- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

WNBA president Val Ackerman likely will not be summoned to Congress as was her baseball counterpart, Bud Selig. But the financial state of the 6-year-old league is under nearly as much scrutiny these days.
The WNBA's collective bargaining agreement with its players expires Sept.15, and in front of a backdrop that includes increasing talk of a strike next year, a fundamental question looms: is the WNBA really losing money, as the league claims?
The party line of the WNBA and its creator and chief benefactor, NBA commissioner David Stern, is that the WNBA is an "investment." That's a code word for money-loser, and industry estimates of the red ink point to at least several million dollars a year.
But officials of both leagues think the WNBA is about to a turn a major corner, thanks to a new TV deal with ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, the NBA's continued subsidies and the probable arrival of several new corporate sponsors.
"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," Ackerman said recently.
WNBA players, however, claim real money is being made now, and how the profit question is ultimately answered this summer and fall will speak volumes on the direction of the labor talks. Last week, leaders of the Women's National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), upset with the league's salary and benefit structure, acknowledged they were talking about "getting comfortable with a strike."
"The players have honored their part of a partnership forged with the WNBA to grow the league," said Pam Wheeler, WNBPA director of operations. "Now the players are looking back at the league to honor their part. A partnership works both ways."
Earlier this year, the WNBA provided the players with financial records documenting their position. That delivery came with a confidentiality provision that bars the players from detailing publicly what they saw. But Wheeler said the numbers have not been audited by an independent, third-party accountant. And also buttressing the union's position is a recent and surprising statement by Stern to Business Week that the WNBA is actually "not losing money."
Each WNBA team, with the exception of the league-run Charlotte Sting, is operated and partially funded by the NBA team owner in that city. But several of those NBA team owners do not separate their financial records of each team, and sell sponsorships and luxury seating encompassing their entire sports empires, further muddying the fiscal waters.
"After we saw the financials we received, our position did not change," Wheeler said. "But we need more information, all the underlying statements. All we've seen so far is a basic framework."
WNBA officials claim otherwise.
"They have our complete financial records for both the league and all the individual clubs," said spokeswoman Maureen Coyle. "They have everything."
The players are seeking meaningful increases in an average salary they now estimate at $40,000, greater freedom in player marketing rights, and some type of free agency rights. The union estimates that salaries as a percentage of total league revenues are between 12 and 15 percent, far below any established sports league.
But in recent weeks, as the debate over the WNBA's financial state continues, the players have lost major ground in the public relations war.
League attendance through Wednesday's games stood at 8,443, on track to become the worst in WNBA history. Only two of 16 markets Washington and New York have shown the ability to regularly draw decent crowds over their entire franchise histories. TV ratings remain thimble-sized and fell again last year. Buzz among mainstream sports fans is minuscule. And the $40,000 pay is for a season lasting just four months with few formal offseason responsibilities.
All these indicators feed directly into the league's position, and not the union's.
"All of this is essentially a function of economics," said Rick Burton, executive director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "Players are paid as the market will bear. It's very difficult to force the market to bear more than it can truly handle."
Regardless of where the WNBA financial debate leads, one thing is for certain: the league's sugar daddy, Stern, isn't going anywhere. Even amid the WNBA's well-documented struggles fighting against the more established sports leagues, the commissioner considers the league among his greatest accomplishments, particularly because it draws in women and young people not currently watching the NBA.
The league's commitment to the WNBA is "indefinite. Unending," Stern told Business Week. "It's why we gave it our name."

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