Silver isn't 'disappointed' that WNBA players opted out of CBA

NBA commissioner Adam Silver reiterated that the NBA’s support of the WNBA remains firm. 

NBA commissioner Adam Silver says the NBA’s support of the WNBA remains firm, and that the NBA is neither angered nor disappointed by the players’ recent decision to opt out of their current collective bargaining agreement. He said he wants the players to feel that lines of communication truly are open as they approach talks for a new deal.

In a wide-ranging interview with espnW, Silver said he has heard that some WNBA players feel they’re not included enough in decisions about the league’s issues. He said he intends to address that, and he sees opening the CBA now — the 2019 season isn’t impacted, but a new agreement must be in place for 2020 — as having the potential for positive results on both sides.

“I wasn’t disappointed at all,” Silver said. “And in a way, the silver lining of them opting out now is that, given that [WNBA president Lisa Borders] left when she did, my sense from talking to players and listening to what they’re saying publicly is that we seem to be missing a connection, a real engagement between the players and the league.

“It’s something I know we can do. I feel on the NBA side, we’re working very closely with [NBA union leader] Michele Roberts and her executive committee. It doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements, but I think everyone would say that we’re truly listening to each other and that there is a sense of real inclusion. To the extent there isn’t that in the WNBA for whatever reason — and this is to point fingers at no one — there’s an issue that needs to be fixed. By them reopening the agreement early … let’s begin these discussions now.”

Silver also discussed the search for a new league president, the continual quest for stronger branding, the challenges to expansion and the future of the New York Liberty, an original league franchise that has been for sale for nearly a year.

Silver said he knows there will be multiple issues discussed in collective bargaining. That hasn’t officially begun, although the league has shared financial information and had informal discussions with the union.

“As the players have pointed out, this isn’t just about compensation,” said Silver of WNBA players opting out of the CBA, an agreement that had gone through 2021. “Of course, that’s an important issue for the players, but — listening to what they’re saying — it’s also about how the league is operated, their working conditions, how we’re marketing the league, how we’re connecting with their fans. So. I’d rather fix this sooner rather than later. If the opt-out didn’t exist in the collective bargaining agreement, we’d only be kicking the can on some real issues we need to address with the players.”

“The quality of the basketball now is head and shoulders better than it was when we launched the league. The hardest thing would be if you had to fix the product; I don’t think there’s any fixing needed here. … The question is fixing sales and marketing.” NBA commissioner Adam Silver

Silver also sees greater engagement now between the players and their union, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, led by Terri Jackson. He thinks that’s a good thing. The Sparks’ Candace Parker also believes that more WNBA players are informed about and involved in league issues now than they were before the most recent CBA was signed in March 2014.

“We absolutely want them to have input; they are our partners in this league,” Silver said. “I think this is an opportunity to correct every aspect of our relationship with them.

“I’m sure that whomever we select [as new president] will ultimately be done in partnership with the players and that the players will be signing off on the next president. And I want them to be, because they need to believe in whoever the next president of this league is.”

Who will be the next president?

Silver said the WNBA has been approached by interested candidates and also has a list of people it is approaching. Better marketing and sales are critical aspects to the WNBA’s success, but the chief operating officer’s position is open now, too. So while the two jobs are not necessarily being filled in tandem, it provides the opportunity to hire people with complementary skills at around the same time.

That conceivably could leave an avenue to the president’s job for a former WNBA player who might not have significant direct experience with sales and marketing, but who has other skills.

“Given what is at stake here, in terms of the future of the league,” Silver said, “we want to make sure to properly vet all the candidates. The quality of the basketball now is head and shoulders better than it was when we launched the league. The hardest thing would be if you had to fix the product; I don’t think there’s any fixing needed here. We have a wonderful game.

“The question is fixing sales and marketing. How do we do a better job connecting with corporations and convincing them to support the league?”

“I believe in this league, and the women who are our players. But there’s something in our approach that hasn’t resonated with consumers. We’re going to be trying some new things.” NBA commissioner Adam Silver

Lisa Borders, the WNBA’s fourth president, stepped down in October to take over as president and CEO of Time’s Up, a women’s advocacy group. Silver, who hired Borders in 2016 and will have the final say on her successor, said the hope is to have the president’s position filled at least by the start of the 2019 season, but likely much sooner.

Might the NBA consider changing the title to commissioner of the WNBA rather than president — not to suggest autonomy from the NBA but a more specific level of authority?

“On our list of what the business issues have been for the WNBA in the last 22 years,” Silver said, “the title of the position has never been one that we’ve discussed. But everything’s on the table.”

Branding and travel are big issues

Like the players, owners, coaches and fans, Silver feels frustration that the WNBA’s branding still hasn’t caught on as hoped.

“We’ve tried lots of different things over the years,” he said. “One of the initiatives that Lisa began, about six months ago, was to take a fresh look at the WNBA brand, and to bring in some outside voices to give us some guidance there, and to confer with the players as well.

“I believe in this league, and the women who are our players. But there’s something in our approach that hasn’t resonated with consumers. We’re going to be trying some new things.”

WNBA regular-season attendance in 2018 was 6,769 fans per game, a decrease of 947 from 2017. But much of that was attributed to the Liberty playing in a smaller venue in Westchester County rather than Madison Square Garden. Ratings for games on ESPN networks increased in 2018 by 35 percent over 2017. Seattle’s clinching Game 3 victory was the highest-rated WNBA Finals game on ESPN2 since 2010. Still, the league is hoping to reach more people.

Silver pointed out that there are specific challenges that women’s sports, in general, face in regard to getting the attention of the greater sports audience. It’s not just a struggle for women’s basketball.

