WNBA CBA Explained: Free Agency, Part 1
Exploring the CBA and how it governs the basics of free agency
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Welcome back to our WNBA CBA and Salary Cap Explained series. As part of our mission to unlock better insight into the women’s game, we’re 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. To catch up on the previous 12 pieces in the series, check out the list at the bottom of this piece. We are also compiling all of this information on the Her Hoop Stats website in a single FAQ document.
In the next two pieces, we will break down everything related to free agency. This piece will cover the basics of free agency, including timeline, restricted free agents, and unrestricted free agents. The next piece will cover additional topics including times when a player doesn’t become a free agent, as well as the salary cap implications of various free agency mechanisms.
When does WNBA free agency begin?
Free agency runs from January 15 until the last day of the regular season, with some restrictions from January 15 through January 31. During those 17 days, players may still negotiate contracts, but they can’t be signed until February 1 or later. For the 2020 season, free agency did not begin until January 28 due to CBA negotiations pushing it back.
Free agents may continue to be signed through the end of the regular season, with the caveat that all standard contracts signed after the midpoint of the regular season become fully guaranteed.
What is a restricted free agent?
A restricted free agent is a free agent who has been extended a restricted qualifying offer from their previous team. A qualifying offer is a contract that a player’s previous team offers to the player in order to make some sort of negotiation restrictions kick in. The offer remains on the table for the player to accept unless the team revokes it, or if the offer has an expiration date set by the CBA.
Once extended, a restricted qualifying offer makes the player a restricted free agent unless the team decides to revoke it. Restricted free agents are still allowed to negotiate freely with any team, including their previous team, but their previous team has what is called the ‘right of first refusal.’
This means that the previous team will be given the opportunity to match an offer that the restricted free agent has agreed to in principle with another team. That agreement is known as an offer sheet in the CBA. If the previous team does match the offer sheet, then the player signs with their previous team at the terms offered by the other team.
Missed our previous installments? Here are all the topics we have covered so far…
Who is eligible to receive a restricted qualifying offer?
From January 1 to January 14, a team may extend a restricted qualifying offer to any player who has an expiring contract and exactly four years of service. Additionally, any player who is just finishing the fourth year of their rookie contract is also eligible. As covered in our piece on rookie contracts, this is a team option year that only drafted players receive.
This may seem repetitive, but both rules are included to account for players who may sit out a year of their rookie contracts and thus would finish year four with only three or fewer years of service. For example, Ezi Magbegor was drafted in 2018 but did not play that season. Her contract’s ‘clock’ still started in 2018, so when the fourth year of her rookie scale contract is up, she will only have three years of service.
With this rule, the Storm would be allowed to extend a restricted or reserved qualifying offer. Reserved qualifying offers will be covered in the next piece, where we will revisit this example. As you’ll see, making a player like Magbegor a reserved player gives the team more control over negotiations and is the natural choice for teams.
What are the terms of a restricted qualifying offer?
For a player completing their rookie-scale contract, the qualifying offer must be 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
The restricted qualifying offer for all other players is a one-year contract with a base salary equal to the higher of the player’s most recent base salary or the league minimum given the player’s years of service. Restricted qualifying offers may not include any sort of guaranteed salary. The offer must be extended before January 15, or the player will become an unrestricted free agent on February 1.
What is an offer sheet?
An offer sheet is an offer that a team other than the player’s prior team would like to sign the restricted free agent to, that the player agrees to. The new team negotiates this offer sheet with the knowledge that if the previous team doesn’t decide to match the offer, then the contract is immediately enacted. Offer sheets may be negotiated at any time beginning on January 15, but may not be signed until February 1.
The offer sheet must be for more than one season. The player must negotiate the offer sheet while keeping in mind that no matter what their previous team decides, they will be signed to those terms to one of the two teams immediately once the decision is made.
Once the offer sheet is agreed upon and submitted, the prior team has to either match or decline to match the offer within the next four days. If matched, the player and previous team immediately enter into a contract with the same terms as the offer sheet. If declined, or if the prior team does not act within those four days, then the player and new team will immediately enter into the contract outlined in the offer sheet.
If the offer sheet is matched by the prior team, then the player must agree to any trade through the following February 1. Even if the player agrees, they may not be traded to the team that wrote the initial offer sheet until the following February 1, even via multiple trades. This combination of rules stops a team from matching the offer sheet to a player solely to use that player as a trade chip without the player having a say in their destination.
What is an unrestricted free agent?
An unrestricted free agent is any free agent who has no current obligations to play for a WNBA team, and who is free to negotiate with any team in the league without another team claiming a right of first refusal. A player can become an unrestricted free agent in a few ways. First, any rookie who either goes undrafted or whose team cuts or renounces the rights to them immediately becomes an unrestricted agent.
All veteran players who are cut, as well as any veterans who have finished rendering the services of their contract and who have five or more years of service, will also almost always become unrestricted free agents. The exception is cored players which we will discuss in the next piece.
Drafted player’s still on their rookie-scale deals who do not have their fourth-year team option exercised also become unrestricted free agents. The final way for a player to become an unrestricted free agent is if their previous team decides not to exercise its right to retain negotiating rights with the player.
Missed our previous installments? Here are all the topics we have covered so far…
This series is about learning, so we want to hear from you! If you would like a clarification for any rules, 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.