- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

The clock is ticking for the WNBA.

After six seasons of play, tens of millions of dollars in losses and one nasty labor dispute, the future of the league comes down to a critical meeting today in New York and a deadline tomorrow to reach a new collective bargaining agreement.

If WNBA players do not accept the league's latest labor contract offer by tomorrow, NBA Commissioner David Stern and the NBA Board of Governors - which retain final authority over the women's league - say they will cancel the 2003 WNBA season, set to start next month. And given the WNBA's already fragile fan following, that could mean the end of the league altogether.

In the meantime, all league operations are on hold. The league entry draft, scheduled for yesterday, has been postponed. So, too, is the dispersal draft for the now-defunct Portland, Ore., and Miami franchises.

The previous labor deal expired last September, and on-and-off negotiations over the fall and winter have produced little meaningful progress. Meetings were held as recently as Monday, but increasing angry public statements, capped by Stern issuing the deadline last week, have led both sides to admit that the gap remains wide on several fronts.

"We're in the midst of a very difficult negotiation," said Pam Wheeler, union director of operations.

The heightening labor turmoil also caps off an extremely turbulent offseason for the fledgling league. In addition to troubles in Portland and Miami, the Utah and Orlando franchises relocated to San Antonio and Connecticut, respectively. In an unprecedented move for a major sports league, the Connecticut franchise will be based at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.

Last fall, the NBA Board of Governors also voted to disband the WNBA's single-entity ownership model, shifting the equity, operating costs and financial risk of each club to individual owners.

The shift, while seen as necessary for the league's long-term maturation, added yet another level of instability in day-to-day operations for several teams. It also led to the folding of the Portland Fire and Miami Sol when owners could not be found.

In another indicator of how tense and large the dispute has grown, the WNBA players are now getting public support from the National Organization of Women and Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations. Burk, fresh off her embarrassingly small Masters protest, says NCWO members make up a significant part of the WNBA's fan base.

"David Stern said last year that the WNBA is an investment," Burk said. "To now say, 'Here is our offer, take it or leave it,' he seems to be going back on that word."

The average WNBA salary is $46,000 to $55,000, depending on whether the league or union is doing the calculating. The union is proposing a new collective bargaining agreement led by a league salary cap of at least $9.5 million to $10.5 million, a 20 percent raise in veteran minimum salaries to $48,000, and free agency beginning for players after four years in the league. The free agency rights, currently non-existent in the league, are of particular importance to the union.

The league, conversely, is offering an $8.6 million salary cap for the league, or $616,000 a club in a 14-team league, a 3 percent raise in veteran minimum salaries to $41,200, restricted free agency for seven-year veterans, and unrestricted free agency for 10-year veterans.

The WNBA also wants to reduce the rookie minimum salary from $30,000 to $25,000, while the union wants to boost it to $33,000.

The league also wants a five-year deal, while the union would prefer a three-year term.

"We are asking [the players] to make a deal that can demonstrate once and for all the WNBA has a strong future," Stern said last week, citing large pay cuts recently forced upon players of the Women's United Soccer Association. "It's up to the women of the WNBA."

Wheeler said yesterday the union has made the vast majority of movement in its bargaining position, as well as the most formal offers, a comment to which league officials declined to respond.

Despite the salary structure being relatively low for pro sports, sluggish attendance figures and TV viewership has kept the league years away from any true profits. But thanks to several prominent stars and the support of the NBA, the WNBA stands as the longest running women's basketball league in the United States.

"If the WNBA is actually shut down, I can tell you that it's going to be for reasons far beyond labor," Wheeler said.

On one level, the labor fight is a litmus test of the strength and personal goals of Billy Hunter, the executive director of the NBA Players Association, which represents the WNBA players. Hunter, at a sports industry conference last month in New York, said part of his job requires ensuring he is not perceived as a puppet of the league.

"That's part of it," a union source said. "But this will foremost be determined on the merits of the deal. If the [league's] offer at the end of this stinks, there probably will be a recommendation [to players] not to accept it. If we make some progress, obviously it then has a chance of going the other way."

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