Cathy Engelbert insists WNBA expansion news will come soon, but is it what players want?

LAS VEGAS — It was a simple question that’s been asked of many players and fans over the past few years after WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced the league would expand. Where in the country would you want to see a new set of teams?

Chelsea Gray glanced at Kelsey Plum on the All-Star interview stage and both Las Vegas Aces stars chuckled.

“Y’all ain’t playing no games this morning,” Gray said.

Well, neither was Plum, a self-described firecracker who has no problem confronting Engelbert and the league to open a dialogue when she doesn’t agree. The WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) vice president didn’t want to duck the question — she named Portland, Oregon; Oakland, California; Nashville, Tennessee; and Charlotte, North Carolina, as great candidates — but she also wasn’t going to leave it there without popping a few additional thoughts.

“I don’t know how I feel about expansion, to be honest,” said Plum, a five-year veteran who was named a VP in January. “I feel like we have some holes that we have currently that we can do a better job of figuring out ways to fix some of the current issues that we have coming up.”

Expansion has been kicked down the road since Engelbert first floated it in 2021. The number of teams to join has varied over the years, as well as when they might do it. Engelbert said at the 2022 WNBA Finals the list of 100 potential cities was narrowed down to 10, and they “would love to announce by the end of the year.”

They did not, and Engelbert’s comments on how many cities are finalists has moved around. It was back up to 20 in May. There have been 12 teams since 2002, when the Atlanta Dream joined, and at one point the league had 16 teams. The goal was to put at least one team in by 2025, which seems improbable at this point, and Engelbert said “two to four years out” in February.

“Our conversations with potential ownership groups are headed in the right direction, and we will have some more news to announce about that at a later date this season,” Engelbert said on Saturday ahead of the All-Star Game in what has been a ritualistic expansion update when she meets with the media.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks to media ahead of the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas, on July 15, 2023. (Lucas Peltier/USA TODAY Sports)

Plum isn’t anti-expansion. But in representing the currently rostered players, she believes there are more pressing issues that impact them deeper. The issues have plagued the league over its history and are becoming more painful amid a longer season held in the same footprint with more travel issues countrywide.

“I understand expansion is important, I understand growing the league, I understand growing in cities, and I do think that’s something to come,” Plum said. “I don’t think that should take precedence over charter flights. I don’t think that should take precedence over salary benefits. And I think that we’ve taken steps in the right direction, but I think if you were to poll the players right now and ask them, ‘Would you rather have expansion or charter?’ I think it’s [a] pretty clear consensus across the board.”

Gray said she agreed. Aces teammate Candace Parker has said she wants roster expansion prioritized over team expansion. Pregnancy protections took center stage this offseason. Breanna Stewart said during All-Star weekend she wants to see players have a pension.

But it’s travel woes Plum said she believes is the “no-brainer” top issue for players. It has been publicly discussed by most highly visible players, as well as become a part of free agency discussions with players and team owners who want to invest more in the product.

That was no different at All-Star, where the league’s best were flown in on charters, stayed at a nice hotel and enjoyed a weekend that wasn’t without problems, but is also more in line with other professional leagues than it’s ever been before.

WNBA teams fly commercially as per the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) signed in January 2020. The league-wide mandate is for competitive balance, though new this year the WNBA will charter flights for back-to-backs and the full postseason schedule. Engelbert said Saturday the league is spending more than $4 million on charters, but doesn’t want to “jeopardize anything in the short term” by agreeing to league-wide, all-season charters she’s previously pegged at around $25 million a season.

The WNBA has also allowed teams to fly via a public charter service called JSX, though they cannot create flights outside of the publicly available ones. The service can be slightly more expensive than booking commercial seats. Plum said there’s only so much the WNBPA can do in pushing behind the scenes for changes and solutions.

Las Vegas Aces' Kelsey Plum celebrates after making a 3-point shot during the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game on July 15, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Las Vegas Aces’ Kelsey Plum celebrates after making a 3-point shot during the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game on July 15, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

“That’s part of the league, or the owners, agreeing to that [JSX deal],” Plum said. “So like, we can work with the union [to make change], but it’s a two-way street.”

Taking commercial flights has always been problematic because of long travel days, time in and out of airports, lack of leg space, tricky connections, and increasingly dangerous safety concerns such as those seen with Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury.

The regular season schedule is longer this year, increasing to 40 games in the same footprint. And this summer is more difficult for anyone to travel. There is no slack in the airlines’ schedules, there are fewer pilots, more infrastructure issues and an hour of severe weather can wipe out hundreds of flights as it has multiple times already this month.

