The WNBA has had a history of making very considered moves to help the league not only survive but grow. This past offseason, due to the effects of the economic downslide, the WNBA announced that, for the 2009 season, rosters would be cut from thirteen spots down to eleven. Did the league err?
In the life of a professional sports league, not every decision is going to be shiny and bright. The WNBA expanded too quickly too soon which resulted in a necessary contraction as NBA team owners, totally uninterested in women’s basketball, let these summer diversions fail (I also blame the NBA D-League for messing this up). Through the natural cycle of expansion and contraction, some seasons have been better for players than others.
The thirteenth season of the WNBA begins with the worst situation for players in the history of the league—one that the league could have ameliorated. The decision to reduce rosters by two positions is meant to allow the less solvent teams the ability to use some of the unused salary cap money for operating expenses. Of course, there was nothing preventing the poorer teams from voluntarily reducing their own rosters to free up the money, but that would make the teams with the ability to not reduce their rosters that much more threatening on the court. So, in an effort to be fair to all, the league has managed to be fair to none.
I do sort of understand the league’s position. The folding of the Houston Comets, the winner of the first four league championships, came as a blow. Of course, the selling of the Comets a year before to a flake who’d only keep the team a year wasn’t the best idea, either. The thing is, no matter the merits or solvency of the league as a whole, the legions of misogynist sports-talk/forum poopy-heads who dump unfounded hate on the league for their own personal giggles would circle like ravenous vultures proclaiming the failure of a league that is in much better shape after a dozen years than the NBA had been after its first thirty.
The WNBA got uncharacteristically nervous and slashed the roster populaion. This, combined with the folding of the Comets, has created a perfect storm of near impenitrability for players trying to make new teams.
While, on the surface, eleven players seems sufficient, as many coaches keeps a short bench only about 8-players deep; there are a few coaches that play pretty much their entire roster. These teams (typically up-tempo) will feel the pinch of the restricted bench. Eleven players means 1-set of starters, 1-set of reserves for each position, and a utility player. Seems like enough, doesn’t it? After all, Seattle played with an injury-shortened bench last season, and in the NCAAs Maryland finished the season carrying only nine available players. Obviously it can be done with some success.
Well…until you want a full practice when you are on the road. Let’s say that you have an 11-player roster, one person is injured and one is tweaked enough that you’d want to save her for the game. Now the best you can do is practice 4-on-5. Hardly ideal.
Of course the most insidious aspect of the short roster hits on the WNBA’s draft day. It’s pretty much a given that only a handful or two of this rookie class has any realistic hope of getting signed to a team. At times in the past this could be due to cap issues, but this year it’s due to needing every player to be able to come off the bench and contribute. No more players to guide and mold for a season or two. No more carrying a marginal veteran in case someone goes down.
Some will argue that this will allow the best of the best to shine. No jetsam. No flotsam. That might be true for this season. But what about the next? Or the one after that? Without having players continuously playing at their sport, their chances of joining a team when the rosters (or number of teams) grows to saner levels diminishes. This matters because when roster spots grow, we don’t want a sudden drop of talent. That wouldn’t be good.
Though I don’t expect it, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if the league adds a roster spot within the first third of the season…or at least increase the IR by a spot or two. If they don’t, a lot of teams will find themselves with a very short bench or faced with waiving players that they’d much rather keep. How about this: two levels of injured reserve: 2 spots that are pre-game on/off as per last year, but another 2 spots where players must stay on the list for at least four games (i.e. they are truly injured) and cannot practice or travel with the team at league expense (though they can attend film sessions). Teams are not obligated to use all the available spots if there are cap issues.
If nothing else, President Orender needs to make clear that the 11-person roster is a temporary adjustment. Maybe encourage draft pics to practice with their college teams as the finish out their school work, or encourage them to join the practice opponents of the teams that drafted them. Obviously they are going to try to play overseas, but so are all the veterans. They’ll need to stay in shape and game sharp so that they don’t become the “lost draft class”.
As I said, I think cutting two roster spots was a mistake. I could see one being absorbed throughout the league, but two is a blow. I hope that it was a wise move, but I think it might cause more trouble in the long run than it curses in the short. I guess time will tell.