A little more than two weeks before the scheduled start of training camp, the WNBA season is in jeopardy -- and so is the future of the six-year-old league as negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement grow increasingly contentious.
The league last week canceled its predraft camp for rookies -- scheduled to be held this weekend in Chicago -- and Wednesday's college draft is in jeopardy. Two of the league's franchises folded after last season, creating the need for a dispersal draft. That, too, is in limbo.
On Tuesday, NBA Commissioner David Stern announced that the NBA Board of Governors, which oversees the WNBA, would cancel the season if no agreement between the league and its players union is reached by April 18. The league's old CBA expired in September.
"If, in fact, there is no season, I think that would be the demise of the WNBA," said Pam Wheeler, director of operations for the WNBA Players Association. "If they are contemplating shutting down the WNBA, in my mind, it has nothing to do with labor. . . . I really don't think that will happen. I think the league is too important a product to the WNBA and the NBA."
WNBA President Val Ackerman declined to comment yesterday on whether the league was in danger of folding. Addressing the labor situation, she said: "We have worked very hard to be very upfront with the players about the state of the league and our prospects. So I am surprised that it has gotten to this point. Time is simply running out. It's now up to our players to decide whether they want to work with us to build up the league, which is our goal, or not."
Ackerman said no meetings were planned. She characterized the sides as being "far apart" and refused to comment on which party needs to take the next step.
According to the players' union, the main differences between the two proposals involve minimum salaries for rookies and veterans, free agency and the salary cap. The league has offered a 3 percent raise in the veteran's minimum salary from $40,000 to $41,200 and a reduction in the rookies' salaries from $30,000 to $25,000. The reduction for the top four draft picks in this year's draft would be from $55,000 to $40,000.
The league wants to set a salary cap of $616,000 per club. It would allow unrestricted free agency in a player's 10th year and restricted free agency in the seventh year. It wants to designate two players per team as "core" or franchise players. Those players would not be eligible for free agency and could be assigned the tag as many times as the team wishes.
The union wants the veteran minimum salary raised to $48,000 and the rookie minimum to $33,000 with a salary cap of $750,000 per team. It is asking for unrestricted free agency in the fifth year and restricted free agency in the fourth year. It also wants to limit a player's designation as a core player to three times.
"We've always been more than willing to go to the table and bargain with the league," Wheeler said. "Setting a deadline in my mind was more for them than for us. I think it was a hardball tactic that I didn't think was necessary. . . . We're not that far apart."
The labor unrest follows a tumultuous offseason in which two teams ceased operations (Miami and Portland) and two relocated (Utah to San Antonio, and Orlando to a Connecticut casino).
Two agents who represent several WNBA players noted that the timing of these CBA negotiations might not be to the players' advantage.
"Everybody wants to get the best deal possible," said Mike Cound, who represents several Washington Mystics, including Murriel Page and Helen Luz. "Some players may be functioning with their feet on the ground a little more in understanding, wow, four teams went down.
"It is pretty clear they weren't making big money to fold up their teams so maybe we don't have a lot of leverage here."
Boris Lelchitski, who represents Mystics forward Asjha Jones, is concerned about what will happen to the players if the league suspends operations. He worries that some of his clients will have a difficult time playing overseas.
"It's just not a good time to lose a job," Lelchitski said. "Americans are not necessarily being loved all over the world right now."