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Report: Aces salary cap investigation underlines WNBA dilemma

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MAY 06: Head coach Becky Hammon of the Las Vegas Aces looks on during the first half against the Phoenix Mercury at Footprint Center on May 06, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Aces beat the Mercury 106-88. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

The Las Vegas Aces are under investigation by the WNBA for salary cap violations, The Next’s Howard Megdal reported Wednesday.

The reigning WNBA champions allegedly made under-the-table payment offers to players, sources told The Next. The Aces would inform the agent of a potential signee to expect a phone call with a sponsorship offer “from a particular, pre-selected company,” per the report.

The WNBA’s salary cap for the 2023 season stands at $1,420,500. The collective bargaining agreement prohibits teams from exceeding the cap, and it also explicitly forbids teams from making a deal with a sponsor “to pay compensation for basketball services.”

Per the CBA, the league looks out in particular for sponsorship agreements that exceed the fair market value for such deals, or for player contracts that fall below the fair market value in free agency.

While the report from The Next did not implicate any specific player contracts, the Aces did sign two-time MVP Candace Parker at a steep discount. The 36-year-old forward signed a one-year, $100,000 contract with Las Vegas,  Her Hoops Stats’ Richard Cohen reported last week. She made an average annual salary of $192,500 during her last two seasons with the Chicago Sky.

The investigation shines a harsh light on the limits of the WNBA’s salary cap structure.

The maximum player salary in 2023 is $234,936, but top players can make much more than that playing for international leagues in the offseason. For example, New York Liberty signee Breanna Stewart has made $1.5 million per year playing in Russia in recent years.

WNBA teams must make it worth players’ whiles to sign with them — both as individual franchises and as a league.

The Liberty got in trouble for providing their own incentive of sorts in 2021. The franchise received a $500,000 fine for chartering flights to away games in the latter half of that season in violation of league policy. And while charter flights are still against the rules, Stewart made the prospect of private flights key to her free agency negotiations.

If the Aces are found to have violated the CBA, the WNBA faces a dilemma that could have league-wide ramifications. Any punishment inflicted on the team would renew public scrutiny on the league and player salaries, while also likely affecting the player or players involved. The situation also underlines an increasingly problematic competitive balance issue among WNBA owners, with some who might be willing to incur financial penalties in exchange for paying the best players and winning.