WNBA Free Agency: Decoded

If the tagline representing the 2022 WNBA Playoffs was “More Than Undefeatable,” the word that symbolizes this off-season is “change.”

With legends retiring in Sylvia Fowles and Sue Bird, combined with a flurry of coaching and executive changes around the league, the basketball landscape has reshaped drastically in a few short months.

A star-studded draft class is on the looming horizon of spring, and some of the most talented players in the world are entering free agency.

A significant shift is coming across the W, so let’s dive into understanding and decoding the terminology and principles behind that shift. The language of the collective bargaining agreement and the off-season can be complicated. Still, by breaking it down, we can cultivate a better appreciation of what the free agency period entails.

First and foremost, the 2023 season has already technically started!

Each season, the salary cap year starts on January 1st and goes through December 31st of the same calendar year. The WNBA has a hard salary cap- the maximum allowable team salary. In essence, there isn’t the flexibility to go over the cap in any capacity outside of hardship exceptions granted to teams due to injury.

Teams also have a salary cap floor, which they can start the season under and be under throughout the season, but it needs to be met by the end of the season. So for initial free agency, this matters less.

With the 2023 league calendar now underway, it’s important to note the specific dates that matter and the different types of Free Agents.

There are Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA) and Restricted Free Agents (RFA).

Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA)

A UFA is a player that can enter into negotiations with any team during the free agency period without hindrance. They can negotiate contracts starting on January 21st and beginning on February 1st, enter into a negotiated agreement.

Restricted Free Agents (RFA)

An RFA is a player with four years of service whose contract has expired and who receives a qualifying offer from their previous team.

To provide further context, following a year covered by a fourth-year option (in rookie-scale contracts), a team can make a restricted qualifying offer to the player that’s covered by the option anytime from January 11th to January 20th. If the team decides not to offer a Qualifying Offer (QO), the player will be a Free Agent on February 1st.

Let’s use Teaira McCowan as a reference, as she just completed her fourth year of service. McCowan received a qualifying offer on January 11th from the Dallas Wings, her team this previous W season, making her an RFA.

If the club declined to offer a Qualifying Offer, McCowan would’ve become an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with any team starting on February 1st.

Starting on January 21st, RFAs can negotiate an offer sheet with a team other than their last team. However, that player’s prior team has a “Right of First Refusal” (the team can match the offer sheet.) If the team matches the offer sheet, the player signs a contract with the original team on the terms agreed upon with the new club.

(Offer sheets must be for a multi-year contract.)

Core Players

You’ve probably heard of the term “Coring a Player,” and I like to think of it almost as the WNBA’s version of a Franchise tag. An organization can, at maximum, Core one Veteran Free Agent.

A Core Qualifying Offer is a fully guaranteed one-year deal worth the supermax that both UFA and RFA’s are eligible for. A Core Designation contract is a one-year deal on the maximum base salary available to players who have met the requirements of years spent with an organization.

If a player receives a Core Designation, the team that designates them as such is the only team with which a player can sign or negotiate a contract during the free agency period.

Reserved Players

Lastly, we have Reserved Players. Any player with three years of service or fewer will become a Reserved Player if their previous team extends them a Reserved Qualifying Offer anytime between January 11 and 20, thus subject to that team’s exclusive negotiating rights.

If the club declines to offer the player a contact, they will become a UFA on February 1st.

The maximum number of players that any team can roster is 12, while the minimum is 11. If a team is below 11 players during the regular season, they have 72 hours from the date of the roster move that sets them below to fill out the roster. However, hardship exceptions granted by the league due to injury can allow a team to exceed 12 rostered players.

As free agency and the off-season simultaneously heat up, it’s worth keeping these essential rules and principles in mind!

Be sure to keep up with all signings, moves, and news with us as it unfolds. If you haven’t already, check out our 10 Players to Watch article previewing some of the coming free agency

WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.