The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the WNBA, lack of roster spots is an expanding problem

Alysha Clark didn't land a WNBA roster spot until two years after she was drafted. (Michael A. McCoy/For The Washington Post)
6 min

Alysha Clark wandered the sidelines picking up water bottles and other discarded items after a 90-minute practice before taking a seat and looking up. Wearing an all-red Washington Mystics practice uniform with a blue long-sleeved shirt underneath, the 11-year veteran and two-time WNBA champion reminisced about humble beginnings: After twice leading NCAA Division I in scoring at Middle Tennessee and getting picked 17th in the 2010 WNBA draft, she didn’t play in the league for two years because there wasn’t a roster spot for her.

Situations such as Clark’s have been commonplace throughout the WNBA, which opens its regular season Friday. There are just 144 roster spots in the league, with each of the 12 teams able to carry 12 players. Because of salary cap maneuvering, many teams don’t use all 12 slots. Those limited opportunities have led to some harsh decisions, particularly with young players.

The Las Vegas Aces traded their first- and second-round picks in 2023 to get the Nos. 8 and 13 selections in this year’s draft — and then waived those picks, Mya Hollingshed and Khayla Pointer. The Seattle Storm cut No. 17 pick Elissa Cunane, a second-team Associated Press all-American from North Carolina State. The Minnesota Lynx waived 2020 rookie of the year Crystal Dangerfield and the 2021 No. 9 pick, Rennia Davis. The Indiana Fever previously cut bait with 2020 No. 3 pick Lauren Cox and 2021 No. 4 pick Kysre Gondrezick. The examples go on and on.

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Forty-two percent of players drafted since 1997 never made a roster.

“I’m one of those players,” Clark said. “I got cut my first two years, so I had to go overseas to develop and go play and then hopefully come back and earn a spot. It’s nerve-racking because you never know. Because not only are you going over there to try to develop, but now there’s a whole new crop coming in that you’re also having to compete with outside of the veteran presence that’s already there.

“Hopefully it gets to the point where this league is, we see an expansion in terms of teams, but that starts with salaries and starts the salary cap and investment into our league.”

As with everything, money is where things get complicated. There has been a massive push to expand the number of teams in the league, and Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has confirmed the league is actively conducting a data analysis of 100 cities. That, however, is years away. A more immediate option would be the expansion of roster spots per team, which would involve revisiting the collective bargaining agreement and salary cap structure.

“I think the conversation about the number of players making teams is also one showing the depth of the quality of the play in this league,” Engelbert said. “I mean, it’s amazing. It is hard to make a team; there’s no doubt about it.

“We want to have any new owners coming into the league faced with the potential of a successful franchise. We're still building that economic model I've been talking about, but we'll definitely be talking about this more this summer.”

Engelbert comes from a business background as CEO of Deloitte before taking over the WNBA in 2019. Much of her focus has been on the financial stability and growth of the league. Some of that took a hit during the pandemic, and there’s a hesitancy to commit to lavish new plans that could endanger that stability. The league has increased investors in recent years with a $75 million capital raise and a WNBA Changemaker program that partners with companies such as Nike, AT&T, Google, U.S. Bank and Deloitte.

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Interest in the league also has increased. An expanded multiyear deal with Twitter was announced this week that includes 12 games and a weekly Twitter Spaces segment. Last month’s draft had a 20 percent increase of viewers on ESPN. The 2021 regular season viewership increased 49 percent from 2020. There will be a full-scale fantasy women’s basketball game on for the first time this season.

Former Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes sees an opportunity for a measured expansion of teams and other logistics, such as private flights for teams. He pointed to more players in commercials and a rise of interest from both fans and players around the world who want to play in the WNBA.

What I see is an opportunity here to define the league as the greatest league in the world, which it is basketball-wise,” Hughes said. “If you’re talking about the greatest league in the world, wouldn’t it go hand in hand to also do the type of things that represent the greatest league in the world?

“I understand dollars and cents. . . . But I also think that there is an opportunity right now, you might be able to even enhance this league even more by taking financial steps to define it so that the greatest players in the world — and not just the United States — say, ‘Well, I’m going to play there.’ Just like the NBA. . . . There was a time [the NBA] went from commercial to charter and all those things, and I do think that’s a logical step.”

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That’s where the dichotomy lies. Coaches and general managers would love to see those types of investments from the league, but the current CBA was signed in 2020 and runs through 2027. New money continues to come in, but Engelbert is wary of spending too quickly and leaving the league vulnerable. The current broadcast deal with ESPN runs through the 2025 season, and the next one is expected to be worth more.

“Every general manager and coach, when it’s not coming out of their own pocket and paycheck, would love to have a bigger roster,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said. “That, ultimately, is an owner decision.

“[Larger rosters] would also allow for longer player development, that we would be able to take some players and let them develop at the rate they need to develop rather than cutting them and hoping that they develop when they go overseas. It’s a very big Catch-22.”

The league has no affiliated option for borderline players to develop within an organization. Coaches need bodies to get through the season, so it’s difficult to hold on to someone who isn’t ready to compete daily.

The trend isn’t new, but the topic is being discussed more than ever with so many eyes on the league.

“In no circumstance should we have a league where top draft picks aren’t on a roster,” Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike said this week.

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