marquee players such as Breanna Stewart. So today, we’ll discuss three creative ways players are preparing, based on the upcoming rule.
“In a few years under this agreement, we will have firm reporting dates for training camp for the regular season,” Cathy Engelbert said to ESPN in 2020, when the new CBA was first signed into existence. There are a few exceptions: The prioritization rule only applies to players with at least three years of experience, as of the end of the preceding WNBA season. And certain activities such as participation on national teams or in the Olympics are exempt as well. Despite its strict measures, at the time it was committed to, most players seemed to be onboard.
“It occurred to us that in order for the league to grow, we have to do something a little different,” executive committee president Nneka Ogwumike said. “We figured out how to phase it in. The majority of players agree we have to change this business model, and if that means us being around more frequently, then we’re OK with that.”
However, as the start date draws nearer, its limitations are becoming clearer. Many players are starting to plan.
As a result, some players are signing shorter contracts with their WNBA team during free agency. Breanna Stewart, on the heels of signing her one-year renewal with the Seattle Storm explained the relatively short period for her new contract was due to the rule.
“The biggest thing with the one-year deal was in regards to the prioritization. It’s something that I’m quite honestly not happy about in our CBA. Because it’s just really limiting what professional women’s basketball players can do in their offseason, and their ability to make money overseas. So with a one-year deal I have a little bit more flexibility in technically what I can do in 2023, as we try to figure out this prioritization.” she said in her press conference.
“To be able to play overseas at UMMC Ekaterinburg, where basketball is very valued, we’re treated really well, and able to make a lot of money, it’s just hard for me. With the prioritization, you’re cutting off one of my sources of income and not substituting it.”
A two-time WNBA Champion unhappy about prioritization is an issue. Now entering her 7th year, Breanna is in a place where she feels it’s her responsibility to speak up and to use her platform, in general.
“I think the next evolution in my career is continuing to to be that leader, to be that voice, to be the person to kind of say the the good, the bad or the ugly…Just continue to not settle for anything less…This is my seventh year in the WNBA which seems pretty crazy. But I want to continue to make sure that this league is better for the ones that are coming after me. And I still hope I’m going to be playing for a long time. But I just want to continue to kind of uplift – not feel like we have to dance around, or not talk about, certain topics that are obviously needing to be talked about.” she said. Changing prioritization may become an issue she champions this year.
Meanwhile other WNBA players have figured out ways to still earn overseas, while meeting the new constraints. Dallas Wings‘ sharp shooter Marina Mabrey has used the offseason to stake out her claim in a league with a schedule that does not conflict with the US training camp schedule: Australia.
“…And then also to match the CBA coming up for the WNBA, the Australian League works perfectly. I can avoid fines and stuff for next year. So I kind of wanted to get my name in this league already, before the other [WNBA players] come take all the spots.” Marina said recently.
Other players, such as Washington Mystics‘ guard Natasha Cloud, have found a stateside solution to the deadline in the new Athletes Unlimited Basketball league. “I think the WNBA and Athletes Unlimited will mesh perfectly together. We can stay here, it will be really competitive basketball, and we do not have to be away from our families for several months.” she said as the league launched.
Prioritization was put in place with the goal of growing the women’s game in the US by ensuring all players are back for the start of the season. At the time of the CBA announcement, Cathy was hopeful the league’s increased salary, as well as potential job opportunities, would entice players to stay stateside.
“While we expect some of our players to continue to play overseas in the offseason, we hope the expanded compensation package and other offseason employment opportunities — including possible coaching positions for some players — will create an environment where more players will prioritize the WNBA.” said Cathy.
While the league has done a better job placing former WNBA players into head coaching roles over the last year (six head coaches are former W players), it remains unclear how many coaching positions – and for what types of teams – might be made available to current players.
Beyond bringing in additional income, overseas play has also historically provided players with an opportunity to refine their skill sets by trying new things. Development is something prioritization could hamper. “That’s kind of the beauty of overseas. Like that’s the opportunity where you can kind of maybe try some things that you don’t always get to do in WNBA.” said New York Liberty shooting guard Sami Whitcomb.
Training camp is not known for being a player favorite, perhaps adding insult to injury. “When’s the last time you’ve done a full WNBA camp, and looked forward to doing a full WNBA camp?” Sami recently asked Washington Mystics’ elite defender Alysha Clark on her podcast.
“Camps are not always, ‘Oh, yeah awesome – three weeks of double days!’ It’s not something you always look forward to. But I love that you’re just like yes 88 days [referencing Alysha’s recovery timeline aligning to the date that camp starts for her this year ] – we in there – I got training camp! Like I’m 34, but I want this training camp!’ I love that cuz I know for me, I’m like ‘Oh man, training camp. Okay let me come in for the second half cuz this is not my time to shine.’”she continued.
Women’s basketball is a growing game. There have been significant ratings increases in the WNBA. And the WNBA just raised $75 million. Prioritization is likely to be one of the biggest topics of conversation in the WNBA in the year ahead because of how many players it will affect.
The league risks losing its stars to large overseas contracts. In fact, it risks that even ahead of prioritization. As it was reported UMMC Ekaterinburg is pursuing the option of paying Courtney Vandersloot to sit out of the 2022 WNBA season.
Hopefully the full impact of the prioritization of the WNBA over overseas ball will keep things moving in a positive direction. “That’s something that needs to be kind of figured out. I don’t have a great answer for what’s going to happen.” Breanna Stewart said.