Situations like Clark’s are commonplace in the WNBA, which opens its regular season Friday. There are only 144 spots in the league, with each of the 12 teams able to accommodate 12 players. Due to salary cap maneuvering, many teams do not use all 12 slots. These limited opportunities have led to difficult decisions, especially with younger players.
The Las Vegas Aces traded away their 2023 first- and second-round picks to get the Nos. 8 and 13 selections in this year’s draft — then gave up those picks, Mya Hollingshed and Khayla Pointer. The Seattle Storm have taken No. 17 pick Elissa Cunane, an Associated Press second-team All-American out of North Carolina State. The Minnesota Lynx waived 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield and 2021 No. 9 overall pick Rennia Davis. The Indiana Fever has already cut bait with 2020 No. 3 pick Lauren Cox and 2021 No. 4 pick Kysre Gondrezick. The examples are endless.
Forty-two percent of players drafted since 1997 have never made a roster.
“I’m one of those players,” Clark said. “I was left out my first two years so I had to go abroad to develop and play and then hopefully come back and earn a place. It’s scary because you never know. Because not only are you going out there trying to expand, but now there’s a whole new crop coming in that you also have to compete with outside of the veteran presence that’s already there.
“Hopefully we get to the point where this league is, we’re seeing expansion in terms of teams, but it starts with salaries and it starts with the salary cap and the investment in our league.”
As with everything, money is where things get complicated. Massive efforts have been made to increase the number of teams in the league, and Commissioner Cathy Engelbert confirmed that the league is actively conducting a data analysis of 100 cities. However, this will take years. A more immediate option would be to expand the number of spots per team, which would involve reviewing the collective bargaining agreement and salary cap structure.
“I think the conversation about how many players are on a team also shows the depth of quality of play in this league,” Engelbert said. “I mean, it’s amazing. It is difficult to build a team; There is no doubt about it.
“We want all new owners coming into the league to be confronted with the potential of a successful franchise. We’re still building the business model I talked about, but we’ll definitely talk more about it this summer.
Engelbert came from the business world as CEO of Deloitte before taking over the leadership of the WNBA in 2019. She focused largely on the financial stability and growth of the league. Some of this has been impacted during the pandemic, and there is hesitancy to commit to lavish new projects that could endanger this stability. The league has increased its investors in recent years with a $75 million capital raise and a WNBA Changemaker program that partners with companies including Nike, AT&T, Google, US Bank and Deloitte.
Interest in the league has also increased. An expanded multi-year deal with Twitter was announced this week and includes 12 games and a weekly Twitter Spaces segment. Last month’s draft saw a 20 percent increase in viewership on ESPN. Viewership for the 2021 regular season increased 49% from 2020. There will be a large-scale women’s fantasy basketball game on ESPN.com for the first time this season.
Former Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes sees an opportunity for measured team expansion and other logistical means, such as private flights for teams. He pointed to the increase in the number of players in commercials and the growing interest from fans and players around the world wanting to play in the WNBA.
“What I see here is an opportunity to define the league as the greatest league in the world, which it is in terms of basketball,” Hughes said. “If you’re talking about the greatest league in the world, wouldn’t it go hand in hand to also do the kinds of things that represent the greatest league in the world?»
“I understand dollars and cents. . . . But I also think there is an opportunity right now, you could even make this league even better by taking financial steps to define it in such a way that the greatest players in the world – not just the United States – United – say, “Well. , I’m going to play there. Just like the NBA. . . . There was a time (the NBA) went from commercial to charter and everything in between, and I think that’s a logical step.
Therein lies the dichotomy. Coaches and general managers would love to see this type of investment from the league, but the current collective bargaining agreement was signed in 2020 and runs through 2027. New money continues to flow 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.
“All general managers and coaches, when it doesn’t depend on their own pocket and their salary, would like to have a bigger team,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. “Ultimately, it’s the owner’s decision.
“(Larger squads) would also allow for longer player development, we would be able to take certain players and let them develop at the rate they need rather than cutting them and hoping they develop when they go abroad. This is a very big catch-22.
The league does not have any affiliate options for borderline players to develop within an organization. Coaches need bodies to get through the season, so it’s hard to hold on to someone who isn’t ready to compete on a daily basis.
The trend is not new, but the subject is being discussed more than ever with so many eyes on the league.
“Under no circumstances should we have a league where top draft picks are not on a roster,” Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike said this week.