What we now know about WNBA salaries
Last week, High Post Hoops’ Howard Megdal provided a team-by-team breakdown of WNBA player salaries for the 2019 season and beyond. His cap report is the result of diligent research and outreach, as the terms of WNBA signings are kept under wraps. Howard was kind enough to share his data with me, and here are my takeaways regarding what we currently know about WNBA salaries as teams begin their pre-season training camps. (All data are current as of May 4.)
WNBA Salaries Range from Just Under $42,000 to $127,500
For those of you who geek out over box-and-whiskers plots, please enjoy the graph on the left. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the table on the right conveys the same information. Rookies typically earn the least amount of money, and the minimum rookie salary is $41,965 this season. With teams bringing so many young players into training camp, over a quarter of the league is slated to earn this amount in 2019. (However, it is reasonable to expect that many of these players will be cut during training camp, so the percentage of players earning the minimum will likely decrease by the time regular-season games tip off.)
At the same time, there is some flexibility in rookie salaries. Top-five picks Jackie Young, Katie Lou Samuelson, and Teaira McCowan will earn $53,537 this season, which is just about the median for all players in the league. (Like in other professional leagues, it pays to be a first-round draft pick in the WNBA.) Just over one-fourth of players will earn $100,000 or more this season, and Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner will earn the highest salary in the league at $127,500.
WNBA Salaries Increase Sharply After Years 3 and 4
Most players sign 3- or 4-year rookie contracts that, as mentioned previously, are at or near the league minimum. After those contracts are up, players can become reserved players or restricted free agent. Reserved players have under four years of experience and were generally undrafted as rookies. They can only negotiate with their original team, so they are not true free agents, but they do generally receive pay raises if they re-sign with that team. A few examples from this offseason are Kayla Thornton in Dallas and Cecilia Zandalasini in Minnesota.
Restricted free agents have usually played four years in the WNBA on rookie contracts; many first-round draft picks fall into this category. They can sign with any team, but their original team has the right to match any offer and keep the player. A few examples from this offseason are Chelsea Gray, who re-signed with Los Angeles, and Natasha Cloud, who stayed in Washington after the Mystics matched an offer by New York.
After her first few years in the league, an elite player is likely already nearing the maximum WNBA salary, while an average player’s salary increases more gradually. The graph is more uneven for players with 8 years of service or more, but this is likely because there are fewer players with that amount of experience. (Only 32 out of 221 players in WNBA training camps have at least 8 years of experience, while 63 are rookies and another 75 players have between 1 and 3 years of experience.) Still, it’s clear that 10-year veteran Shavonte Zellous, who is making only $65,000—the lowest of any player with 8+ years of service—deserves a raise!
Seattle and Los Angeles Have the Most Work to Do to Get under the Salary Cap
Every team’s total salaries will exceed the WNBA cap of $996,100 during training camp; after all, the entire goal of training camp is to have more players than you need and have them compete for a spot on the 12-woman roster. Teams vary in how many players they sign for training camp and by how much they exceed the salary cap. Phoenix had 16 players on its roster as of May 5, the fewest in the league, while Seattle had 22 and Minnesota and New York each had 20. Seattle and Los Angeles were nearly $250,000 over the salary cap, while Indiana was less than $100,000 over. All teams must be under the cap by May 23, one day before the start of the season. The chart below shows how far above the salary cap each team was on May 3:
Some Teams Will Have A Lot of Financial Flexibility in 2020
The chart below shows each team’s total salary obligations not only for 2019, but also 2020 and 2021:
Looking ahead to 2020, four teams have committed over $700,000 to players, but no team is particularly close to the salary cap. Chicago, New York, and Connecticut have all committed under $500,000 for 2020, potentially positioning them to sign a key free agent or give large contracts to their young players coming off of rookie deals who impressed in 2019.
Bonus Question: Can the Sparks Afford Cambage?
The Dallas Wings and Los Angeles Sparks are running out of time to finalize a trade that would send All-Star center Liz Cambage to Los Angeles. (For the latest on those trade talks, check out this High Post Hoops article, which shares an exclusive update from Wings president Greg Bibb.) Last weekend, the Sparks traded for another All-Star, forward Chiney Ogwumike, which would seem to make it more difficult for the Sparks both to afford Cambage and to fit her into a frontcourt that already includes three All-Stars and several talented backups.
However, for supporters of #LiztoLA, there is still hope. Assuming that the Sparks refuse to trade their frontcourt core of Ogwumike, her sister Nneka, and Candace Parker; the newly re-signed Chelsea Gray and Alana Beard; and offseason acquisition Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, there appears to be one player whose salary Los Angeles would have to shed to accommodate Cambage on a 12-woman roster. That player is center Jantel Lavender, a veteran reserve who is slated to earn $115,000 this season and $117,000 in 2020. Lavender’s 2019 salary is easily the largest of any player who seems to be fair game to be traded; the next-highest is Ashley Walker at just over $56,000.
If the Sparks trade Lavender and one or two future draft picks for Cambage, they could get under the $996,100 salary cap with the following roster (total 2019 salary: $976,353):
Forwards: Kalani Brown, Liz Cambage, Chiney Ogwumike, Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker, Maria Vadeeva
Guards: Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray, Alexis Jones*, Marina Mabrey*, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Sydney Wiese*
*If you prefer, Karlie Samuelson, Loryn Goodwin, and/or Gabby Green can fill these spots without pushing the Sparks over the salary cap.
All data regarding training camp rosters was calculated by the author as of May 5. All salary data is courtesy of Howard Megdal.
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