WNBA player survey: Travel, salaries are league's top issues

ByAlexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel ESPN logo
Monday, August 28, 2023

The WNBA is in the last two weeks of its longest-ever regular season (40 games), and the players are focused on finishing strong and preparing for the playoffs. Since the All-Star Game, ESPN asked 34 players -- superstars and reserves, veterans and newcomers -- what they think is the biggest issue right now for the WNBA in its 27th season.

With ongoing requests for more charter flights, no one will be surprised travel came up as the primary issue for over 50% of surveyed players. But they also discussed the league's visibility, marketing and security. They called for franchise expansion, increased roster sizes and changes to the salary cap structure.

The WNBA's most recent collective bargaining agreement was signed in January 2020, before the looming impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was known. The current CBA runs through the 2027 season, though there is a mutual opt-out provision in 2025. At any time, both sides could add a side letter(s) to the CBA, which is the case with most legal agreements.

The Las Vegas Aces' Kelsey Plum, first vice president of the players' union, thinks speaking openly about issues is the best way forward.

"I have no problem having a confrontation ... like, 'Hey, I don't agree, let's talk about it," Plum said. "They might hate me, but I'm going to stir the pot and make it more uncomfortable. Because I feel that's the only way we're going to be able to start moving that needle."

Here are some of the things the players we spoke to -- nearly a quarter of the league -- most want to see the needle move on.

Travel changes: The No. 1 issue (18 of 34 players surveyed)

Travel remains a top concern for WNBA players -- specifically, the league's requirement that teams take commercial flights except under few, specific circumstances: all rounds of the playoffs, the visiting team in the Commissioner's Cup championship and regular-season games on back-to-back days requiring air travel.

The league is allowing teams to use a public chartering service called JSX, although it's not available in many WNBA cities and franchises are prohibited from working with the airline to create new flight paths.

"Commercial flights are just insane," the Chicago Sky's Marina Mabrey said. "You can't get out at night, sometimes you get delayed, you can't get out in the morning, then you wait there and wait there and wait there for the bags and stuff. ... It's an absolute waste of time."

Added the Seattle Storm's Kia Nurse: "Especially on the back end of the season as condensed as the schedule is. We only have probably two actual off days. Everyone's like, 'Oh, it's an off day, it's a travel day.' Getting on an airplane and going up three hours, your body swelling, coming down, it's not an off day."

Although the CBA dictates teams book "premium economy (or similar enhanced coach fare)" if available, comfort on planes remains a concern, especially given how tall WNBA players typically are.

"You've got extra legroom in the seats, but it's crazy that I've been here for 14 years and nothing much has changed about the travel," the Connecticut Sun's DeWanna Bonner added. "Hopefully within the next couple years it gets better, because I definitely think it can add some longevity to everybody's career."

Several players specifically mentioned the difficulty of getting to and from Uncasville, Connecticut, where the Sun play.

"Connecticut has the worst travel in all the league, being that we're an hour away from the airport," Sun veteran Alyssa Thomas said. "It's Hartford, and there's not too many flights from there, and if we want to fly direct, we have to travel two hours to Boston. So our travel schedule is brutal."

Commercial travel is especially burdensome for parents traveling with children, said new mom Cheyenne Parker of the Atlanta Dream.

"Now that I have the daughter as well," she said, "it's super exhausting."

Nurse, who is Canadian, pointed out that international players face additional challenges as they can't sign up for programs like TSA PreCheck and CLEAR, which expedite or ease the travel experience.

The Los Angeles Sparks' Layshia Clarendon said even the opportunity for teams to budget for a set number of charters to use for what they deem the most taxing trips would be welcome progress.

"It should not take us all day to get to a destination," Las Vegas' A'ja Wilson said. "It may not be that teams get their own private jet. But just working more with JSX and other chartering companies."

Salary structure: More flexibility (three players)

Salaries were a priority for players when negotiating the current CBA. The previous CBA's highest possible salary was $117,500; this year, it's $234,936 and is set to hit $256,721 in 2026. The salary cap grew from $996,100 in 2019 to $1.3 million in 2020 and has increased 3% yearly since.

Many players go overseas during the offseason to complement their WNBA salaries, with top players making mid- to high-six figures. But the league's new prioritization policies -- in 2024, players must arrive in their team's market by the start of training camp or they're ineligible for the season -- will make it more difficult for players to do both.

The Minnesota Lynx's Kayla McBride believes salaries in the range of $300,000 to $400,000, perhaps with incentives to reach $600,000, would be ideal.

"I think people would stay and not go overseas," McBride said. "So we're not that far off, but it makes a big difference."

Added Lynx teammate Napheesa Collier, "I don't know what's tangible for the next salary, but I think $500,000 should be the supermax for sure," noting a lucrative TV deal reflecting "what we're worth" could help ensure this boost in salaries.

