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WNBA Prioritization Explained
Breaking down the much-discussed and misunderstood new rules that could affect who's actually playing in the WNBA in upcoming years
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Now that the 2022 WNBA season is in the books and the World Cup is complete, attentions for followers of professional women's basketball turn to other leagues around the world and preparations for the WNBA’s 2023 season. This time around, there's an extra level of conflict between those areas - the looming prospect of WNBA Prioritization rules beginning to kick in.
WNBA prioritization became a hot topic during free agency earlier this year when players, agents and journalists began to discuss the section that was added into the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement when the latest version was signed in 2020. The idea behind prioritization was that in return for all the new money that was being given to players, the owners wanted greater assurances that the players would be available - both to play, and ideally to represent or promote the league year-round. As the name suggests, they wanted the WNBA to be the priority, rather than a gig that players fit into their schedules when other responsibilities permit. Many players participate in other leagues around the world, often leading to them arriving late for camp or even missing the early stages of the regular season. Occasionally, they've prioritized overseas leagues enough to skip the WNBA entirely. The entire prioritization section covers barely three pages of the 342-page CBA and hasn't even begun to take effect yet, but has already led to lengthy debate and misunderstanding. So we're here to break it down for you.
What are the basics?
The rules are set up to come into play in two stages. 2023 is what you might call a soft launch. Any player who is late to training camp will be fined 1% of their base salary for each day of camp that they miss. Any player who has not reported to their WNBA team by the start of the 2023 regular season will be suspended for the entire 2023 season. 2024 is when the full prioritization rules kick in. For that season and any further years covered by the agreement, players must report by the start of camp or May 1 - whichever is later - or they will be suspended for the entire year. There's no 1% fine section at all for 2024 onwards - you're either in or you're out.
What are the exceptions?
The rules don't apply to players with 0, 1 or 2 years of service in the WNBA. So for example, the likes of Aari McDonald or Michaela Onyenwere - drafted in 2021 - won't be fined or suspended if they're late in 2023 because they only have two years of service. But assuming they play in the WNBA in 2023, they'll then be subject to the prioritization rules from 2024 onwards. This could lead to the rather bizarre and unprecedented situation where players and their agents argue for loopholes that mean they are not credited with a year of service for certain seasons.
Players are also still allowed to arrive late or leave temporarily during the season to represent their national teams in major international competitions without falling foul of these rules, as long as it's for no more than two weeks of training before the relevant competition begins, and they return to their WNBA team within 48 hours of their national team's play being completed. Players are also allowed to leave or be late due to 'a significant life event' (a graduation ceremony or death in the family are the examples given).
Can players just sign late to avoid fines/suspension?
No. It's pretty clear that they considered this work-around when writing the section. If a player signs during training camp in 2023, they still get retroactively fined as if they'd been under contract from the beginning. If you're still fulfilling overseas playing commitments and not signed before the start of the regular season in 2023, or before the start of training camp in 2024 onwards, you become ineligible to sign a contract for any part of that year's WNBA season.
Can teams choose not to suspend players who are late?
Again, no. They thought of this too. Obviously, if a star player like Breanna Stewart or Jonquel Jones told their WNBA team that they wanted to play that year, but they were going to arrive a week into the regular season, the team would live with it. Much better to have a superstar for over 90% of the year than for none of it. That's likely why the prioritization section of the CBA specifies that "the WNBA shall suspend..." or "the WNBA shall fine..." the relevant player. It's not on the team to enact these rules, it's on the league. So while it's the owners who asked for this section - and therefore their lawyers likely essentially wrote these rules - they can now say to those star players "It's out of our hands. You have to show up on time or you get suspended - we can't do anything about it."
What's that "or May 1" bit about, and why does it matter?
In 2023, this isn't going to matter. The regular season is going to start after May 1 (as it always does, outside of exceptional circumstances like pandemics), so opening day will be the relevant date by which players have to show up to avoid suspension. However, it could become very important in later years. May 1 is often later than the start of training camp. So when the deadline to show up becomes the start of camp or May 1, whichever is later, the important date could well be May 1. Those few days could be vital for players on overseas teams who want them for playoff runs that often come to their conclusion right around that time of year.
Any unintended side-effects?
