NEW YORK -- Another labor deadline is looming for a professional sports league - although in this one, the top players earn no more than $80,000.
The WNBA's four-year collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15, and representatives of the league and players union say they want to cooperate on issues of salaries, marketing rights and benefits.
Talk of a strike has been more measured - but not ruled out - since players' union president Sonja Henning addressed it in June.
At that time, she said the union discussed the idea of getting comfortable with a strike at meetings last fall.
"I think it was blown out of proportion at that time," Henning, a lawyer as well as a guard for the Houston Comets, said of the subsequent strike talk. "But that's not to say it's not an option. The league's not naive enough to think it's not an option. We're certainly in a position to understand that and we have to look at all our options, now and next spring."
MVP Sheryl Swoopes, a member of the union's executive committee, called salaries and benefits "two huge issues," but not the only ones. Others include free agency, pension and 401K increases and travel accommodations.
"We feel like as players, there are things we deserve and we're not getting," Swoopes said. "I don't think we're asking for too much. I don't think we're being greedy. We want what is fair."
Players' salaries make up less than 15 percent of the league's revenue, compared to more than 55 percent of revenue for pro basketball, baseball, football and hockey, according to WNBPA director of operations Pam Wheeler.
The WNBA rookie minimum salary is $30,000 and the veterans' minimum is $40,000 for the four-month season that begins with training camp in late April.
While the league says the average salary is $60,000, the union says it is closer to $46,000, excluding benefits. Top players reportedly earn a base salary of $79,500.
Formal talks are expected to start after the Sept. 15 deadline.
"I'm very hopeful that we are going to make a fair deal," WNBA president Val Ackerman recently said.
An eight-player negotiating committee will work on the deal in the offseason. Both sides say they want to avoid talks that could bump up against April training camp, as happened four years ago.
Henning will be joined on the negotiating committee by Swoopes, Tina Thompson, Coquese Washington, Katie Smith, Adrienne Goodson, Olympia Scott-Richardson and Michele Van Gorp.
After the WNBA crowns its sixth champion by Sept. 1, nearly 80 percent of the players will head overseas to supplement their incomes in pro leagues in Europe, South America, Israel and Asia. Two American players per team can earn between $150,000-$200,000, depending on the country, for an eight-month season. A handful of top players can earn up to $300,000.
Henning, who helped Stanford win the 1990 NCAA title, spent one season in Sweden before working as a labor lawyer in Los Angeles. She played two seasons for the Portland Power of the ABL until the league folded in 1998.
A week after mentioning a strike, Henning was traded from the Seattle Storm to Houston.
"I'm not sure if they were trying to send a message or not," Henning said. "It was certainly an interesting response. It's a learning experience for both sides. They now understand it's not the same union it was four years ago. The players are a lot stronger and collectively involved. It's not so much the 'happy to be here' mentality anymore."
While the ABL didn't have the deep financial pockets of the NBA - which recently signed a $4.6 billion TV contract - it did pay its players higher salaries.
The WNBA, however, does not get TV rights fees from ESPN, ABC and the Oxygen Network that could go toward salaries. The league shares costs and revenues, if any, with the networks.
The 16-team WNBA has averaged 9,647 fans in the first five seasons, far ahead of 1997 inaugural season projections of just 4,000. An expansion team is likely in San Antonio in 2003.
"The league has staying power," Wheeler said. "It has the resources of the NBA, national television sponsors and local sponsors. At this point, it's incumbent upon the league to reward players for the successes of the past."
Wheeler informally met with Ackerman in July to smooth over ruffled feathers. A day after Henning was traded, Wheeler was asked to surrender her season credential while visiting the New York Liberty locker room.
The WNBPA filed an unfair labor practice charge after being told union representatives could no longer conduct meetings with players at Madison Square Garden. Wheeler refused to give up her credential, and Liberty officials later described it as a misunderstanding.
Jennifer Gillom, the Phoenix Mercury's 38-year-old center, is the second-oldest player in the league. She would like to see fewer restrictions on marketing products that compete with WNBA corporate sponsors.
"I feel especially since we're not able to make a lot of money, to allow a little bit more freedom endorsing ourselves and marketing ourselves on or off the court," Gillom said.
Cleveland's Jennifer Rizzotti hopes both sides will bargain in good faith.
"Everybody wants the same thing," Rizzotti said. "They want us on the court playing. We're going to work hard to make that happen. I don't think anybody wants to go on strike or have a lockout.
"At the same time, with any professional league, you've got to be willing to fight for what you want. When the season's over, that will start."