Clarendon said adjusting the salary cap could help both the players and the franchises.

"Changing the hard cap to a soft cap is one of the biggest issues, with the way it has impacted rosters and not incentivized teams to keep veterans because of tight cap space," Clarendon said. "Veterans are the backbone of our league and help make the product really good. But the league has not budged on it."

Security: Is the league doing enough? (two players)

A provocateur confrontingBrittney Griner in a Dallas airport this season brought to the forefront an emerging issue: security for players, whose profiles are becoming bigger. The league as a whole and several teams independently elevated security measures heading into the 2023 season, with many now traveling with security detail.

"Our league is growing, our faces are more out there, so we can't move the same way that we moved 15 years ago," the Aces' Chelsea Gray said. "Even players who aren't in the spotlight as much, they're still being recognized. The safety of our players on and off the court is important. It's before games, after games, in between games, at our hotels."

Gaining popularity, presence (two players)

Candace Parker, drafted No. 1 in 2008, still sees the league's visibility as a work in progress that could have a watershed impact down the line.

"I grew up a Bulls fan, and we didn't like Detroit. Establishing those rivalries builds visibility. The visibility builds everything else," Parker said. "It's not just having a game broadcasted, but where and when. With visibility comes marketing, which brings more money. That leads to charter [flights], bigger salaries.

"One of the issues is the schedule coming out before free agency. You look at the NBA and NFL, and they have flex dates, so if certain teams aren't as good as everybody thought they would be, or somebody's hurt, they can switch a nationally televised game to feature another great matchup. That's what networks want, and it's what fans want."

The Indiana Fever's Kelsey Mitchell sees things similarly.

"The hardest part is because we don't play [a season] as long as the guys, and then when we have an offseason, a lot of us go overseas, we go dormant for like five or six months," Mitchell said. "If we could find a way to cultivate [more] marketing expansion for us in the offseason, that would be dope."

Roster expansion: More jobs for players (two players)

The 12-team WNBA hasn't added a franchise via expansion since the Atlanta Dream in 2008, but the league says it's getting closer. Players say roster expansion would be just as beneficial.

Teams can carry up to 12 players, but many have only 11 because of hard salary cap restrictions. Injuries, illnesses or other absences can quickly put teams in desperate need of temporary replacements via hardship contracts.

"This league is too good for every single team to be in a hardship contract situation," said the New York Liberty's Courtney Vandersloot, who suggested the addition of two roster spots, even if they're for players on an injured reserve list or purely for developmental purposes. "We should have [other] players that are there and ready to step in."

Vandersloot added, "Charters are important, too, but charters aren't going to help us when we're down to nine players."

No player knows the ups and downs of making a roster like Los Angeles' Karlie Samuelson. Since 2017, she has signed 17 contracts to play for the Sparks, Wings, Storm and Mercury. Some of the contracts have been for training camp, others for seven-day hardships, others for the rest of season.

"There are so many hardship contracts, and I've been on a lot of them," Samuelson said. "Adding one or two spots per team would at least solve that a little bit.

"[Sometimes] you sign for seven days, then you're back home. But you have to stay in shape, so you pay for training. You don't know when the next call will come that you're needed."

A combination of concerns, hopes (seven players)

Some players' responses didn't neatly fit into one topic. WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike replied with an umbrella category of player health and safety that includes travel, roster spots and adjustments to salary cap requirements.

The Sun's Ty Harris' viewpoint comes as she has transitioned from four years in college with the South Carolina Gamecocks to her early years in the WNBA, which unlike college programs is not subject to Title IX.

"Probably just treating us like we're professionals," Harris said. "Coming from college and going into the pros should be a step up, but I feel like being in college was more than being here at the pros. Outside of basketball, traveling, commercial flights, hotels."

Seattle's Sami Whitcomb, a member of the Australian national team, noted the difficulties that come with the WNBA's expanding schedule. Next season will have its own challenges as an Olympic year.

"Trying to play more games is great. The way we're doing it without adding too much length to the season [is bad]," Whitcomb said. "The fatigue really does play on teams. It's that paired with prioritization, because that's going to really impact who can then be injury-replacement players, who can be brought in for seven-day contracts. You're limiting that pool of players that are WNBA caliber, that are WNBA ready, that are fit enough."

The Liberty's Breanna Stewart offered a big-picture look at the topic of "competitive advantage," which the league cites as its reason for preventing teams from chartering flights because all can't afford it.

"If teams have the opportunity to charter, then they should do that," Stewart said. "You could say a practice facility is a competitive advantage. Some people have them, and some people don't. So it's like, we're in this gray area that doesn't really make sense."

ESPN's Kevin Pelton contributed to this report.