“Maybe we need to double-down on the things that we’ve already begun to do in the last few years under Lisa — we just need to do a lot more of them,” Silver said. “My sense is, though, that there is no magic bullet out there. It’s not as if someone’s going to come in and say, ‘Aha! If only we had run this commercial, then our attendance would have been up and our ratings even higher.’

“I think it’s still very much a retail business, and we have to view it as one fan at a time. We have to find a way to connect with an audience in a way we haven’t managed to do in large enough numbers.”

That impacts every other issue: the players’ desire for salary increases, but also better overall quality of travel, training facilities and other everyday concerns.

In the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, NBA teams began the process of moving to mostly charter flights and away from commercial air travel for games. But a complete charter program for the WNBA now would be cost-prohibitive.

“It would cost more than the value of every single ticket sold in the WNBA last season,” Silver said. “But I think the players are being realistic there, too. What they are saying is there may be particular instances where we should be using charter planes, where it’s just so difficult to get from city A to city B, and ensure the players are appropriately rested for the game.

“It’s something I’m sure we’ll discuss as part of the bargaining process. The teams want what’s best for the players as well. It’s just that you have to decide where you want to spend your money. Even if we do a modified charter program for certain special occasions, there’s enormous expense involved in it. We have to create budgets and decide where we can reasonably increase expenditures.”

“It would cost more than the value of every single ticket sold in the WNBA last season. But I think the players are being realistic … What they are saying is there may be particular instances where we should be using charter planes.” NBA commissioner Adam Silver on adding chartered flights for the WNBA

Other aspects of travel might be more readily attainable, including TSA Pre-Check and trying to get exit-row and aisle seating — especially after a season in which the Las Vegas Aces opted to forfeit an Aug. 3 game at the Washington Mystics after more than 24 hours of travel delays. Silver realizes some changes are necessary.

“I hear the players loud and clear: There are certain points in the season where it would probably make sense to have a charter program,” he said. “I don’t hear the players saying, ‘We expect an NBA charter program overnight.'”

Struggles with building assets

The WNBA as a whole has not made a profit during its 22 seasons, even though some individual franchises have. This year, it’s expected the league will lose $12 million, according to NBA projections.

A corresponding concern is a lack of growth in asset value of a WNBA franchise, which contributes to the stagnation of league expansion and the current “for sale” sign that’s still hanging on the Liberty.

The league expanded quickly after it launched with eight teams in 1997, getting to 16 by 2000. But two of the expansion teams — Miami and Portland — lasted just three seasons. A third, Orlando, moved to Connecticut, where it remains. The only expansion teams since that initial surge have come in Chicago (2006) and Atlanta (2008).

Four original franchises — Cleveland, Charlotte, Houston and Sacramento — folded between 2003 and 2009. A fifth, Utah, moved to San Antonio in 2003, and to Las Vegas for this past season. The Dallas Wings have had three previous homes; they were the Detroit Shock from 1998-2009, and then the Tulsa Shock from 2010-2015.

The league has stayed at 12 teams since 2010. Three franchises have been with the WNBA since the start and are still in the same place: New York, Los Angeles and Phoenix. But the Liberty were put up for sale after the 2017 season by MSG Company, also owner of the NBA’s Knicks and NHL’s Rangers.

With no buyer yet, MSG still runs the Liberty, and Silver said that commitment remains until the team is sold.

But many fans were displeased with a move from Madison Square Garden to the Westchester County Center, where the Knicks’ G League team also plays. The high cost of operating Madison Square Garden for Liberty games became an issue. Whoever buys the franchise has the challenge of finding the right venue, along with trying to make it a profitable venture — or even just starting down the road to that.

“We are in engaged in some constructive conversations with some potential buyers in the New York market,” Silver said. “And while it is difficult in this market, because of the dearth of midsized buildings, we think we can continue to operate for some time at the Westchester County Center and that, over time, there will be some other potential venues that could house the Liberty.”

Investment will continue

Lastly, Silver said he was surprised at some of the controversy over the recent announcement of some salaries of $125,000 on select one-year contracts for elite G League players. That is more than the maximum salary in the WNBA of approximately $115,000 (pre-benefits). But it would only go to a handful of G-League players; the rest would make about $35,000 for their 50-game season.

The WNBA’s average salary for a 34-game season this past year was about $79,000, though younger players get less than that, as 38 veterans got the maximum salary. (These figures were provided by the NBA.)

“The investment that we have made over the last 22 years in the WNBA is many times greater than the investment we’ve made in the G League.” NBA commissioner Adam Silver

Unlike the WNBA, the G League does not have a collective bargaining agreement; its players are considered NBA employees. Silver said an estimated 40 percent of players on current NBA rosters have spent at least some time in the G League. It has a direct impact on the product of the NBA, a business that brings in an estimated $8 billion per year.

Silver said there was no intent to slight WNBA players with the select salaries in the G League as the two really don’t have a connection to each other. But some WNBA players and observers saw the G League select salaries as an “investment” that they felt the NBA wasn’t making in the WNBA.

“Each league is run independently,” Silver said. “And the investment that we have made over the last 22 years in the WNBA is many times greater than the investment we’ve made in the G League. And the G League right now is roughly a break-even proposition for the NBA and its teams.

“In the case of the WNBA, we’ve never at any point said that the measure [of investment] is about profitability in any given season. We’ve invested year after year and are going to continue to invest. There is no short-term business plan to turn the league into a profitable one, but that’s OK. We are willing to continue to invest for the long term, with the players as our partners.”

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