How could the WNBA implement practice squads?
A proposal for a system of practice squad players based on Breanna Stewart's call on Twitter
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Last Wednesday, Seattle Storm superstar Breanna Stewart took to Twitter to express her frustration with the difficulty young players face trying to stick on WNBA rosters.
Many people in the world of women’s basketball have raised similar concerns, calling for expansion franchises and expanded rosters. Each of those routes has its own pros and cons and potentially would have large implications around the current quality of active players and the distribution of salaries.
By including more players on the roster without also changing the salary cap, the average player would simply make less money. Expanded rosters would give more players a spot, but for every additional fringe player who makes a roster, the quality of the next best available player declines. Neither of these is inherently a reason to not make these changes, they’re just factors to consider.
Another change is simply raising the salary cap. The players would undoubtedly be in favor of this move, as it would mean higher salaries and maybe a few more teams being able to roster 12 players instead of 11. The owners would likely need some persuading. Even then, teams may just use the extra space to give another player a max deal rather than using it on the last few players.
Stewart proposed a less talked about method: practice players. This system is not perfect either but arguably has the potential to solve a handful of problems in a way that meets players and owners in the middle.
How might it work? Stewart didn’t get into the specifics, so let's define our own rules for a hypothetical system. Some key issues will be kept in mind when outlining this system:
To avoid conflicts with the salary cap and budgets, this system will be separate from team salary figures and optional for teams.
Injuries and other unavailable players lead to roster instability and strain on hardship players with quick turnarounds and unexpected travel.
Without an affiliated WNBA developmental league, young players have little chance to grow professionally outside of playing overseas.
Not every first-round draft pick can even make a roster, so the value of a draft pick is lowered.
Teams are capped at 15 players actively participating in camp, and the average team has multiple players unavailable due to injury or offseason commitments. For the sake of simplicity, let's assume teams bring around five players into training camp that will not make the opening day roster. Presumably, teams would like the opportunity to keep some of those players around into the regular season.
To keep in line with the goal of developing young players, there should probably be an age or experience limit, but this is flexible. As an example criterion, we will say players must be 25 or younger on May 1 of that season, or they must have been eligible (and declared, when applicable) for the draft in the past two seasons, whichever is later.
Proposal: Five practice players max per team, must be 25 or younger on May 1, or draft eligible in the past two seasons.
While some players might be willing to spend time as a practice squad player for housing and the practice, this opportunity should be at least somewhat in line with the commitment it requires.
As a baseline, the league’s minimum salary is $60,471 for players with up to two years of service and $72,141 for players with three or more. Using the applicable minimum incentivizes teams to keep young players, especially recent draft picks, to develop them.
In the NBA, two-way players serve a similar purpose to a practice squad player, although they also play in scattered G League games. Two-way players receive 50% of the NBA’s minimum salary, so something slightly lower would account for the lack of developmental league games to be played in the WNBA.
Proposal: 40% of the applicable minimum salary plus the same benefits players get in the preseason (housing, transportation, per diem, etc.).
As previously outlined, this proposal allows each team to retain up to five practice squad players, with compensation of 40% of that player’s applicable minimum base salary. To avoid manipulation of players, especially young players, this system would be purely at will.
This means players cannot be forced into a practice squad role, and they are allowed to leave their contract at any time to pursue other opportunities. Most signings would happen on the same timeline as final cuts before the regular season begins.
Teams may release practice squad players, but contracts would also need to protect against team-related injuries, to avoid teams shedding players who got injured while working for the team.
Proposal: Players have full choice to sign and leave any practice squad opportunity to avoid manipulation of young players. Contracts will also be paid in full if the player suffers an injury as a result of team-related activities.
Calling Up Players
Once the season starts, the team can bring a practice squad player up to the WNBA roster but must convert the contract to a standard contract to do so. This cannot go in the other direction. The player must be waived and pass through waivers before the team can bring them back in a practice squad role. The converted contract would be prorated like any contract signed mid-season.
In the event of a hardship being granted, teams can temporarily elevate a practice squad player to the WNBA roster under a hardship contract. As a refresher, a hardship contract is for 75% of the player’s applicable minimum base salary. This move can be reversed without the player passing through waivers, but the player can still elect free agency at any point that they are on the practice squad.
Proposal: Teams can permanently convert a contract to a standard contract during the season, and they can temporarily elevate a practice squad player into a hardship contract. Outside of those two actions, practice squad players cannot play in regular season games for their team.
Teams are not able to trade these players, as players are employed at will.
While teams can release players from practice squad contracts and only pay the prorated portion of the contract, they are discouraged from circumventing costs because players have no obligation to return.
Development of young players
Compensation for fringe players
Roster stability through hardships
Requires no major CBA changes
Not all teams may take advantage of this system.
It may become irrelevant if the league expands.
Doesn’t keep these players from still going overseas.
Altogether, this is an imperfect solution, but so are most proposed solutions. This proposal would not have an outsized impact on team finances, accounting for a maximum of just under 11% of the salary cap (about $144,282 in 2022 if five players with three or more years of service are retained), and teams could pick and choose when and how to leverage it depending on their willingness to spend.
The odds of the league implementing a system like this are incredibly low, especially before a new CBA is negotiated. More than anything, this is just something fun to theorize and debate, whether it is this system of practice squad players, plain roster expansion, a WNBA G League, or any number of other proposals.
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I think a big con is the cost. Five players making $30,000 is $150,000. Benefits are at least $5,000. Four players in a large condo for four months is probably $15,000. Rental cars, etc., probably bring the total to $200,000. If a WNBA budget is $3 million, that's an additional 7% added to the expense side of the ledger. That said, I really like the idea. (Of course, teams never really practice during the season, and the players would be unavailable on the road, so I'm not sure what they would do with their time. Still ...)
Or how about an in-season Athletes Unlimited in a casino somewhere? Any team could call up any player from the AU, or a team (or teams) could sponsor a set of players.
I'm still unconvinced there's a lot of talent not on WNBA rosters, given the very limited impact the bottom three on WNBA rosters have on games now. If a team truly had 10 good players, the minutes would be more balanced than they are. As it stands, the starters are clearly and definitely a lot better than the reserves on almost every team.
An about a $100k impact is such a laughably low amount to not do something like this. But maybe to separately fund it there could be a corporate sponsor, like “the [insert brand] practice squad”.