Dealing With the WNBA 11-player Roster Beyond the 2012 Season

It was immediately obvious when the WNBA decreased its roster size to eleven players that it was a severe option even during a national economic crisis. While many teams only regularly play eight or nine players in contested match-ups, they still need to practice 5-on-5 and give “tweaked” players a few more minutes of rest during a game. The strains imposed by the 2012 season have shown why something needs to be done to give the teams and especially the players a break.

For the first time in the WNBA’s history, all foreign players on Olympics-bound national teams have opted to train with their countries. In the past, some select stars — notably Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor, and Svetlana Abrosimova,  — opted to play in the WNBA for as long as possible. The Russian National team has been famous for bullying its national team members to stay with the national team…enough so that many WNBA franchises don’t even recruit Russian players anymore. So, 2012 has been unique in how gutted the league has been because of Olympic fervor and national pride.

The thing is, this pattern repeats. While it’s worse in Olympic years, the World Championship years (two years after an Olympic games) also find many players absent from WNBA rosters. This might not be a problem if there was some accommodation for absent players in the rules, but if they intend to return to the team, they have to take up a roster spot. This clearly is unfair to teams who have to play shorthanded. Worse, it’s unfair to the other star players (esp. US Olympic team members) who now have that much greater a burden on them to help their club teams. They have to play more minutes and get more beaten up in the process. I believe the WNBA needs to modify the rules regarding signed players to even out the field.

Assuming the 11-player roster stays, there need to be additional slots available to protect players while not imposing too great a financial burden on teams. Maybe something like:

  • One non-active roster spot for health crises.
    • The team may retain the rights of a non-free-agent player in the event pregnancy or catastrophic injury prevents a player from being on the active roster for more than 17 regular season games (i.e. at least one game more than half the games in a regular season).
    • The team/league is obligated to fulfill their insurance requirements as it relates to the player’s situation as if they were still on the active roster.
    • Optionally, the team may (but is not required to) pay the player up to their full active salary. This requires league approval following proof the team is financially able and it won’t impact their participation in the league in any way.
    • Because of the potential salary implications, the player may refuse to be placed on an available health crisis spot.
    • Players may not be shifted into and out of the health crisis spot. It may only be used once a season.
  • One player at a time may be placed on a short-term Injured Reserve (IR) spot.
    • The player’s status is listed as inactive while they are on IR.
    • The player must remain on IR for no less than 2 games or 6 days, whichever is less; and no more than 5 games or 14 days, whichever is less.
    • The player receives their full active-roster pay per the CBA or contract.
    • At least 21 days must pass before a player may again be placed on IR after having come off of IR.
    • When a player is on IR, they may not travel or practice with their team, the only exception being traveling, but not practicing, on the day before a game scheduled for the day the player comes off IR.
    • The team may fill the roster sport for the duration of the IR term. The spot will be paid at league-minimum per-game pay regardless of previous experience in the league. This pay counts against the team’s salary cap.
    • If the player on IR is waived, the replacement player may be signed at the appropriate CBA or negotiated salary, as applicable.
    • No player may fill-in as a team’s IR roster replacement more than twice in a season. To rejoin the team, they must be signed to an active roster spot.
    • IR does not apply to the post season. If a player is unable to return, they are suspended from post season play — though the team and player still retain their applicable rights otherwise. Rosters for the post season must be fixed by the day preceding the team’s first post-season game.

These two were relatively easy. Basically we are preserving roster spots for pregnancy, ACL, and similar injuries without requiring suspending a player. The player is then also covered by league/team insurance (which, in the US, is a significant expense). This also gives the rich teams a wee bit of incentive when wooing free-agents. The league has a level playing field to a fault, but I think giving the “rich” teams the option to pay their non-active players is a nice little reward but not one that creates a Steinbrenner-esque tilting of the landscape.

With the reduced roster, not having an IR slot (or two) is simply unconscionable. In the 2012 season, a number of teams have been playing with minimum rosters, sometimes only dressing eight players — and one of them is often dinged as well. Just out of compassionate decency, the league needs to give teams the ability to add players when necessary while also not allowing them to easily game the system.

I also considered some national team ideas but couldn’t think of a way that wouldn’t disincentivize foreign players from playing in the WNBA. Still, when you consider that the WNBA is the league most affected by the Olympics, losing many of their star athletes for the bulk of a season every four years — and considering that the US National Team gets shafted in all of this as they play in the WNBA and barely get time to get their team room assignments before starting play in an Olympics — it seems that something should be done. Maybe make national teams pay compensation to the league (player salary plus a penalty) for pulling their contracted players for more than three games in a row or six games in a season?

The league needs to start caring more for its players. It isn’t so much about expanding the pool of available players (but that would be nice) as it is about protecting their health and extending their careers. The league lives by its stars, and if the stars are too hurt to play at their best (or at all), then both the players and the league suffers.

In any event, the break for the 2012 Olympic games is coming up. I wish all the women on all the teams participating, a happy — and especially a healthy — Olympic experience. Hopefully the last 1/4 of the WNBA season will be a heck of a show (the 3rd fourth will be devoted to re-establishing team chemistry and resting some of the US Olympians).

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