What is WNBA prioritization? Potentially a huge problem, and Breanna Stewart knows it

The prioritization clause in the WNBA's collective bargaining agreement has been noted and discussed since it was put into place in January 2020. There have been rumblings of young stars skipping seasons and overseas clubs making it worth their while.

But on Thursday, Breanna Stewart bored the first significant crater into the WNBA landscape while speaking with reporters about re-signing with the Seattle Storm in free agency. The decorated superstar halfway into her career confirmed the one-year deal was because of the clause.

"For me, the biggest thing with the one-year deal was in regards to prioritization," Stewart, 27, told reporters in an introductory news conference on Thursday. "It's something that, if I'm quite honest, I'm not happiest about in our CBA because it's just really limiting what professional women's basketball players can do in their offseason and their ability to make money overseas.

"With the one-year deal, I have a little bit more flexibility in technically what I can do in 2023 as we try and figure out this prioritization."

What is prioritization?

Prioritization is a clause in the CBA that kicks in for the 2023 WNBA season and mandates the league to fine players who are late to their teams' training camp. Beginning in 2024, and at least running through the end of the CBA after the 2027 season, the league can suspended without pay for the entire season any player who does not report.

There will be exceptions for obligations to national teams as well as graduation and other significant life milestones. Players are exempt from the clause their first two seasons in the WNBA.

It is standard in major men's professional sports for players to face fines if they do not report or do not play in portions of the season. But male players are making big-time money for one job that covers most of a calendar year. WNBA players make far less and have always supplemented paychecks by playing in longer seasons overseas that overlap with the WNBA.

A clear example: Ben Simmons is on an NBA contract worth approximately $30 million this season and was reportedly fined $360,000 for every missed game during his holdout. His fine alone is more than the $228,294 supermax salary a WNBA player can make for playing 36 regular-season games in the 2022 season.

Why institute the rule?

The prioritization clause was instituted alongside higher salaries — the highest-paid players previously made around $119,000 — with two objectives in mind.

  • Being without star players lessens the product, especially during the critical opening games. Fans have been waiting months to watch and they generally tune in early in higher numbers than midseason. Even if a player doesn't miss games, showing up late to a training camp that includes new players impacts chemistry and the team. That in turn impacts the product.

  • Keeping players home means more marketing opportunities, both with the league and with independent sponsors, and that will in turn help grow the league. In past decades, the WNBA went silent during the offseason. Having players home and visible will in turn lead to more interest, higher viewership, a better business and a growing salary cap. That potentially leads to expansion and eventually maybe a longer season.

Breanna Stewart
Breanna Stewart warned that prioritization could mean more players leaving the WNBA than some fans might realize. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Breanna Stewart makes sense

Stewart, one of four former MVPs who were unrestricted free agents this year, sent shockwaves through free agency after reports that her deal was only for one year.

"Prioritization is the biggest topic of conversation, I would say, for me in the WNBA, especially in the next couple of years," Stewart told reporters. "Because [I want] to be able to play overseas in UMMC Ekaterinburg where basketball is very valued, where we're treated really, really well. Obviously [we're] able to make a lot of money. It's just hard for me because with the prioritization, you're cutting off one of my sources of income and not substituting it. I think that that's something that needs to be figured out.

"Luckily, I don't think until 2024 is when things really come into play in terms of being suspended potentially for the season, so to be honest, I don't know. I don't have a great answer for what's going to happen. I think that it's going to affect a lot more players in the WNBA than people think right now."

Stewart talked about Seattle being her home and where she made her family, which includes wife and former player Marta Xargay and their 6-month-old daughter, Ruby Mae. She said she's focused on 2022 and didn't tip her hand to if she would consider another team in free agency next year. Her meeting with New York Liberty personnel, the team of her home state, raised eyebrows. She did say skipping the WNBA season is probably not an option.

"In an ideal world, I'd like to be able to play in the WNBA and overseas as much as possible because I think that I have a reach in both communities," she said.

"I think with everything to come with Puma, with signature shoes coming out, it's a really difficult situation, but I don't think not playing in the WNBA is a possibility."

Why 2023 could shift the landscape

Stewart's situation is unique. She is one of the most marketable female basketball players in the world and, as she noted, she signed a deal with Puma in May 2021 that includes a signature shoe deal. She will be only the 10th WNBA player in the 25 years of the league to have a signature shoe.

Puma likely wants her in-market for advertising, appearances and other responsibilities that come with sponsorship deals of that size. This is what the WNBA wants — player visibility in the U.S. so that the league is front and center.

But not everyone is Stewie, a four-time NCAA champion with UConn who had two of the most decorated stretches of professional basketball before and after an Achilles tear. Losing a young player like Napheesa Collier, who was also quite blunt about the clause on her podcast last year and is expecting her first child, is a big deal for the league. Arike Ogunbowale, a leading scorer in every season of her young career and an MVP candidate, also voiced concerns on the podcast.

These players are the future of the league. And that group is coming out of the worst situation because their four-year rookie deals are still in effect. Collier's 2021 salary trailed that of second-year player Crystal Dangerfield because Dangerfield came into the league with the new CBA that instituted a higher threshold.

It's important to note that the CBA is a collective document. No side is going to get everything it wants, but as the Women's National Basketball Players Association makes clear, "We will frequently solicit all players' viewpoint." The majority of players have at least signed on to support this clause. And not every player is Stewart, making millions on a premier overseas club like UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Still, there are now two high-profile stars who have talked about the impact potentially being more than fans realize.