From WNBA Star to Sports Agent
Ticha Penicheiro discusses the shifting pressures on players
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Ticha Penicheiro has been embedded in the game of women’s basketball for nearly 30 years. After a distinguished college career at Old Dominion University, she was the second-overall pick in the 1998 WNBA draft and played for 15 seasons, retiring as the league’s all-time assists leader and earning herself a spot in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. In the 11 years since, she’s been an agent with SIG Sports, leveraging her experience as a player to successfully represent, mentor, and advocate for her clients as they navigate their own journeys in the sport. Penicheiro has often been in their shoes—knowing what it’s like to play overseas, suffer from an injury, and switch teams—but as the game continues to grow, Penicherio sees the players’ responsibilities, the challenges they face, and the complexity of their decisions also on the rise.
One of the biggest changes over the years has been in marketing. When Penicheiro started in the league she didn't have a cell phone, there was no social media, and she didn’t have to worry about how many followers she had or how long ago she posted. With the added dynamic of social media, there's now a lot more responsibility on the players to curate their own personal brands, engage with fans, and promote themselves and the companies they have endorsement deals with on the various platforms.
“To be honest with you, my focus was 100% on the court. All I wanted to do was get better, make my teammates better, and win championships,” Penicheiro said. “These days it's completely different. Social media changed the world. How many followers you have is relevant. It’s not just all about how you play basketball.”
There are some advantages to this. Players can have more control over their own storylines, put out their content quickly, and more easily promote what they’re working on or what they’re advocating for. Sports agencies have marketing and public relations teams that can help players with this, but it still takes time and energy, and players have to be careful how they present themselves and interact with their followers. Penicherio noted, “Social media can make you, but it can also break you if you don't use it the right way.”
Playing overseas during the WNBA offseason was much more of a given during Penicheiro’s playing days. But the expanding opportunities stateside, diminishing positions overseas due to war, and the recent WNBA rules around the prioritization, which penalize non-rookies for being late to training camp, have increased the complexity of players’ offseason decisions. Several overseas leagues play into May, and this year, players with more than two years of service in the WNBA are fined 1% of their salary for each day of training camp they miss. Next year, if they are not there on day one, they’ll be suspended from the WNBA for the entire season. But even with these large fines and altered playing landscape, totally foregoing the opportunity to play overseas is far from settled.
“Especially for players who make the vet minimum and don't have large marketing deals, they're going to have to make a tough decision because they can’t put all their eggs in the WNBA basket,” Penicheiro said. “Because what if they get cut? What if they get hurt? Then they can’t go overseas, and that could mean for a whole year they’re not going to have a paycheck.”
Players also don’t have a ton of time to make these decisions. Once a club overseas makes an official offer, they typically want an answer back within 48 hours so they can move on to their next choice if the player isn’t interested. The top teams in Europe—the ones that have the most money and the ones that are most reliable—usually start signing players early in the spring, and by June or July, they will have completed most of their roster. Although Penicheiro works hard to provide her players with as much advance notice as possible, it’s still hard because players can’t always foresee what’s best for their future.
“I'll try to give them as much information as possible, so when that official offer comes, they know they have to be ready to say yes or no,” Penicheiro said. “Everything seems a little bit rushed, but it's the nature of the business.”
Pushing the league forward
Over the years, players have routinely fought for increased salaries and benefits through collective bargaining agreements (CBA), and they’ve made several strides in compensation, revenue sharing, travel accommodations, maternity leave, and child care. But there is still significant room for improvement. With the game’s accelerating popularity, expanding visibility, growing interest from corporate sponsors, and the increasing revenue as a result, the pressure is on for players to make even greater advancements during the next round of contract negotiations.
“The WNBA is stronger than ever,” Penicheiro said. “I think they put out a great product. So the interest is there. The money is there. It's just there are rules for how much money players can make during the season. There's a hard cap, and that’s just one of the challenges.”
The players are locked into their current contract until 2027, but they can decide to opt out early after next season, and it’s a virtual certainty they’ll choose to do so. The pressure on the players to push the boundaries on the next iteration of the CBA can’t be overstated. Being able to capitalize on the moment will in part depend on the degree to which fans continue to tune in and whether the viewership of the game continues to grow. But nearly all signs point to an advantageous situation for the players to parlay into higher salaries and caps, better working and travel accommodations, more revenue sharing, and increased opportunities for endorsements. And Penicheiro doesn’t believe maintaining the current fanbase or attracting new fans will be a problem.
“The people who love the WNBA are all in,” Penicheiro said. “Sure, you have some haters who will probably never be in, and then you have the ones that are not sure. I think those are the ones that we have to bring into the game and let them watch it. And I think once they go and really see, it's impossible not to really fall in love and appreciate what these women go through and the passion they have and how good they are.”
So although these challenges place more pressure and responsibility on the players than ever before, the culmination of how the players are responding should eventually benefit them and the game they love. Hopefully, in the end, the results will make all the stress and sacrifice worthwhile.
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