Saturday, June 1, 2002

The WNBA might not yet be a fully matured league, but as its sixth season begins it has no shortage of grown-up issues.

The league’s labor contract with its unhappy players union expires after this season, and a large battle over pay, free agency rights and promotion rights is expected. A forthcoming TV deal with ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC will grant much-needed exposure and promotion in 2003. But the WNBA must buck falling TV ratings now to help justify the networks’ investment.

And while WNBA officials are thinking expansion, several current franchises remain unstable, including the league-operated Charlotte Sting. In short, the WNBA’s issues compared to its early start-up days are very different. But the fight to make a dent on the mass sporting consciousness, become a profitable operation and solidify its future is no less urgent.

The 2002 season began last week, but a full slate of games today, including the Washington Mystics’ opener, will get things going full scale.

“Now I think the [WNBAs] challenges are a bit more complex,” said league president Val Ackerman. “We know a lot more than we knew early on Now I’m not as worried about the color of the basketball or where the players might be coming from, but how to expand our fan base becomes top of mind, how to manage our growth.”

Perhaps the most obvious sign of the WNBA’s ongoing maturation as a business entity is the labor situation. Talks toward a new deal with the players aren’t expected to begin until after this season. But already the WNBA Players Association is not happy and has made known a long list of desired concessions.

The union estimates the league’s average salary at about $40,000 and salaries as a percentage of total league revenues at less than 20 percent roughly a third of any established league and wants both numbers significantly increased. WNBA players also hold no type of free agency rights and have strict limitations on striking their own endorsement deals.

“The players are looking to make some dramatic progress,” said union spokesman Dan Wasserman. “The players have been asked to help make a sacrifice to aid the development of the league, and they’ve done that. By all accounts, it appears the league is here to stay. So what we want is for the league to come back and make a commitment toward these players.

“We’re a long way from any kind of work stoppage, I’d have to stay. But if it comes to that point, the players will continue to make the sacrifices they need to make,” he said.

The league’s position is not clear, and Ackerman has steadily deflected questions on the topic. Some team executives, including L.A. Sparks president Johnny Buss, have publicly supported substantial pay raises for players.

“We’re committed to making bargaining an open and constructive process,” Ackerman said.

Also set to dominate league business later this year and immediately after the 2002 season is the issue of renewing contracts with WNBA sponsors. Nearly a dozen prominent league partnerships will be up for renewal.

Much more on the front burner is the league’s roster of teams. After a furious run-up of franchises from eight at the league’s 1997 origin to 10, then 12 and now 16, the WNBA is now looking outward again. The owners of the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors are seeking companion WNBA teams for their markets, and Memphis, Tenn., also is high on the league’s radar.

The Charlotte Hornets’ departure to New Orleans, however, has forced the WNBA to think beyond its traditional pairings of NBA and WNBA teams in a single market. The Sting remain in Charlotte, and the WNBA would like to stay there. If the Sting succeed, the league may think harder about teams in non-NBA markets like Hartford, Conn., and Kansas City.

“We [are] in the process of revisiting our operational model with an eye to making changes that would allow for the operation of WNBA teams in non-NBA cities and, potentially, the infusion of non-NBA ownership into teams in NBA cities,” Ackerman said.

But some close WNBA followers question the continued expansion, particularly when previous additions such as Seattle, Orlando and Detroit are struggling to draw solid crowds.

“I thought the last expansion [four teams in 2000] was too much,” said NBC Sports analyst Ann Meyers. “If they want to move a franchise and go somewhere that draws better, I see nothing wrong with that.”

One clear remaining sign of the WNBA’s relative infancy, however, is its continued unprofitability and reliance on the NBA for financial and operational support. NBA commissioner David Stern, the driving force in the creation of the women’s league, considers the WNBA among his proudest achievements, largely for the league’s ability to extend the overall NBA brand to women and children.

But industry sources say the WNBA, even with the relatively low salaries, still loses millions each year. Both the WNBA and NBA have declined to provide hard figures, but Ackerman acknowledges the financial struggles and to date has not offered any timeline for reaching the black.

“At this stage, the WNBA still represents an investment for NBA owners,” Ackerman said. “I think everyone involved recognized that in the early years, the WNBA would require a great deal of expense and would not be profitable, but certainly the intent long-term is for that to turn around, for the numbers to read differently. And so that’s where we are.”

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