When the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement was announced this month, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and Terri Jackson, the executive director of the players’ union, were asked about one player in particular: Kristi Toliver.
“The fact that Kristi had gone after that opportunity and really made herself available to it and really looked to open up new doors for her in her post-playing career really meant a lot to me,” Jackson said. “It was something that we knew very clearly we had to protect, we had to address.”
The crux of Toliver’s issue last year was that she was coaching for an NBA team that shared an owner, Monumental Sports and Entertainment chief executive Ted Leonsis, with the WNBA team for which she plays.
The new labor deal, the full text of which was released Friday, permits a WNBA team affiliate (such as the Wizards) to hire a player for offseason basketball coaching or basketball operations services and pay her at a competitive market rate. The arrangement is narrowly focused, available only to WNBA players who have at least eight years of experience, including three with their current team, and requires other criteria to be met concerning contract negotiation and salary.
The restrictions built into the provision are designed to ensure that a job with an NBA team is not used to entice a player to sign with a specific WNBA team. The league’s concern is that the Mystics, for example, could become a more attractive destination for free agents if players believe they also could get a promising and lucrative job with the Wizards by signing in Washington. Five teams in the 12-team WNBA share an owner with an NBA club.
Although both the league and the players’ union were eager to correct the previous rule that kept Toliver from earning a competitive salary for both of her jobs, it took months to negotiate. It was an unprecedented issue: In becoming the first active WNBA player to serve as an NBA assistant in 2018, Toliver tested the league’s competitive fairness rules in a way no one else had.
Toliver had her agent, Erin Kane; Leonsis; and other executives from Monumental pleading her case to the league. Sashi Brown, the chief planning and operations officer for Monumental’s basketball division, drew on his background as a lawyer and began working on the issue in late summer. The point guard jumped in on negotiations in October, after the Mystics won the WNBA championship, when she had the time to focus on the issue.
“It’s been phone calls; it’s been emails; it’s been physically taking the time to go up to [the league offices in] New York and try to lay things out and have a conversation and express frustrations, express my vision, express my situation,” Toliver said in a phone interview. “Because it’s a unique one, and hopefully it won’t be for years to come.”
Toliver remains the only active WNBA player coaching on an NBA staff. But Engelbert and Jackson said opening the door for other veteran players to accept coaching positions without restriction was a critical part of expanding career development opportunities and improving the league’s coaching diversity initiatives.
“That’s kind of what it was born out of, really just a thought that we’re proud some former WNBA players are coaching in the professional men’s league,” said Engelbert, who started her term as commissioner in July. “We need a pipeline. Just like corporate America needs a pipeline for future executives, we need a pipeline for future coaches. Why not use our platform here as the WNBA to do that?”
Although the new CBA doesn’t take effect until May, Toliver already is earning what the Wizards say is a competitive salary to coach. The team declined to go into detail about her contract, citing company policy.
Leonsis has backed Toliver’s quest for equal pay from the beginning, tweeting his support for her the day news broke about her low salary.
Not only was it the right thing to do, Leonsis said, but advocating for Toliver these past months also made business sense for a chief executive who this summer placed the Wizards, the Mystics and the NBA G League’s Capital City Go-Go under one umbrella within Monumental Sports and Entertainment called Monumental Basketball.
“If we had disrespected Kristi in any way or we undersell the importance of the Mystics to our organization, I believe the Wizards players and the Go-Go players would think less of us,” Leonsis said in a phone interview. “And if we did that to the Go-Go, the Wizards players would think less of us and the Mystics players would think less of us. … I think it’s good business.”
Leonsis’s attitude toward Toliver’s situation reflects his broader thoughts on the new, player-friendly CBA. The WNBA labor deal promises that average compensation for players will exceed six figures for the first time and offers vastly improved maternity and child-care benefits, increasing expenses for a league that operates at a loss. The CBA will run through the 2027 season.
Leonsis acknowledged the new contract was a large investment for owners. But as with Toliver’s case, he believes investing in players will be good for the league’s bottom line.
“What we’ve just done now is increase our expenses. There’s no new revenue that’s been promised to us. We’ve dramatically increased our expenses in hopes of … now we can go out and try to attract sponsors, media deals,” Leonsis said. “We forward-invested into the health of the league, and I thought it was the right thing to do and a necessary thing to do.
“We’ve yet to prove that the league can build value and can meet these new expenses, but the ownership felt this is the cost, if you will, of ‘Go big or go home.’ By treating the league with respect, treating those accomplishments with respect and treating the players with respect, I think we’ll help sell the game.”