The WNBA as a league has seen heightened popularity over the past few years. It also has faced scrutiny from players in regards to its Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). For those not familiar with the legalese (legal language), a CBA when it comes to sports is essentially the league’s constitution. It details how the league will operate as well as things allowed, not allowed, and everything in between.
Thanks to Aaron Barzilai of Her Hoop Stats, we now have some more insight into WNBA player contracts, negotiations, and more. He has created an FAQ about the WNBA CBA, similar to the one formulated by NBA salary cap guru Larry Coon.
One of the more interesting points in the CBA involves the “rookie scale.” According to the FAQ, rookie scale contracts are offered to players who haven’t previously signed a WNBA contract (i.e drafted players and undrafted free agents). Below is a table from the FAQ showing the first, second, third, and fourth-year contract scale for incoming players (for 2020) based on draft positioning. Note that for drafted WNBA players, the fourth year is a team option. This means that the team has the right to bring the player back for the fourth season. The option must be picked up by May 15th before the player’s third season.
The yearly raise/pay-bump in a rookie scale is as such: The second year raise is 2% of the contract’s value of the first season, the third year’s raise is 10% of the prior season value, and the option year’s raise is 13.64% of the third season’s value. But here’s the kicker: The first three seasons are not fully guaranteed, meaning that players will be only compensated for their time on the roster. A guaranteed contract ensures that if a player is cut, she will be able to earn the full value of the contract. As it relates to rookie scale contracts, only the option year is fully guaranteed.
Taking the above into consideration, let’s try to depict the contract of one of the more popular figures in the league this year, Sabrina Ionescu (the first overall pick in this year’s draft by the New York Liberty).
Per the above chart (taken from the CBA FAQ), as the number one pick Ionescu would be making $68,000 in her first season, the same as the second, third and fourth overall picks. To earn the full amount of her contract, the New York Liberty will have to believe she is good enough to play on the team for all four years of her contract. Although Ionescu excelled for the Oregon Ducks women’s basketball program, the WNBA is on another level. In the event that Sabrina was to be cut in any of the first three seasons, she would no longer be bound to the rookie scale and could negotiate a contract with any team as an unrestricted free agent.
The total value of Ionescu’s rookie deal, per the above chart, would be:
- Full 4 Years (counting the option): 4 years/$300,358
- Three Years (not counting the option): 3 years/$213,657
So, what happens after the four-year contract expires?
The New York Liberty can offer Ionescu a restricted qualifying offer, which in the WNBA would be a one-year deal, worth 105% of her fourth year salary. Similar to qualifying offers in the NBA, this gives the Liberty the right of first refusal: Sabrina Ionescu can negotiate deals with other teams during free agency at the conclusion of her fourth season, but the New York Liberty can match the negotiations from other teams to retain the rights to her services. The qualifying offer has to be made by January 14th after Ionescu’s final rookie scale season (fourth year) or Ionescu becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Per the FAQ, there is another caveat of the qualifying offer; Sabrina can qualify for an extra $10,000 in salary (in addition to the 5% increase of fourth-season base salary) if she is able to fulfill either of the following criteria within her first four years:
- Be named WNBA MVP or a member of the All-WNBA First Team in her fourth season of the rookie-scale contact
- Be named WNBA MVP or a member of the All-WNBA First Team in two of the first three seasons of her rookie-scale contract
If Ionescu accepts the qualifying offer and signs for a fifth year with the Liberty, she would then become eligible for a supermax contract. That method is just one of a few ways a WNBA player can qualify.
According to the FAQ, to be eligible for a supermax, a player on the rookie scale contract can sign an extension that is effective in the fifth year (meaning that Ionescu could earn the supermax during the year of the qualifying offer if she negotiates a contract extension during the rookie scale contract, where the extension is effective in the fifth season). The extension of the rookie-scale deal must be signed by May 15th before the fourth-year, and can be up to three extra seasons.
Alternatively, the player can sign the one-year qualifying offer at the end of the fourth season, but must sign with their prior team at the end of the fifth (qualifying offer season) to be eligible for the supermax (This becomes effective on January 1, 2021). One other way to qualify is via a veteran extension, but note that this extension has more intricacies for a player to qualify:
- The player must have five or more years of service in the WNBA (effective January 1, 2021).
- The player had to have been on contract with the team for part of the prior two seasons.
- The first season of veteran extensions must be for 120% of the last year of the original contract, regardless of whether the player is eligible for the supermax in that year. Rookie-scale extensions (extensions of the rookie-scale contracts) are not subject to that limitation.
The raises allowed in a supermax contract are 3% of the salary in the first season (which is the CBA standard across all contracts except for rookie-scale contracts). The base salary of the supermax, however, can change by up to 3% yearly. To clarify: If a rookie contract is extended such that the supermax is effective in 2021, the salary in 2022 can be bumped up by 3% of the salary in 2021. The value of the supermax that a player signs in 2022 will be 3% of what the supermax was in 2021, which would be the same as the value in the first bullet point. But a supermax signed in 2023 would be 3% of what it was in 2022, as opposed to 3% of the value in 2021.
Below is another chart from the FAQ. This details the difference between regular max salaries and supermax salaries up to 2026:
Per the chart, Sabrina Ionescu’s supermax salary for her fifth season would be $241,984 if she extends her rookie scale contract. If she agreed to the one-year qualifying offer, her supermax salary for her sixth season would be $249,244.
Due to the discrepancy in value for the first season, Ionescu’s possible pay bumps later on in the contract are higher if she re-signs with the Liberty after accepting the qualifying offer, and “not locking in early.” If Ionescu was to sign with a different other than Liberty after five years, her maximum salary would be only $214,466. However, the above is all incumbent on the Liberty not releasing Sabrina while she is on a rookie scale deal.
That caps off a breakdown into the WNBA rookie scale contracts, from the perspective of a top tier pick. Due to the fact that the rookie scale is the same for picks 1-4 in the draft, the above can also be applied to Satou Sabally, Lauren Cox, and Chennedy Carter.
So, what do you think about the way WNBA rookie-scale contracts are set-up? Do you think more years should be protected? Should the standard annual pay raises be increased to 5%?