Player marketing agreements, prioritization and the balance between development and building personal brands in the WNBA

Under the league’s collective-bargaining agreement, which was ratified ahead of the 2020 season and runs through the 2027 season, the league has over $1 million to spend annually on marketing agreements. The maximum a player can earn on a player marketing agreement is $250,000.

SHARE Player marketing agreements, prioritization and the balance between development and building personal brands in the WNBA
Cathy Engelbert was appointed as commissioner of the WNBA in 2019.

Cathy Engelbert was appointed as commissioner of the WNBA in 2019.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert took the job in 2019, she talked about bolstering visibility, enhancing fan engagement and developing the league into a thriving business. 

But there was one reason specifically that still stands out to her as a catalyst for her jump from the business world to the world of sports business. 

“Someone told me the average tenure of a WNBA player was five years or so,” Engelbert said during a news conference last week. 

That information, she said, prompted her to consider all of the ways the league could help prepare them for the 30-plus years of their life that follow their too-short playing careers. 

This offseason, WNBA players’ off-court careers and brands are on full display like never before. 

Under the league’s collective-bargaining agreement, which was ratified ahead of the 2020 season and runs through the 2027 season, the league has over $1 million to spend annually on marketing agreements. The maximum a player can earn on a player marketing agreement is $250,000. 

Last year, the league had three players signed to PMAs. This offseason, that number expanded to 10.

“We are chipping away at paying the players more so they have more opportunities here,” Engelbert said. “We have internship opportunities. They’re finding other employment. They’re getting more personal endorsements because we’ve been throwing a lot of marketing dollars behind marketing them.” 

These PMAs aren’t for everyone, though. There are a number of players who turned them down for various reasons, including the restrictive nature of the agreements. Candace Parker, A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Sabrina Ionescu are among the players who opted not to take PMAs, according to league sources. 

Kahleah Copper is the Sky’s only player signed to a PMA. 

Copper already has held multiple community events of her own and was part of a WNBA-sponsored clinic hosted by Arielle Chambers alongside two other players on PMAs, Ariel Atkins and Jasmine Thomas. 

Former Sky guard Diamond DeShields is another player who signed a PMA and has been featured beyond her league obligations. In Chicago, DeShields was part of a Nike panel alongside some of the city’s most recognizable creatives, including designer Don C. The discussion was led by writer Robert ‘‘Scoop’’ Jackson. DeShields also was featured recently in a series titled “Our Friend” by local retail company Notre. 

The series shared a brief background on DeShields’ WNBA career alongside a spread featuring the WNBA champion in looks from the company’s collections. 

Outside of players on PMAs, a number of the league’s stars forgo playing overseas to build lucrative careers off the court in the offseason, including Parker (who hasn’t played overseas since 2018), Wilson, Plum and Ionescu.

Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike and Mercury guards Skylar Diggins-Smith and Kia Nurse are among other players who are developing their broadcasting careers in tandem with their careers in the WNBA. 

What does this all mean for some of the league’s budding stars who are on the low end of the WNBA’s salary index and can’t afford to turn down overseas opportunities?

Engelbert fielded multiple questions about how the league will guide players on making overseas decisions after Brittney Griner’s 294-day wrongful detainment in Russia. Her overall message was that the league wants to support the players’ choices. 

“The players are going to do what they think is best for themselves, but we definitely inform them all the time of the security risks of where they might be playing,” Engelbert said. 

While Engelbert has been vocal in support of the WNBA’s athletes playing all year and capitalizing on overseas opportunities, the league’s looming prioritization rule contradicts that support. 

Beginning next season, players must be in market by the start of the 40-game season, which begins May 19, or forgo the entire season. The following season, they must arrive by training camp. While certain stars of the league don’t have to worry about being affected by prioritization, it puts developing players in a precarious situation for multiple reasons. 

The first is financial. There are players who need their overseas contracts to supplement their WNBA salary. 

The second is their development. Many young players in the WNBA experience the most impactful growth in their game overseas because the minutes they get compared to the WNBA are substantially higher. 

“It’s b.s. for young players in their first five or six years to be playing competitively for four to 4œ months out of the year and expect them to grow as players,” WNBA agent Mike Cound said. “With only very few exceptions will that happen.”

Prioritization does not apply to players with under three seasons of experience in the WNBA.

Athletes Unlimited, which will embark on its second season Feb. 23, is the only substantial opportunity for players in the U.S. during the WNBA offseason. Former Sky guard and WNBA champion Lexie Brown is among the 39 players participating. But the season is only 4½ weeks. 

Mystics guard Natasha Cloud and Wings forward Isabelle Harrison, who are among the athletes participating in AU’s second season, are two players Cound referenced who can maintain success despite forgoing an overseas season. But he believes young players will struggle to develop if they opt out of playing overseas. 

Extending the season to at least six months or establishing a developmental league similar to the NBA’s G League are two potential ways to make the prioritization rule worthwhile for young players.

The Latest
Nick Nastrini was acquired from the Dodgers in the Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly trade.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and other elected officials shared stories about Karen Yarbrough, who died April 7, and her impact as a fixture in local politics who cleared paths for others to follow.
Busch’s mature approach at the plate has helped him make a strong impression early in his career.
Ariana Molina was with family celebrating a confirmation Saturday night when shots were fired. Ten people, including Ariana’s mother, were wounded. Police blame gangs for the shooting.
Torian Pryor, 19, was shot April 1 in the 6700 block of South Cornell Avenue. His brother says the grieving family hasn’t had any information from University of Chicago hospital or police on how he died.