Las Vegas Aces team owner Mark Davis has made no secret of his attempts to find ways around the WNBA's collective bargaining agreement rules and provide his players the support, financially and otherwise, he feels they deserve. His latest attempt has reportedly gone too far and is being investigated by the league office for circumventing the salary cap.
The Next reported Wednesday the reigning champion Aces are under investigation for "making under-the-table payment offers to both current players and free agents the team has pursued." The Aces were already close to the $1.42 million cap with all five starters rostered entering the free agency period. They traded Dearica Hamby to the Sparks — which is another investigation in itself — to open cap room and sign Candace Parker and Alysha Clark, each two-time WNBA champions.
Hamby, a two-time Sixth Player of the Year and catalyst for their Finals Game 1 victory, said in an Instagram post the day of the trade she was "lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against" by people in the Aces organization for her pregnancy. She's due with her second child before the season begins. The Aces abruptly ended a media availability on Tuesday after a question about Hamby and have not spoken on the allegations or the investigation by the WNBA Players Association.
"The WNBA is currently conducting an investigation involving the Las Vegas Aces in connection with allegations raised in a recent social media post by Dearica Hamby," a league spokesperson told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday.
The Aces confirmed the investigation on Wednesday night, but apparently incorrectly said the investigation started Wednesday. The investigation started immediately after Hamby's statement.
A source close to the league said the investigation includes allegations of the Aces circumventing the salary cap. Hamby alluded to an issue with contract negotiations in her statement, writing "I was promised things to entice me to sign my contract extension that were not followed through on."
Questions quickly arose about how the Aces were able to sign Parker, a two-time MVP still playing at a high level, and Clark, a defensive specialist, within their already strapped cap restrictions. Aces players have repeatedly over the years signed for lesser deals than they could make elsewhere. Parker signed for $100,000, per Her Hoop Stats, a decrease of $95K from her Sky salary, and Clark at $110K, less than her $185K in 2022 with the Mystics.
The moves propelled the Aces into "super-team" status around the league and were met by a second super-team in the New York Liberty, who added the former championship teammates of the Aces' additions. Former MVP Breanna Stewart and standout point guard Courtney Vandersloot both announced they would sign with the Liberty, but did not sign contracts until Wednesday. They reportedly took less to sign and numbers have not been reported. The team has approximately $426,000 in cap room with at least three roster spots to fill, via Her Hoop Stats.
Aces reportedly violated CBA salary cap
The reported violations are a pay-for-play like deal. After a high-level member of the Aces' front office and a player's agent concluded a phone call about potentially signing or re-signing with the team, the agent would receive a call "with an offer for a specific amount of money from a particular, pre-selected company," The Next reported. The work involved, presumably for what was a call about a sponsorship or partnership deal, was "negligible," The Next reported.
There were no further details about the transgressions. Neither the Aces nor the WNBA responded to comment to The Next.
The allegations could be in violation of Article XV of the CBA that stipulates a team cannot enter into an agreement with a sponsor, business partner or third party that agrees "to pay compensation for basketball services (even if such compensation is ostensibly designated as being for non-basketball services) to a player under Contract to the Team."
The agreement may be "inferred" as such if the compensation is "substantially in excess of the fair market value of any services to be rendered by the player" or "if the Compensation in the Player Contract between the player and the Team is substantially below the fair market value of such Contract."
The CBA also makes clear that all those involved interpret the salary cap, pay and free agency rules "so as to preserve the essential benefits achieved by both parties to this Agreement." They shalt not enter an agreement or any transaction "designed to serve the purpose of defeating or circumventing the intention of the parties as reflected by all of the provisions of this Agreement."
Davis keeps skirting the rules
Davis was open heading into the offseason about finding loopholes in the CBA to support players, invest in the product and grow the league properly. This is reportedly one of those instances, though it's unclear if he took a step too far on this one.
The overall idea is that franchise owners shouldn't be entering into deals that go against the meaning of the CBA — which is largely based on fairness and competitive balance for the 12 franchises. But the specific verbiage in the clause referenced is "to a player under Contract to the Team," and that might be a catch Davis' lawyers keyed in on for him.
Other ways he has circumvented the larger idea of "competitive balance" have been outside of the player salary cap. There is no cap on coach salary, so he was able to bring former player Becky Hammon over from the NBA and pay her $1 million a year — a controversial number since it's nearly the entire team salary cap. They won the franchise's first title in her first season at the helm.
The issue of charters is an ever-growing one in the league. All-Star Kelsey Plum told Yahoo Sports in December that Davis would buy the middle seats on the team's commercial flights so players didn't have to sit directly next to other travelers during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What he’s done is just anything you could do in the CBA. Just the nicest versions of things that are allowed,” Plum, a newly elected WNBPA vice president, told Yahoo Sports.
