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The Aces Are Also A Superteam At Being Investigated

Alysha Clark (L) #7 and Kelsey Plum #10 of the Las Vegas Aces react after receiving their 2023 WNBA championship rings before the team's home opener against the Phoenix Mercury on May 14, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Aces defeated the Mercury 89-80.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The opening week of the WNBA season was a reminder of why we love the great game of basketball: all the rules.

This past Friday, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority announced it was going to sponsor every player on the Aces roster in the amount of $100,000 each. Not long after the news came out, the WNBA opened an investigation.

You may recall that almost exactly a year ago, the Las Vegas Aces were busted for violating the WNBA’s policies around “impermissible benefits.” According to a report from The Next, the violation involved an “under the table”-type scheme where the Aces would negotiate an extension with a player, then tell the player’s agent to expect another call shortly from some third party about a fake sponsorship opportunity. As described, that would constitute circumvention of the league's hard salary cap.

This came to light after Dearica Hamby accused the team of “unethical” behavior when they traded her to the Sparks while she was pregnant. “I was promised things to entice me to sign my contract extension that were not followed through on,” she wrote in an Instagram statement after the trade. The league didn’t explain the violations in detail, and it couldn’t substantiate any claims that the Aces had used such tactics in free agency that offseason, but the investigation did turn up some issues with Hamby’s extension negotiations, and so the Aces were stripped of their 2025 first-round draft pick as a result. 

No one is doing anything “under the table” this time. The sponsorship is as public as it gets: The LVCVA is a government agency. There are probably better uses for taxpayer money, though there are certainly worse ones, and WNBA players make fine ambassadors for their cities. In the security line at the Indianapolis Airport this weekend, I noticed a TSA video starring the Indiana Fever’s own Lexie Hull. The production value didn’t blow me away—they used the basketball editing trope where one person throws a ball out of the frame to someone who catches it in the next frame, except she was the only player in the video, so she was just throwing passes to herself—but it was a nice local touch. (Hire more women security theater enablers!) Presumably, Hull was paid some sum of money by the Indianapolis Airport Authority to film this video telling me to take my laptop out of my bag or leave my laptop in my bag or whatever.

The question in the Aces' case is whether the players were really expected to do anything special in exchange for their $100K. Callie Lawson-Freeman, the Aces reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, wrote a thorough story on the arrangement. She reports that the players, without the knowledge of the team, each signed contracts promising to “reach mutually agreeable opportunities for appearances on Las Vegas’ behalf.”

Steve Hill, the LVCVA president, may have been a little careless with his words then when he announced this to the players. In the video, Hill says, “The offer’s really simple. We want you to just play, we want you to keep reppin’ Las Vegas, and if you get a threepeat, that’ll be icing on the cake. So that’s it!” This could sound suspicious if you take “just play” to mean that the players are being paid for their play, and “keep reppin’ Las Vegas” to mean that they are already “reppin’ Las Vegas” by playing and therefore needn’t do anything more. 

This is the gray area upending the college sports world in the years since college athletes were granted the rights to profit from their name, image, and likeness. You can divide NIL broadly into two markets:

  • The first is the straightforward brand deal market: A sports drink marketing exec learns that women in the 18-29 demo love LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson. (We do. We love her.) They call her agent to see if Flau’jae can do an ad for them. Her agent hammers out a contract, Flau’jae films the sports drink ad, and the sports drink company gives Flau’jae her money. 
  • The second is much murkier: Defector University’s enthusiastic fans and alumni want to support DU athletes, but it’s a hassle for them to do that individually, so they donate their money to Dugong Strong, DU’s independent “NIL collective,” and let me, the collective’s director, pool the money and figure out the rest. One day, I learn that our storied women’s basketball program’s top recruit, Prospectina Smith, is reconsidering her commitment to DU. She figures she’ll get more playing time at North Defector State. Drat! I call Prospectina’s camp and offer her $500,000 to, uh, appear at Dugong Strong fundraising dinners for the next four years. She’s back in. Woohoo! She’ll appear at the events and sign some autographs, but that’s not really what I was paying her for.   

In a sense, the second scenario is the college version of salary cap circumvention. By denying athletes employee status, the NCAA “caps” “salaries” at zero dollars, and these pay-for-play–style deals are a creative solution to that problem. 

The big difference between college athletes and WNBA players, though, is that WNBA players are union employees. As NCAA rules are written now, Prospectina actually can’t consider any NIL offers before she enrolls in a school. But the NCAA also probably can’t enforce this; at the moment, it is being sued to hell by some attorneys general on the grounds that the rule violates federal antitrust law. Like other pro leagues, the WNBA is shielded from antitrust liability because its restraints are collectively bargained by the players and the owners. (This is also why any serious attempt to “reform” NIL will begin with giving college athletes collective bargaining rights.) Hill says the LVCVA sponsorship is the first kind of deal—that is, just 12 separate straightforward brand deals—that the LVCVA called up each player’s agent and gave each one their own contract. But the WNBA wants to make sure this isn’t really the second kind, which would run afoul of the collective bargaining agreement everyone signed (emphasis mine): 

“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.”

It’s difficult to prove a service’s “fair market value.” For DU athletes, Dugong Strong is the market, and maybe I really do value the scattered Prospectina appearances at $500K. The LVCVA and the Aces’ agents can make that case, too. They can say it’s no different from Powerade asking 12 athletes to do ads for them. The league office might counter with this: If these are really 12 separate endorsement deals, why are rookie Dyaisha Fair, who has yet to log a single minute in the regular season, and two-time MVP A’ja Wilson getting the same amount of money? The LVCVA is putting a $100,000 value on the one thing they have in common: playing for the Aces.

Whatever their legality, both the collective deals and this sponsorship deal expose a flaw in the status quo, namely that the value these athletes create can’t be captured fully by the current restrictive NCAA and WNBA salary regimes. WNBA players will look to change that when they vote to opt out of their CBA in November, and they hope the league's owners will be more amenable to such a salary structure as they negotiate a new agreement. The current CBA predates the Aces ownership tenure of Mark Davis, whose ownership origin story involves him bugging the old Aces owner to pay the players more until that guy told him to buy the team. If he and his fellow owners are serious about raising the league's salaries, the next time WNBA players are paid the kind of money they deserve, it won't require an investigation.

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