Courtside Column: WNBA Free Agency has a brand new vibe

In years past, WNBA Free Agency barely made blip on the sports world radar. Now, it's a whole new ball game.

Hello and welcome to Courtside.

Take a break from the game. Pull up a chair. Settle in. Have some water. And relax. 

Now and again, I’ll be posting columns focusing on what’s happening in the WNBA or sharing my thoughts about basketball-related current events, issues, and/or players in the news cycle. It’s something I’ve been considering adding to the Courtside mix for a while now, and I think it will be a good compliment to the Q&A’s.

Let’s get to the Courtside Column.

Chicago Sky

For the past two years, WNBA free agency has been something it has never been before—exciting. Big time free agents—like Candace Parker leaving the Los Angeles Sparks after 13 seasons with the team that drafted her first overall in the 2008 WNBA Draft and heading home to Chicago to play for the Sky—are hopping teams, choosing where they want to go, opting for better contracts that are in their best interest, and making headlines across mainstream media outlets. It’s the kind of publicity and attention the WNBA deserves. 

It’s also exactly what has been missing for the past two decades, during the WNBA offseason and what is considered to be somewhat of a professional sports lull throughout the month of February. And it has everything to do with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that was negotiated by the players themselves via the WNBPA and put into effect in January 2020. 

It has made all the difference.

Before 2020, the WNBA had an offseason problem. It was out of sight, out of mind—with most players going overseas to make the kind of cash they weren’t able to make here in the States. There wasn’t much to write about or for fans to pay attention to, even when free agency rolled around. Aside from an explosive once-in-a-great-while trade, such as former Connecticut Sun and legendary WNBA point guard Lindsay Whalen getting traded to the Minnesota Lynx in January 2010, not much happened. For the most part, WNBA free agency was a tiny blip on the professional basketball radar, let alone the entire sports world. In 2019, I wrote a column for Winsidr about what was lacking in WNBA free agency and why it was hurting the WNBA.

“The main reason why the WNBA free agency period is so lackluster is because of the way it is setup. There aren’t many free agents who are able to dictate their own future, because of the current rules that are in place. Players have little to no autonomy and it’s hurting the league’s growth and evolution, as well as attraction.

It’s fun, exciting and beneficial to be a veteran free agent in the NBA, because players have the ability to market themselves and their abilities to perspective teams (think LeBron inviting multiple NBA teams to court him with unique presentations before he ultimately made his live “decision” on ESPN to go to the Miami Heat in 2009). They can also negotiate terms and salaries, and add ‘opt-out’ clauses to their contacts.

Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Al Horford, Kemba Walker, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, DeAndre Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, Marc Gasol and a handful of other big-name NBA players will be free agents this summer. That’s a lot of player movement. That’s a lot of shakeup. That’s a lot of autonomy. And it’s why NBA free agency is so exciting—for the players and the fans. Imagine if WNBA players had that kind of autonomy.

Imagine if the WNBA had that kind of player movement?”

In 2020, one year after I wrote that column, free agency rules have changed, thanks to the new CBA. WNBA players now have more autonomy than ever before over the direction of their careers, where they want to play, how much money they feel they (rightly) deserve, and the kind of contracts they are willing to sign. Unrestricted free agents have always been able to negotiate and entertain offers from other teams, but under previous free agency rules, players had to wait six seasons or more until they qualified. Now, players with five years or more can qualify as unrestricted free agents. The one year difference may not seem like much, but it is.

The core designation was also an issue, as teams would “core” big name players (think past situations like DeWanna Bonner with the Phoenix Mercury or Maya Moore with the Minnesota Lynx) to keep them on the roster. The core designation functions like a franchise tag in the NFL—meaning players who are cored can only negotiate with the team that cores them. Before 2020, players could be cored up to four times in their career. In 2021, it’s only three and starting next season it will be down to two. Bonner was cored three seasons in a row by the Mercury, and last season she finally had the freedom to explore other options, ending up with the Connecticut Sun. With the new CBA, players who are cored now will receive a one-year super max offer to make it beneficial for both sides—player and team. Teams can only core one player per free agency period. 

Most importantly, compensation for all players is higher and contract terms can be as little as a one-year deal. 

What we saw last season during free agency—Angel McCoughtry signing with the Las Vegas Aces, Tina Charles heading to the Washington Mystics and Skylar Diggins-Smith teaming up with Diana Taurasi in Phoenix—is a direct result of the new free agency rules taking effect. And what we’re seeing now in 2021 is the basketball continuing to roll down the hill with momentum. 

Parker’s free agency move was shared so much on Twitter, by some of the biggest names and outlets in sports media, that the WNBA was trending. Other big moves have already taken place—Chelsea Gray left the Sparks for the Aces, Kayla McBride went from the Aces to the Lynx, Erica Wheeler said goodbye to the Indiana Fever and hello to the Sparks, and Wheeler’s former teammate Candice Dupree also left the Fever and signed with the Seattle Storm. There have been other moves, of course. And news of all-time greats staying home, such as Sue Bird with the Storm and Taurasi with the Mercury. Rumors of impending trades and whispers of “there’s more to come” are swirling, with the official free agency period still underway.

It’s the kind of thrill, shock and suspense that WNBA fans have wanted for years. And to see it finally happening is fulfilling in a way that is hard to describe. It’s what the league needs, what the players deserve and what writers have been clamoring for.  

So, stayed tuned for more free agency action as things move along. WNBA free agency is no longer a shoulder shrug on a cold, snowy day in February with gray skies overhead. It’s much more like a February thaw, where the temps rise and the sun breaks through the clouds, and there’s enough breaking news, Twitter reactions, conversations and drama to keep everyone warm and content until spring—when the next WNBA season tips off.

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If there’s a player you’d like me to have a Courtside chat with, let me know. And if you have any burning questions you’d like them to answer, suggest one or two. I will try to slip it into the conversation! 

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