Latoya Thomas

(WOMENSENEWS)–The Women’s National Basketball Association signed a collective bargaining agreement with its players Friday after tense negotiations that saw the league postpone its annual draft of college players and threaten to cancel the entire 2003 season–an act that could have doomed the fledgling league.

The WNBA hailed the new agreement as the first to offer free agency to female professional athletes. And women’s sports enthusiasts hailed it for saving the league while it struggles to grow and become profitable. The six-year-old league has yet to turn a profit and the National Basketball Association is subsidizing its sister organization with $12 million this year.

The signing means that exhibition play will now start on schedule on May 6, as will the opening of the 34-game regular season on May 22, according to the league.

The contract covers four years, with a league option for a fifth. Pamela Wheeler, chief negotiator for the players’ association, which sought a three-year deal, said the WNBA’s 200 players were reluctant to accept a five-year pact, but the league wouldn’t budge.

Sheryl Swoopes of the Houston Comets, twice the league’s most valuable player and a member of the negotiating team, said she is disappointed with the new agreement.

“I’m happy to be playing. Happy with the deal? No,” Swoopes told Houston television station, KRIV. “Obviously, it’s not necessarily what we wanted, but we want to play.”

Players Sacrifice for Sport

The league and the players had struggled for months since their contract expired last Sept. 15. NBA commissioner David Stern had warned the players on April 8 that if they did not reach agreement by April 18, he would cancel the season. While the WNBA agreement in principle was reached on deadline, the two sides took another week to hammer out the exact details.

Pat Meiser-McKnett, athletics director at the University of Hartford, praised the players for sacrificing for the good of the sport. “The choice was nothing, or sacrifice. It would be devastating for us to have nothing,” said Meiser-McKnett, one of only 23 female Division I athletic directors in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, out of the 297 members. As a college coach, Meiser-McKnett gave out the first women’s basketball scholarship in 1974.

Meiser-McKnett compared the “pioneering” of today’s female basketball players to that of women’s tennis in the 1970s, when winners made only $1,000 to $1,500 compared to the $393,000 that tennis star Serena Williams won recently in Miami. “There is a great future for women in pro basketball. I know women’s basketball can get that center stage,” Meiser-McKnett said, citing the huge popularity of women’s college basketball in Connecticut.

She said five years from now the WNBA players will look back and know they did the right thing by not “fighting to the death.”

The league said the contract carries an increase of 4 percent per year in the amount teams will spend on salaries, totaling more than 17 percent over the next four years. This year, minimum salaries for veterans will increase 5 percent to $42,000, while minimum salaries for rookies remain the same, at $30,000.

The players had sought a $48,000 minimum for veterans and $33,000 for rookies. The league said WNBA players average $55,000 for a four-month season, with top players earning a base salary of $79,500. In contrast, the men in the NBA average close to $4.5 million per season.

Agreement Brings New Benefits for Players

Traci Cook, WNBA senior director of strategic and corporate communications, said the two leagues are not comparable because the men’s salaries are based on a percentage of profits.

During negotiations Stern said, “Frankly, I understand the individual players’ perspective. They are playing the sport at the highest level . . . and they see the men getting astounding numbers by comparison.”

But Stern stressed the need to keep costs down until the league could become financially viable. The WNBA saw 2 of its 16 teams, Miami and Portland, dissolve during the winter while two other teams were relocated to San Antonio and Connecticut.

The agreement also allows players to share in WNBA revenue growth, if certain ticket sales targets are met. Players are allowed to secure more personal product endorsement contracts. Previously the league barred players from providing endorsements in 18 product categories; that number was cut to six. The WNBA will not release the six products. Players are also allowed to become restricted free agents–meaning they can bargain with other teams–after six years of service. The years-of-service number drops to five next year, and four after that.

With the signing, the league announced that the opening of training camp, scheduled for last Sunday, would be pushed back until May 1.

Only hours after the signing, the league began its postponed draft of college players. The Cleveland Rockers selected Mississippi State University forward LaToya Thomas; the Sacramento Monarchs took Vanderbilt University’s center Chantelle Anderson; and The Detroit Shock chose Cheryl Ford, a center at Louisiana Tech University and daughter of NBA star Karl Malone.

Sue Reisinger is a freelance writer and lawyer in New York.

For more information:

Women’s National Basketball Association:

Women’s National Basketball Players Association: