- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

WNBA players and management agreed in principle to a five-year labor deal yesterday, narrowly averting a deadline set by NBA commissioner David Stern to shut down the 2003 season.
Though the WNBA players had little true leverage entering the seven-month labor negotiations given the league's unprofitable state and fairly weak measures of fan following the union did win several concessions, most notably the introduction of free agency rights and improved marketing rights.
The league won all of the major economic battles in the talks, not surprising considering that days ago, the union admitted moving heavily in the league's direction on salaries to win noneconomic concessions.
Among key terms of the pact:
Veteran minimum salaries will increase from $40,000 to $42,000. Rookie minimum salaries will remain at $30,000. League officials had sought to reduce the rookie minimum to $25,000.
A hard salary cap of $622,000 will be in place for each club in the 14-team league. The league had offered $616,000 a team, while the players sought $750,000.
Players entering their seventh year in the league this summer, mirroring the number of years the WNBA has existed, will receive restricted free agent rights. In 2004, seventh-year players will have unrestricted free agency rights, and sixth-year players will have restricted free agency rights. In 2005, restricted free agency rights extend to fifth-year players.
Before the agreement, WNBA players had no free agency rights. Management's original contract offer did not call for unrestricted free agency rights to begin until a player logged 10 years in the league, and no restricted rights were granted until after seven years.
Marketing restrictions for players were lessened significantly. Under the previous accord, players were barred from signing individual endorsement deals in 18 product categories, with companies competing against WNBA league and team sponsors. Now management has full protection in just six product categories.
Last week Stern set a deadline of yesterday for a new deal, with the end of the business day as the unofficial cutoff point. News of the tentative agreement first leaked shortly after 5 p.m., or minutes before the shutdown was to take effect.
Players approved management's final offer by a 56 percent to 44 percent vote, union spokesman Dan Wasserman said. The final sticking point, and among the thorniest, was the length of the deal. Players, unsure of the future state of the league, ideally did not want to go beyond three years but ultimately agreed to management's demand for a five-year pact.
The agreement can be reduced to four years if certain season ticket targets are met.
WNBA officials last night refused to confirm a deal was fully in place but removed the negotiating deadline.
"Substantial progress had been made toward a new collective bargaining agreement, and negotiations will continue over the weekend," WNBA president Val Ackerman said. "WNBA events such as the 2003 draft will remain on hold until an agreement is signed."
The weekend negotiations will focus on specific contract language.
The often tense negotiations were critical to the league's future because a return to action was not guaranteed if the 2003 season was shut down.
Already, the WNBA has experienced unprecedented turmoil in its league operations this offseason. The Portland, Ore., and Miami franchises folded, the Utah Starzz relocated to Texas to become the San Antonio Silver Stars and the Orlando Miracle moved to Connecticut and will play at the Mohegan Sun casino.
Also, the NBA Board of Governors, which retains final authority over the WNBA, last fall voted to change the league's equity structure. The board scrapped a single-entity concept in which all franchise equity was retained at the league level and allowed individual owners to buy teams and assume the financial risk.
The 2003 regular season is scheduled to begin May22. Before then, many league events, such as the entry draft, a dispersal draft for the defunct Portland and Miami franchises and training camps must be rescheduled.


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