Aces Under Investigation for Allegedly Circumventing Salary Cap

Why is the WNBA’s salary cap at the center of the controversy?

By Elisha Gunaratnam

The Las Vegas Aces celebrate after winning the 2022 WNBA Championship (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

After it was announced that Candace Parker and Alysha Clark would be signing with the Las Vegas Aces and that Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot would be signing with the New York Liberty, Dijonai Carrington tweeted this: “I’m convinced that we all don’t have the same salary cap…”

Nearly a week later, Carrington’s claim doesn’t seem so outrageous. On February 8, 2023, Howard Megdal broke the news that the Las Vegas Aces were under investigation for circumventing the salary cap—specifically for making under-the-table payment offers to both current players and free agents that the team has pursued.

How Did The Aces Allegedly Go About This?

Megdal has stated that:

According to those familiar with the allegations, the pattern alleged that the team followed typically involved a high-level member of the Aces instructing the agent of a potential signing — either a free agent, or an Aces player negotiating an extension — that at the conclusion of the phone call between team and agent, the agent would receive a call with an offer for a specific amount of money from a particular, pre-selected company. The work involved would be negligible, according to those familiar with the allegations.

In other words, the Aces are being accused of setting up players with sponsorships as a way of getting around the WNBA’s salary cap. 

If proven to be true, this behavior would be in violation of the WNBA’s CBA. Article XV of the CBA expressly prohibits teams from carrying out any actions that could constitute an effort to circumvent the WNBA’s hard salary cap: 

It shall constitute a violation of Section 1(a) above for a Team (or Team Affiliate) to enter into an agreement or understanding with any sponsor or business partner or third party under which such sponsor, business partner or third party pays or agrees to pay compensation for basketball services (even if such compensation is ostensibly designated as being for non-basketball services) to a player under Contract to the Team. Such an agreement with a sponsor or business partner or third party may be inferred where: (i) such compensation from the sponsor or business partner or third party is substantially in excess of the fair market value of any services to be rendered by the player for such sponsor or business partner or third party; and (ii) the Compensation in the Player Contract between the player and the Team is substantially below the fair market value of such Contract.

Eyebrows were initially raised about Las Vegas’ off-season moves when sources confirmed that Candace Parker signed with the Las Vegas Aces for one year at $100,000—a figure that is well below market value at less than half the maximum salary, and $95,000 less than what she made with the Chicago Sky last year. Next, it was reported that fellow new signee Alysha Clark would be making $110,000 per year with the Aces (Clark signed a two-year contract). Clark made $183,000 with the Mystics during the 2022 season. Finally, although she is not a new signee, it’s notable that Kiah Stokes—who made $115,000 last year—re-signed with Las Vegas for $81,000. If the allegations prove to be true, it could explain how the Aces were able to land Parker and Clark without giving up Kelsey Plum, A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young, or Chelsea Gray. 

While the investigation is not complete, it is certainly not a good look for Las Vegas which has already faced scrutiny over its response to Dearica Hamby’s pregnancy

Are The New York Liberty Next?

The Aces are not the only team that made headlines during the WNBA’s Free Agency period. After trading for Jonquel Jones, the New York Liberty formed a super team of their own when they signed Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot to join their already talented roster that consists of players like Sabrina Ionescu, Stef Dolson, and Betnijah Laney.

What’s interesting is that on the same day that the WNBA announced its investigation into the Las Vegas Aces, Ramona Shelburne reported that Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot signed contracts that were “well below the maximum available to them so that the team could have room for others on the roster.” Stewart signed a one-year deal valued at $175,000, $27,000 below the regular max, and nearly $60,000 less than the supermax Seattle could have given her, while Vandersloot signed a two-year contract worth $383,670 ($189,000 during her first year and $194,670 during her second year). However, both players have been open about New York being an attractive destination for them because of its proximity to their families.

Still, with the amount of buzz that the WNBA investigation into the Aces has generated in the last 24 hours, the Liberty faced several questions about Stewart and Vandersloot’s decision to sign in New York during the two players’ introductory press conference on February 9. Stewart spoke frankly about the matter, saying “It’s not my decision that the WNBA has such a hard salary cap. That’s a discussion for the next CBA.”

New York was last under investigation in 2022 when its owners were accused of “exceeding the allowable compensation to players” by chartering flights for their team during the second half of the 2021 WNBA season. Under the current CBA, teams are banned from chartering flights. After considering extreme punishments like terminating the franchise or removing draft picks, the Liberty were ultimately fined $500,000 for their actions. 

What Happens Now?

If the Aces are found to have done what they are being accused of, the league faces a difficult choice. As Megdal pointed out in his article, if the Aces are punished too harshly, it will bring negative publicity to the WNBA, while also renewing focus on the league’s salaries. In a time where growth is everyone’s goal for the league, this could be a harmful blow.

The salary cap for the WNBA’s 2023 season is $1,420,500. The reality is that some players have been able to make close to that amount of money playing basketball outside of the United States. The WNBA’s maximum salary ($234,936) is still well below what players like Breanna Stewart are reportedly earning when they play overseas.

If the WNBA decided to take a different approach and punish Las Vegas with a voided contract, it would simultaneously punish the player involved. The players of the WNBA are worth more than their CBA says they are at this point, and owners seem to be taking matters into their own hands. While this behavior is undoubtedly out of line, there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to the alleged violations.

Collective bargaining agreements exist for a reason. They help protect players, teams, and leagues. When the WNBA’s newest CBA was signed in 2020, it increased player salaries, ensured maternity leave, improved marketing for teams and players, and bettered travel conditions. However, it seems like the league has started to outgrow the agreement it signed in 2020. While the current CBA is in effect until 2027, under Article XXXVIII of the collective bargaining agreement, the WNBA and the Players Association have the option to provide written notice on or before November 1, 2024, to terminate the CBA effective on October 31, 2025 or, if later, on the day following the final playoff game of the 2025 Season. If players continue to voice their displeasure with the way the WNBA is run or simply find ways to work around league rules, it’s highly likely that they will demand change as soon as their CBA allows them to. 

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