The introduction of the WNBA’s controversial prioritization clause for the 2023 season is more of a “soft opening” ahead of the larger implications to come in 2024, retired four-time WNBA champion Sue Bird told Yahoo Sports.
“This is just the baby steps into it,” Bird said while filming the newest CarMax commercial with Candace Parker. “It’s like a soft opening, if you will. I think it’s a little easier to come back to the WNBA season before the games start. It will be harder next year when players have to get back before training camp starts.”
The prioritization clause agreed to in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was an issue on which team owners in the league “wouldn’t budge.” It requires veterans with three years of playing experience to return to their teams on time for training camp, which begins on April 30 this season, or else be fined 1% of their base salary for every day missed. Players have long used their WNBA offseasons to go overseas and play, earning larger paychecks and keeping up their game in the process.
If a player does not report in time for the season start on May 19, the player will be suspended. But beginning in 2024, suspensions will be issued if a player does not report for the first day of training camp.
“I think it’s going to be next year where we’re really going to see if this is something that the league is going to be able to sustain,” Parker, a 15-year veteran and two-time champion who announced she would sign with the defending champion Las Vegas Aces, told Yahoo Sports.
The clause does not prevent players from going overseas in their WNBA offseasons, which they have done for the entirety of the league’s existence and prior to it. But it does make them prioritize their play in the WNBA, which has been an issue for team owners since many players arrive with games already underway. It hurts a starting five’s repetitions with each other in camp, keeps fans from seeing star players on the much-anticipated first night of the season and impacts standings and potentially playoff seeds.
Bird, who is in her first year of retirement and isn’t feeling the stress she usually does during free agency, said in January she had heard some European league teams are allowing players to put in their contract a clause that releases them early for WNBA commitments. Many teams’ playoff runs coincide with WNBA training camp. The French league goes into June with a month of W games already in the books. Bird said she’s heard some leagues have started to adjust their schedules so that it ends earlier.
“I think that is probably [the] best-case scenario because it’ll still allow players to do both while at the same time, the whole point of prioritization was for the WNBA to be just that: the priority,” Bird told Yahoo Sports. “And for the WNBA to be able to grow in a way where we make the kind of money at home where we don’t necessarily have to go overseas. That probably won’t happen for a little while, but that’s really what the owners of this league wanted. That’s what it came down to in our CBA negotiations. That was kind of, they wouldn’t move on that. They wouldn’t budge. So here we are, we’re about to find out and we’re about to see if it all works.”
Bird said this first iteration is a “good little test run” for players to identify what’s important to them and for teams both domestically and internationally to learn from how it played out.
Bird, 42, and Parker, 36, both played overseas earlier in their careers. Bird spent the last few offseasons on other projects, such as her media company, as she discovered what she might want to do in retirement. Parker is an analyst on “NBA on TNT.” They overlapped playing for powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia in the 2010s. That club is no longer an option after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the detainment of Brittney Griner last year. Playing in China, another highly compensated spot, is also not a strong option for Americans.
“That shifts the pendulum a little bit into the WNBA’s favor,” Parker told Yahoo Sports. “I, myself, would have had a huge decision to make in my fifth year being 26 [or] 27 years old deciding whether or not to come back to play with the WNBA or go to Russia and make 10 to 20 times what I’m making in the WNBA.”
Salaries to play on certain overseas teams can surpass $1.5 million whereas the current supermax base salary in the W is $234,936. It’s a reason Parker said she went overseas for the first decade of her career so that she could provide for her daughter, Lailaa. It is money she would not make in the WNBA, especially since the max contracts were previously around $100,000. Going overseas was also a way to keep training and playing when the league wasn’t in session for six or seven months and paying for high-level trainers on a WNBA salary was not an option.
“In order to have that [prioritization] rule then, in what way are you supplementing the other seven months?” Parker told Yahoo Sports. “Because you still want to get better as an athlete and as a player. For me, basketball was my first love, so I want to compete. And if I can’t compete here during those months, then I want to go over there. And so I think this is going to be big next year, more so than this year, and is going to be a big test to see if this really can in fact work.”
A playing option stateside that doesn’t overlap the WNBA season is Athletes Unlimited, which began its basketball league in 2022 and returns this month. The WNBA’s financial answer to those seven months is player marketing agreements that can push a player’s yearly income to $700,000 if they are on a supermax salary, plus meet other merit bonus qualifications and sign additional team marketing deals and time-off bonuses. In the eyes of some of the game’s top players, such as Breanna Stewart, it still doesn’t touch what they’re currently making playing both places and the benefits they take from it. Stewart has been open for the past year about her displeasure with the clause and consideration of leaving the league.
“It’s no secret that it’s the marketability of the top players [that makes the WNBA], and so if you don’t have certain top players playing in the WNBA, it’s going to be maybe a challenge,” Parker told Yahoo Sports.
Parker and Bird remain two of the most marketable players to outside brands and are entering the season featured in another NBA star Steph Curry. The spots give heightened visibility to the league in a way that’s funny — Bird’s personal favorite aspect — and places all on equal standing rather than punching up or down at a league. It allows TV viewers in that moment a “glimpse into the success of female athletes,” she said.
“[We] all have a lot of hardware to back it up and being able to poke fun at one another, but also highlight the importance of the WNBA and the importance of continuing to grow and expand women’s sports,” Parker said.
The duo will host a social series discussing leveling the playing field for women as part of a new aspect of the partnership this year.
“Something that Candace and I talked about was the idea of looking at women’s professional sports, specifically the WNBA, as an investment and not a charity,” Bird said. “I think for a long time that line was really blurry and people were leaning towards the charitable side of it all. But no, we’re an actual investment and we’re proving time and time again it’s not just an investment, it’s a great investment.”