“The amount of flights that we have, the options are limited,” Plum said. “And that takes a toll on the times you can fly, when you can fly, the connections you make. Personally, for me, that would be the biggest game changer to kind of take our league to that next level.”

The Seattle Storm had to bus from New York to their game in Washington, D.C., when their flight was canceled and the large traveling party was unable to be rebooked in time to arrive for their game. There wasn’t enough room on the train, either. Air travel is already difficult enough; late changes directly impact players’ ability to rest and prepare for big games.

Major changes would need to be done through the CBA, which players can opt out of in 2025 and will likely do. That’s also when the media rights deal is up. Stewart described that moment as an opportunity for “something drastic to happen” and Engelbert has long spotlighted that as a major focal point for the league.

“As we feel confident and comfortable as our valuations are going up, as we’re growing the league revenue to fund this long term, both from the league and the team perspective, we’ll get more bold,” Engelbert said. “I think as we get into our next round of media negotiations, that is probably going to be the time of a breakout.”

As with any agreement, each side notched some wins and took some losses in what they found important heading into 2020. The players received higher salaries and better benefits. Team owners wanted prioritization. Sue Bird, a retired WNBPA VP, called it the “CBA before the CBA” so that players could receive more in the upcoming deal.

Plum said she understands from the team owner perspective that they would want their players in market, and there is better pay, benefits and marketing opportunities available. But her argument to those who say this is what the players agreed to is that she doesn’t believe every level of player was properly represented.

“That certain marketing, and those certain salaries, are only going to serve [certain players]. So that’s the problem,” Plum said. “For example, if you put that top three or four players on your team, they’re getting the money, and then the group in that middle, those are the players that have been forgotten about. So I’m like, OK, I got to think about devil’s advocate as the VP, I represent the entirety of the body of players, not just that top percentage.”

When the CBA was signed in 2020, it increased the maximum base salary by approximately 84%. The salary cap did not rise proportionally, increasing by 30%. That created stratification and a middle subset of players Plum said is getting squeezed because they aren’t being paid big dollars domestically, and they can’t spend their 6-8 months off playing overseas because of prioritization rules that go into full effect this coming spring.

“You got the cream of the crop get[ting] paid a certain amount, and then the middle gap is widening,” Plum said.

The league’s argument is that players can make up to $750,000 through a combination of league and team marketing agreements, top base salaries, the best award payouts and championship playoff earnings. But no one has hit that mark in the two years it’s been available.

Plum is set to make $200,000 this season, near the player max and trailing the supermax by about $40,000. She is the second-highest-paid player on the Aces’ roster, though the team is difficult to use in this example because most of the big names took pay cuts to stay in Las Vegas. On other teams, a select few make near the supermax, leaving a small portion of the $1.4 million salary cap for the rest of the at least 10 players.

Las Vegas Aces' A'ja Wilson, the captain of Team Wilson, reacts as she is introduced before the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game on July 15, 2023, in Las Vegas. Team Wilson featured four Aces players. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson, the captain of Team Wilson, reacts as she is introduced before the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game on July 15, 2023, in Las Vegas. Team Wilson featured four Aces players. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Plum used Aces center Kiah Stokes as an example of the middle set. Stokes, who won three NCAA national championships with Stewart at Connecticut, is on an unprotected $81,000 deal in the WNBA. She doesn’t have a league marketing deal, nor does she have major endorsements that are only just now pouring in for a player like Plum. Stokes has a Turkish passport and has spent the majority of her overseas career winning, and earning big money, with powerhouse club Fenerbahçe.

“You put these players in these predicaments, it’s like impossible,” Plum said. “And that’s a perfect example of when we were making some of these decisions, who was represented, you know? I don’t think the body of players was represented.”

Engelbert said the league is working hard on expansion because “we need to be in more than 12 markets” as the longest-running professional women’s sports league playing in a country of more than 330 million spanning 3.5 million square miles.

“We’re building a business. We’re growing a business,” Engelbert said. “I think the players are going to benefit in the end. Again, we’ll continue to listen to them and talk to them about those choices and educate them on why we think the choices we’re making are better for them longer term and certainly setting up the next generation of players for a long time.”

Plum, whose endorsement partners helped her raise money for charity through her on-court stats, fielded plenty of questions over the weekend about the next generation. They’ll definitely have more than this one, but how this current set of athletes approaches upcoming CBA negotiations will determine how much more.

“I do feel like we’re playing nice and as I think as women, sometimes we kind of take that seat of being content and like, all right, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, but I didn’t do anything wrong,’” Plum said. “And I’m just like, you know what, they might hate me, but I’m gonna [be] here, stir this pot [and] make people uncomfortable. Because I feel like that’s the only way we’re going to be able to start moving that needle.”

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