Then there are facilities. The Aces are training in an 80,000-square-foot building in nearby Henderson, Nevada, built by Davis with them in mind. It includes two full-size courts, locker rooms, training facilities and hydrotherapy rooms.
That is not the norm in the WNBA. The Sky, for example, are in the third-largest media market but practice in a park recreation center a 45-minute drive from the stadium they share with DePaul. Random gym goers can go up and talk to a Sky player on an exercise bike, as described by Chicago-based writer Maggie Hendricks, whereas that's not going to happen in a private facility in Las Vegas.
WNBA is hitting a turning point
The longest-running women's league in the United States will tip off its 27th season in May amid consistent growth over the past five years. It comes amid a clash between those who want to invest and "Just win, baby," in Davis' words, versus those who aren't or cannot put in the money needed to reap rewards later.
Liberty team owner Joseph Tsai, whose wife Clara Wu is a co-governor of the team, has also been adamant about supporting the league. He was at the center of the latest have-vs-have-nots issue when he was caught paying for his team to fly on charters. The WNBA fined him $500,000 in 2021.
“That was the best $500,000 [Liberty owner] Joe Tsai ever spent," a league source told The Next. The Next reported that some sources believe Davis' salary cap circumvention is "several orders of magnitude more serious" than the charters.
Charter flights was a part of Stewart's free agency decisions and she said she signed with the Liberty in part because team ownership was willing to push the conversation about it. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said last week charter flights must be "feasible" and at an estimated $25 million annually, they currently are not. The WNBA is insistent on competitive fairness, though one option would be to allow charters for those wishing to pay for them or to utilize them when needed the most. Stewart said the next steps she'd like to see would be that in between from no charters to all charters.
League full of rich owners
The two team owners are often characterized as the two richest in the WNBA, and therefore able to break some rules and create the super-teams they have created. The Aces and Liberty are runaway favorites for the 2023 WNBA title.
However, it's a mischaracterization. Tsai is worth an estimated $8.4 billion, according to Forbes, and is likely the richest individual owner in the league. (Not all net worths are available.) Mat Ishbia, whose deal for the Phoenix Mercury and Suns was approved on Tuesday, is worth an estimated $5.5 billion.
Davis' $1.9 billion estimated net worth trails that of Indiana Fever and Pacers owners Herb Simon ($3.4B) and rivals that of combined Mystics owners Ted Leonsis ($1.6B) and Sheila Johnson ($780M). The Lynx's new ownership partners of Marc Lore (approximately $4 billion) and Alex Rodriguez (largely estimated around $400M) is also up there.
Nearly all dwarf the money in the Sparks ownership group that includes Mark Walter ($5.4B), Todd Boehly ($5.3B) and Magic Johnson (estimated at $620 million).
There is money to be invested in these WNBA teams with the current franchise owners, but it often seems it's a matter of will more than resources. The Next's reporting addressed that teams are ready to jump into the fray.
Multiple agents have begun pushing other teams to adopt such arrangements already, three WNBA front office members told The Next. If the league either allows it, or imposes a penalty sufficiently weak to render it useless as a deterrent, teams are already preparing to adapt.
“Then we know what the rules of the game are, and it’s time to catch up,” one front office member told The Next.
The CBA runs through 2027. The league raised $75 million in a capital raise last year and Engelbert is looking toward the media rights deal coming up as an infusion of cash into the league.
WNBA owners react on Twitter
Team owners took to Twitter throughout the day to share their thoughts on the allegations and insist they're willing to invest, but simply want to know if rules apply.
"We just want a level playing field and to know what the rules are," he wrote. "Or if there aren't any rules, that's cool too. Just let us know."
nope. The Dream wants to invest and ARE investing. Our front office went from 7 people to 50 over the past two years. we just want a level playing field and to know what the rules are. or if there aren't any rules, that's cool too. just let us know. https://t.co/ixUTKrIB9K
— Larry Gottesdiener (@LGottesdiener) February 8, 2023
He followed up in a second quote-tweet:
"Playing by the rules is not “intellectually dishonest”. Quite the contrary. Do u [sic] like playing games against cheaters. IF that’s what happened. We are huge advocates of increased pay and charter travel. But we honor the rules. If there aren’t any. That’s cool. Just tell us."
Cheryl Reeve, the Minnesota Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations, responded to the tweet in support of the Lynx's "progressive owners who want to invest and have been." Glen Taylor, the current majority owner worth approximately $2.5 billion, bought the Lynx in 1999 and is often at games.
💯 Like Larry, @minnesotalynx have progressive owners who want to invest and have been as well. Circumvention of the salary cap or violation of team travel rules isn’t an acceptable way to make the progress we all want to see. #whataretherules #theplayingfieldisntlevel
— Cheryl Reeve (@LynxCoachReeve) February 8, 2023
Lin Dunn, the Fever's general manager, said her team also has progressive owners and called on the league to address those issues.