WNBA free agents can officially sign contracts starting Monday, but a source says you likely won’t see Seattle Storm veteran Sue Bird ink a deal on opening day, even though she’s not leaving the team.
Bird, a 17-year WNBA veteran, will wait for the rest of Seattle’s salary cap situation — including with core player Natasha Howard — to resolve itself before her deal is signed.
Diana Taurasi, a 16-year vet, is expected to re-sign with the Phoenix Mercury on Monday. That both would stay with the franchises that drafted them was a forgone conclusion, but their situations are different. Phoenix’s cap situation is less tight, so Taurasi’s deal can go ahead.
Both, as is the case with other WNBA stars over the years, historically have taken a little less money to help their teams keep other talent — which raises this question: Does the WNBA need its own Bird exception to the salary cap? Some insiders say it should be considered.
That would allow players such as Bird and Taurasi — two of the WNBA’s most iconic players who have spent their entire pro careers, with a combined seven championships, in Seattle and Phoenix — to sign deals that somewhat exceed the salary cap.
The Bird exception in the NBA, named after the Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird, came about when the league instituted its salary cap starting in the 1984-85 season. It was a key part of having a soft cap, giving NBA teams allowance to exceed the cap in order to sign their own free agents. The qualifying veterans free-agent exception became known with a shorter moniker, the Bird exception, because he was entering free agency then, and the league and union understood the mutual value of incentivizing players to stay in their home markets. There are now various levels of the Bird exception in the NBA.
It’s a coincidence that Sue and Larry share the same last name. But they also share a Hall of Fame pedigree all spent in the same WNBA/NBA uniform, as has Taurasi. The WNBA has a hard cap, with no exceptions. Especially considering that salary structure changes that began with the 2020 collective bargaining agreement have increased player movement, the WNBA could add its own exception linked to qualifying veterans.
Of course, this is a long-haul suggestion; the WNBA’s CBA can be renegotiated after the 2025 season. It seems unlikely — although not impossible — that any exceptions would be added before then. But in light of the very different free-agent landscape since January 2020 — as well as the league’s emphasis on creating additional earning opportunities to help players prioritize overseas play — questions like these are part of the league’s self-examination.
“It’s kind of a new ballgame with the league and the new CBA,” said one WNBA source with knowledge of cap negotiations. “It’s going to take a few years to sort out. But this is exactly the kind of thing that, as the league grows and gets stronger, we should be thinking about. Because it incentivizes legacy players staying with a franchise, and there’s something cool about that.”
Another source suggested an exception would not just reward the player for being loyal, but the franchise as well.
“It could provide teams the value back they’re looking for when they invest early in stars,” the source said.
With the WNBA being smaller — 12 teams — and in a very different financial landscape than the NBA, which players would be a “qualifying veteran” would be different. In the NBA, players have full Bird rights after three years without changing teams in free agency. In the WNBA, it would likely be at least double that.
Even if a qualifying veteran free-agent exemption existed in the WNBA, the new CBA has guaranteed more player movement. This year, we already know standouts such as Candace Parker (Chicago Sky) and Chelsea Gray (Las Vegas Aces) are leaving the Los Angeles Sparks, and Alysha Clark (Washington Mystics) is departing Seattle. Player movement creates interest in the WNBA during the offseason, which always has been a challenge for the league, and can reward franchises who manage their finances well and build teams that other stars want to join.
At the same time, an exception would reward players who become the faces of their franchise. It might be a few years into the future, and players including Bird, 40, and Taurasi, 38, might be retired. But it could be something to watch for as part of the league’s growth.