Maybe. All those midseason pickups we see every year could be affected. Any player "who does not fully complete any off-season playing obligation" prior to the start of the WNBA season is automatically ineligible to sign at any point that year. So participating in a late-running European season, or the Mexican league that some players signed with after being cut this season, or even a random 3x3 tournament, could arguably make players ineligble to sign in the WNBA that year, even as a hardship player or on a 7-day contract. We'll see exactly how tightly the league applies that part of the rules.
Could these rules be changed?
It's not unprecedented for rules to be changed, even if they've been agreed and specified within a CBA. But it is pretty rare. Also, as I mentioned here, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert did not sound like she was expecting to renegotiate the prioritization rules into something softer when she gave her press conference during the Finals. The focus has consistently been on how the league is offering greater opportunities to make money by staying in the US, with occasional side-comments about how the owners want the players to show up on time in return. The Players' Association and certain powerful agents will likely continue to push the league for some changes to the language, but they may not meet much success. The players accepted the agreement, so the league can point to the signed document and tell them to abide by it. But players like Stewart have said they’re hoping to find a middle ground, and always have the threat of making their living overseas while resting during the summer. Of course, the league won't want to lose its superstars, so there's an element of both sides playing a game of chicken here.
So those are the key elements of the new rules. We may not see a great deal of impact in 2023, partly due to the soft launch of the rules, and partly because it's neither an Olympic or World Cup year. That means that even though the league is going up to a 40-game regular season, play is likely to begin a little later than in 2022. The majority of overseas leagues should be done in time for players to at least make it back in time for the regular season, even if they have to swallow some of the fines for missing days of camp. The major exception is likely to be the French league, which even with a shorter format than last year is still scheduled to run until at least May 20, possibly May 22. Few WNBA players play in France anymore, partly because of the late-running schedule, but Gabby Williams, Marine Johannès and Julie Allemand will all be there (although with only two years of service in the WNBA, Johannès and Allemand won’t be subject to prioritization rules in 2023).
Assuming the rules aren't changed or weakened, the real test will come in 2024. In an Olympic year, the WNBA regular season will likely start early again, also pushing back the start of camp - and it's simultaneously the first year where the prioritization rules come into full effect. We could be on tenterhooks hoping players make it back to the US by May 1.
From the WNBA’s perspective this is about helping to grow the league, but they’re clearly hoping that these rules will lead to changes from other groups of people that will help them out. Players could decide to eschew playing overseas entirely. European leagues could adapt their schedules to finish a little earlier, allowing players who still want to do double-duty to arrive back in the US on time. Star players could start to demand contracts with those overseas teams that let them leave by a specified date, regardless of the team's remaining games, or begin to favor leagues like Australia’s which end much earlier. In a wild longshot possibility, FIBA could even start to pay some attention to the WNBA and set its global schedule with an element of regard for the dates of the US league (but don't hold your breath on that one).
The problem is that WNBA salaries still aren't high enough for the league to have full confidence in making a power play like this. Even with the collapse of the Russian market, star players like Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas, Courtney Vandersloot and many others have found European contracts that are well worth their time and commitment for the 2022-23 season. In pure monetary terms, it's still likely that their accountants would consider those players’ WNBA contracts as their 'side-gigs'. So why should players in that situation prioritize the WNBA, especially those not from the US? In the abstract, you can understand WNBA owners wanting their players to be committed to their US teams and saying they need to be there on time to participate. But when the situations become specific it's more complicated. Does the WNBA and whichever team she signs with this offseason really want to lose Breanna Stewart for an entire year because the Turkish Finals go the distance and she wants to finish the season for her primary employer? Even if she's only going to be a day or two late?
It remains to be seen whether any of this gets changed, or who adapts to make things work. I expect the league to ride it out with the rules as written in 2023, anticipating that the worst they'll suffer is a few stories about some players unhappy with the fines, and maybe Gabby Williams missing another season. They'll live with that. The question is whether the volume of unrest is enough to make them soften the rules for 2024, when the schedule could make things much more difficult. At that point, we're approaching the date for a new CBA, and what could be significant renegotiation once the next broadcast deal is in place (technically the current CBA runs until 2027, but either side can opt-out to end it in 2025, and one side virtually always exercises the opt-out clause). Start pushing WNBA salaries towards seven digits and maybe players will be more willing to genuinely prioritize the WNBA and skip playing overseas. Until then, we'll carry on wondering about these rules.