WNBA CBA and Salary Cap Explained: Rookie Contracts Part Three
What happens when rookie-scale contracts end?
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Welcome back to our WNBA Salary Cap and CBA Explained series. As part of our mission to unlock better insight about the women’s game, we’ll be breaking down the rules outlined in the 350-page WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), covering the 2020 through 2027 seasons, in plain language. Each article will focus on a bite-size chunk of the CBA to make the concepts more digestible. We are also compiling all of this information on the Her Hoop Stats website in a single FAQ document inspired by the great work by Larry Coon on the NBA’s CBA.
This is the last of a three-part deep dive into rookie contracts. In part one, we went through the basics of rookie contracts: eligibility, contract terms, and the process of receiving a contract. Part two looked at some unique situations that can arise with rookie contracts and how the league deals with them. This installment will look at what happens at the end of contracts — whether they are extended or allowed to expire.
Can rookie contracts be extended?
The short answer: sometimes. Undrafted players cannot have their rookie contracts extended. They will usually become reserved players, which will be defined later in this piece, and in rare cases, they will become free agents after their second season.
Drafted players on rookie contracts may have their contracts extended if the team has already exercised the fourth-year option in the rookie contract, which would happen ahead of a player’s third season. The extension must take place between February 1 and May 15 before the player’s fourth season. That is, the player must sign an extension before playing the final, team-option year of their rookie contract.
Las Vegas’ Kelsey Plum and Los Angeles’ Sydney Wiese are recent examples of players who received rookie-scale extensions. Both were drafted in 2017 and completed the third year of their contracts in 2019, and both of their teams exercised their fourth-year options after the 2018 season, making them eligible for extensions.
A player’s base salary for the fourth season of their rookie contract remains the same under an extension. The extension begins in the fifth year even though it has to be agreed to before the fourth season. This means Plum and Wiese will each earn $68,000 in 2020, the minimum salary for a player with three or more years of experience, and their new salaries will begin in 2021. Plum is set to earn $175,000 and Wiese will earn $80,000.
Rookie scale contracts can be extended for up to four years and for a salary up to the “supermax” usually reserved for veterans of six or more seasons (and five or more seasons beginning in 2021). The league allows extensions up to the supermax as a way of incentivizing star players to stay with the team that drafted them.
The 2018 draft class is due for extensions after this season, including No. 1 overall pick A’ja Wilson in Las Vegas. Wilson could command a supermax contract that would take effect in 2022, meaning that her base salary could be as high as $228,094 that season.
What happens when rookie contracts expire?
Much like extensions, what happens after a contract expires is determined by the type of contract and whether or not the team has taken certain actions. In most cases, a player becomes either a restricted free agent or an unrestricted free agent after their rookie contract expires.
A restricted free agent may sign with any WNBA team, but their prior team has the right to match any offer from another team. If their prior team chooses to match the offer, the player remains with that team. If the offer is not matched, the player is free to sign with the new team. An unrestricted free agent is free to sign with any team, including their prior team, but their prior team has no ability to dictate where the player chooses to sign.
The simplest situation of a rookie contract expiring is for a drafted rookie whose fourth-year option was not exercised by their team. In that scenario, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent after the conclusion of their third season.
For rookie contracts that run for the entirety of their initial terms (one or two seasons for undrafted players and four seasons for drafted players), teams have the option to extend a qualifying offer after the conclusion of the final year. The two types of qualifying offers that follow the expiration of rookie contracts are restricted qualifying offers and reserved qualifying offers.
What are restricted qualifying offers?
Restricted qualifying offers are offered to players finishing four-year rookie-scale contracts. A team must make the qualifying offer between January 1 and January 14 following the final year of the player’s contract. The offer is for one year with a base salary of 105% of their fourth-year base salary, plus an additional $10,000 for any player who met either of the following criteria:
WNBA MVP or All-WNBA First Team in the fourth year of their rookie scale contract
WNBA MVP or All-WNBA First Team in two of the first three years of their rookie scale contract
If the team makes the restricted qualifying offer, the player becomes a restricted free agent. As explained above, a restricted free agent may either accept the qualifying offer, negotiate with their previous team, or negotiate with other teams and the previous team may decide to match. If the team does not extend the qualifying offer, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent on January 15.
What is a reserved qualifying offer?
If the player was undrafted and on a one- or two-year rookie scale contract, the team may extend a reserved qualifying offer between January 1 and January 14. This is an offer for one year at the minimum base salary for a player with two years of service with no protection. If the team makes a reserved qualifying offer, the player becomes a reserved player and the team holds their exclusive negotiation rights. The player then has the right to negotiate with their team, but they may just sign the qualifying offer.
Unlike the rookie scale, the negotiation can result in a contract for up to the standard maximum salary ($185,000 in 2020). If no contract is signed after one year, the team may once again offer a reserved qualifying offer between January 1 and January 14 of the subsequent year, which restarts the negotiations. This cycle repeats until the player signs a qualifying offer or the team does not extend the reserved qualifying offer. If the team doesn’t send a qualifying offer, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent on January 15.
Since this concludes our three-part series on rookie-scale contracts, we want to hear from you! If you would like a clarification for any rule, suggestions for future CBA Explained topics, or any other questions, please feel free to let us know in the comments or tweet at us @herhoopstats.