Thursday, June 13, 2002

The WNBA’s players want a raise and say they might go on strike if they don’t get it.

Players have grown increasingly dissatisfied over the course of their 4-year-old collective bargaining agreement with the WNBA, a league that after five full seasons has yet to make a profit. They will seek significantly higher salaries, a different method of determining salary and a better pension plan, among other concessions, when the agreement expires in mid-September after the current season.

A WNBA official this week said the Women’s National Basketball Players’ Association has not contacted the league yet.

If the two groups do not hammer out a deal, a lockout or a players’ strike could develop, a possibility WNBPA president Sonja Henning acknowledged Tuesday.

While NBA players’ salaries are comprised of 56 percent of league revenues, the WNBA’s salaries are comprised of approximately 15 percent. The WNBA has said it has lost money in each of its first six seasons which it is willing to do while still in its “investment” stage requiring players’ cuts of revenues to be lower. Also, the WNBA’s TV deal, announced yesterday, calls for the league to split ad revenue with ABC and ESPN instead of receiving a rights fee from the networks. The NBA signed a six-year, $4.6billion deal in January to move to ABC and ESPN while remaining on TNT.

The WNBA says it is losing money but until it opens its financial records, a request the players’ association has made but has not been granted, Adrain Williams said the players will view of the league’s reports with suspicion and demand higher salaries.

“They say they’re losing money, but they haven’t shown us proof as to why,” said Williams, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury.

Henning could not be reached for comment yesterday. Two Washington Mystics declined to comment.

If the players’ demands are not met, a strike is a last-ditch option, though Williams said she believes a lockout by the league is a more likely possibility than a players’ strike.

At the top of the players’ list of desires is a salary increase. Currently, the league’s average salary is about $55,000 not including full health benefits and performance bonuses. Williams said she would like to see the average rise to between $80,000 and $100,000. The American Basketball League, a women’s league from which many current WNBA players came, went bankrupt midway through its third season in 1998 after paying players $80,000 salaries.

Currently, the WNBA rookie minimum is $30,000, while the veteran minimum is $40,000. One of the players’ biggest gripes is that by making that type of money, they are virtually forced to play overseas where salaries are higher to make a living playing basketball. This past winter, six Washington Mystics played pro ball overseas, while Williams was one of just two Mercury players (on a 13-player roster) to stay in the U.S. all winter. Still, Williams, in her third WNBA season, said money was tight without the extra income because she hired a trainer and a shooting coach in the offseason.

“I know a lot of players who played overseas because they’re making more than they make here,” said the Washington Mystics’ Murriel Page.

Players yesterday emphasized they are not seeking salaries close to those of their NBA counterparts; instead, they just want “what they’re worth.” Aside from raising the salary range, the players and the league have some other money-related issues to iron out, among them:

•Draft-dictated salaries. Players’ salaries are dictated by the position in which they are drafted. If a third-round pick eventually outperforms a first-round pick, that will not be reflected in a salary adjustment. “I know some sixth-year players that are making as much as rookies are,” Page said. “It has to change.”

•Cutting salaries. Williams said a close friend of hers in the league, among several other players, had her salary decreased by the league after she had a sub-par season. Conversely, players’ salaries are not raised when their performance exceeds expectations, or the level that would be expected from the salary the player is making. “There’s no bargaining with the league,” Williams said. “You either play or you don’t.”

•Free agency. Both Williams and Page said this would eradicate many of the problems the players have with the league. However, this could prove damaging to its financial future because through a single-entity ownership system (the league owns all 16 teams), the WNBA has kept salaries low, costs low and financial losses at a minimum.

A strike seems unlikely just because the players realize they cannot risk alienating their fans as baseball did eight years ago and could do again later this summer and guarantee that they return to support the game. But if it means getting paid what they feel they deserve, drastic steps could be taken.

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