Evidence of how fleeting success can be in the WNBA is anchored at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
There sit the fifth-place Connecticut Sun and the sixth-place Indiana Fever, both 2-7 heading into Sunday’s action.
If this juxtaposition doesn’t seem strange, remember these teams battled into the deciding game of the conference championship series last season.
And the Fever unseated the defending champion Minnesota Lynx in the finals to win their first championship.
But this year has been much different, despite no major changes in their core personnel.
Both teams have been riddled with major injuries, something they could not have anticipated and something league rules provide no relief from.
Compounding the pain, league rosters are limited to 11 – just 132 jobs in the world’s top pro league for women.
And when those players are injured, either for the short or long term, they can’t be replaced, in most cases, unless their team wants to cut them or someone else to bring in a health reserve.
“It happened to us last year,” said Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, about the team’s 7-27 record in 2012. “It’s happening to other teams this year. You just can’t get much done in practice. You can work on stuff or get better. It’s hard and it wears on you. But what can you do?”
Only when a roster dips to nine players can a team sign a replacement on an emergency basis.
“So, we’ll just do the best that we can do with what we’ve got and not worry about what we don’t have,” Fever coach Lin Dunn said.
Subsequently, in a league with just 34 regular-season games, winning a championship, even making the playoffs, requires as much good fortune as good players.
“With the short season that the WNBA has, that can be significant,” Rebecca Lobo said. “And that is why an 11?player roster, players 9, 10, and 11 are so important, because they are going to determine some playoff positioning early in the season.
“So with Indiana, while they have everybody back, this does hurt them quite a bit with the injuries that they have. Who is going to be the back?up center? Who is going to be the back?up point guard?”
Roster size promises to be one of the major points of contention when the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement with the player’s union is renegotiated.
“Roster size is one of those topics we discuss literally every season,” said Laurel Ritchie, the president of the WNBA. “And this off season, headed into the new collective bargaining agreement, it will be no different for us. I am sure it will come up. We just take things a year at a time. We are juggling some things, trying to keep them in balance and I suspect we’ve already started to having productive discussions about it in our competition committee and will continue to do so.”
The condensed roster was one of the issues the player’s union agreed to ensure labor peace in January 2008 for the then-fledgling league.
Some now view that now as a mistake, at the very least a miscalculation.
“I would say [roster size] is going to be a topic,” Taurasi said. “Since it went from 13 to 11 you could see the impact of it. That’s up to 24 jobs we’ve lost.”
It has led to lost jobs in two ways: Players not making WNBA rosters and signing full-season deals overseas once cut, which shrinks the depth and quality of the reserve pool.
It creates major problems in practice where teams, without male practice players on the road, are barely able to work productivity.
“It’s a hassle,” said Chris Sienko, the Sun’s general manager. “It’s hard to teach when you don’t have as many players as you need to work.”
It leads to pressuring moderately injured players to play through pain because others are not available.
And it all leads to a diminished floor product for the fans, not to mention the disablement of some franchises for an entire season.
According to league sources, adding an extra player to each of the 12 rosters would likely add approximately $100,000 to each team’s operating expenses.
A low-level player filling the 12-spot would likely make the league minimum. The additional costs would be for insurance, housing, car, travel and per diem, among other ancillary costs.
The league’s 12 teams will received approximately $1 million annually from ESPN through the extension of its television deal through 2022.
The players feel those funds could be used to help expand the player pool, even if the league is not financially ready to compensate them the way they are in Europe, Asia and Australia.
“It’s not going to hurt,” said a league source. WNBA owners are prohibited from direct comment on league labor issues.
And there is some feeling now among management that roster size has become such a problem it will absolutely be addressed in the next CBA.
“The teams want it,” said another league source. “The owners want it. In fact, I am surprised no one has tried to implement it [an increase] during the season.
“It’s about everyone working together and ultimately that always happens. All the owners want what’s