- The Washington Times - Monday, July 15, 2002

Strike talk has contaminated the All-Star Game.
Sound familiar?
Tonight's WNBA All-Star Game at MCI Center probably won't end in a tie believe it or not, most sports have contingency plans for such scenarios but it will be clouded by some of the same uncertainty that infected baseball's All-Star Game in Milwaukee last week.
The 4-year-old collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and its players is set to expire Sept. 15. While the two sides have not yet begun full-fledged negotiations, players confirmed yesterday that a work stoppage is possible if certain demands are not met.
"We don't want it to get to a point where there's a strike nor a lockout," Houston Comets forward Sheryl Swoopes said at yesterday's All-Star practice session. "I think our league is still very young where we can't afford that to happen. But at the same time, as players, we've got to be willing to stick together and fight for what we believe we deserve. I don't think we're asking for too much."
First on the players union's agenda is a pay increase. The Women's National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) has estimated the median player's salary at around $40,000, which is the league minimum for veterans and less than 1 percent of the average NBA salary. That pay is for a season that lasts four months, and it comes with few formal offseason responsibilities.
The league contends that, counting benefits, the figure is closer to $60,000. Either way, the percentage of league revenues spent on player salaries remains less than half the total of any of the four major professional leagues.
"Every player in this league deserves to get paid more," said Swoopes, the leading vote-getter in this year's All-Star balloting. "There are a lot of players who've made a lot of sacrifices, and I feel we deserve a lot more than we're getting right now."
The WNBPA had the option of renegotiating its labor agreement with the league last fall but declined to do so. Now, with the deal set to expire in two months, the pressure is on, and if the union is not satisfied with the new terms proposed by the league, a strike is possible.
"Is it an option? Of course it is," Houston forward Tina Thompson said. "Hopefully it doesn't have to come to that point, but the option is always there."
The players' leverage is suspect considering that the league that has yet to make money in its six-year history. Industry estimates point to a loss of at least several million dollars each year. Players say they understand the economic realities of the league, which does not make any money from television packages and has relied in part on investments from the NBA to stay afloat.
Even still, players say, the league is progressing ahead of schedule and part of those gains should be passed on to them.
"When we started this whole thing, the expectation in our business plan was to have [4,000] to 5,000 fans and that would be a very good turnout," Thompson said. "And we started averaging around [9,000], and I think we've been consistent with that. I don't know if we're necessarily out of the red, but we've exceeded expectations.
"We've probably earned more than expected," she added, "so I think that tells us something."
League attendance, though in the 8,000 range on average, is on track to set a record low this season. Only two of 16 markets Washington and New York have been able to draw good crowds consistently. Further, television ratings have been thimble-sized and falling.
Besides an increase in salary, the union's wish list includes increased freedom to negotiate individual marketing contracts and, potentially, free agency. Currently, players are restricted in the endorsement deals they can sign, and their contracts are negotiated with the league rather than the teams.
But if negotiations turn sour, is interest in the league strong enough to endure a work stoppage?
"I think our fan base has gone up. The fans are into it now and they're going to back [the league]," said Charlotte guard Andrea Stinson, a six-year WNBA veteran. "When you first start a league, it's 'Will they or will they not [support the product]?' Now we're six years strong, the fan base is growing, the cities are growing, adding teams. Things will continue to grow."
Still, WNBA president Val Ackerman told USA Today on Friday that the league is at a loss to share profits that don't exist, suggesting that this first generation of players must make sacrifices for the good of the sport.
"They are the Bob Cousys and George Mikans, the pioneers," Ackerman said. "They are making it possible for players in 10, 20, 30 years to reap the economic benefits the league is capable of generating."
But Thompson said that concerns for the league's future must be balanced with the needs of current players.
"We are the pioneers of this league, and we're setting the stage for so many generations after us," Thompson said. "But in the same right, we're playing our hearts out and selling the product, so we want to be rewarded."
Analysts say the pay scale is just a result of the marketplace.
"All of this is essentially a function of economics," Rick Burton, executive director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, said last month. "Players are paid as the market will bear. It's very difficult to force the market to bear more than it can truly handle."

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