WNBA CBA Explained: Free Agency, Part 2

Further exploration of the rules surrounding WNBA Free Agency, including some unique situations and grey areas that we may see in the coming years.

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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 13 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 this two-part series, we will break down everything related to free agency. The first piece covered the basics of free agency, including timeline, restricted free agents, and unrestricted free agents. This article will cover additional topics including instances when a player doesn’t become a free agent, as well as the salary cap implications of various free agency mechanisms.

Missed our previous installments? Here are all the topics we have covered so far…

Does a player always become a restricted or unrestricted free agent?

No, not all players whose contracts have expired become free agents. Depending on the circumstances, players may fall into one of the three following categories outside of the restricted/unrestricted dichotomy of free agency.

  • Cored Players

  • Reserved Players

  • Suspended

Coring and reserving players requires the player’s previous team to extend some form of qualifying offer to retain the exclusive negotiating rights to the player, while those rights automatically go to the team for suspended players. These exclusive negotiating rights are what separates these players from being free agents.

Who is eligible to receive a core qualifying offer?

Each team is allowed to designate no more than one player as a core player by extending a core qualifying offer. This can be offered to any player who would otherwise become a restricted or unrestricted free agent, although it’s virtually never used on restricted free agents because the team already has the right of first refusal for that player. The terms of the core qualifying offer are a fully guaranteed, one-year contract with a base salary equal to the supermax. Once the core qualifying offer has been extended, the player may not negotiate with any other team. 

Like other qualifying offers, the team and player may still negotiate a contract with different terms. Core qualifying offers have an expiration date of March 7, but the core designation remains. If a player signs any contract, whether it is the qualifying offer or a negotiated contract, while under the core designation, they will be considered that team’s one allowable cored player until the contract expires, is terminated, or is traded. 

For example, Brittney Griner was cored in January of 2020 and signed a three-year contract with Phoenix that runs through the 2022 season. As a result, the Mercury can not make another core qualifying offer to a player while Griner is still signed to that contract with Phoenix. However, if a player on a core designation is traded, that does not count against a team’s limit. This is what allowed Skylar Diggins-Smith to be cored by Dallas, resigned, and then traded immediately to Phoenix even though Griner was already on the roster with a core designation.

For the 2021 season, players who have played three or more seasons on contracts that were signed while under the core designation may not be cored again. This rule only considers when the contract was signed rather than whether the player currently counts as a team’s one allocated core-designated player. As a result, Diggins-Smith’s years in Phoenix would count against this limit and she could not be cored again. 

The requirement decreases to two seasons beginning with the 2022 season. This means if a player is given the core designation in the 2021 preseason and negotiates a two-year contract while still under that designation, they will not be able to be cored for the remainder of their careers once the contract expires in 2023.

If the core qualifying offer is not extended or is withdrawn, the player will become either a restricted or unrestricted free agent as appropriate. For eligible players, if the team subsequently extends a restricted qualifying offer by the January 14 deadline, or within 48 hours of a withdrawal that takes place after January 12, then the player would become a restricted free agent. If not, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Who is eligible to receive a reserved qualifying offer?

Any player on an expiring contract with three or fewer years of service is eligible to receive a reserved qualifying offer. The qualifying offer is for the applicable minimum base salary, not protected, and for one year. The reserved player is free to negotiate a contract with their own team with different terms from the qualifying offer, but they may not negotiate with any other teams. The player can negotiate a new contract or accept the qualifying offer at any point after January 15, but may not sign a negotiated contract until February 1. If no reserved qualifying offer is extended, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent on February 1.

As mentioned in our previous piece, this also includes players finishing the fourth year of their rookie-scale contracts who have three or fewer years of service. To go back to the example of Ezi Magbegor from our first free agency piece, if the Storm do exercise the fourth-year option in her contract, she would be eligible for a restricted qualifying offer or a reserved qualifying offer because she would only have three years of service.

In practice, a team in this situation would opt for the reserved qualifying offer as it gives them far more control over negotiations because reserved players can only negotiate with their prior team, while restricted players can negotiate with any team. The qualifying offer itself is also much lower, between $8,000 and $25,000 lower for first-round picks drafted in 2020 or later. For players drafted before 2020, there is practically no difference between the base salary for the two offers due to the significant increase in the minimum salary.

What if the player opts out, or is suspended for their final season?

If a player opts out of a season, which we have referred to as a voluntary suspension in past pieces, they fall under the umbrella of “not fulfilling” the requirements of their contract and therefore do not become free agents once their contract would normally expire. In that case, they would be treated as reserved players immediately, without the team needing to extend a reserved qualifying offer. This means the player may only negotiate with their prior team.

This does not include players given a medical exemption as we saw in the 2020 season. Additionally, the point of this rule is to push players away from holding out for an extension or because they simply don’t want to play for that team anymore, but it also ends up applying to players who are opting out to focus on real-world issues that are bigger than basketball, like Natasha Cloud and Maya Moore. This is an unintended consequence, so maybe the WNBPA and WNBA could work out an amendment to account for this. It may be too late for players to make that case for 2020 opt-outs now, as the league would have to agree to the change and free agency is already fast approaching.

How do qualifying offers affect the salary cap?

Outstanding qualifying offers, except those that would become training camp contracts if accepted, count against the salary cap as a cap hold. This means for all types of qualifying offers, the offering team must have the cap space for the contract from the time it is offered until it is accepted or revoked. In the case of players who were suspended for the final season of their contract, there is no qualifying offer and therefore there is no cap hold.

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.