WNBA investigating Aces' deal with Vegas tourism authority

ByABC News
May 18, 2024, 5:29 PM

LAS VEGAS -- The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority announced a deal Friday in which it will provide a $100,000 annual sponsorship to each Aces player for this season and 2025.

But the agreement has raised flags with the WNBA.

A league spokesperson confirmed to ESPN on Saturday that there is an open investigation looking into the deal with the Aces players. Alleged extra benefits were part of a league investigation of the Aces last season, as well, along with allegations made by Dearica Hamby, who is now with the Los Angeles Sparks, about the Aces trading her because she was pregnant.

Following her team's 89-82 victory over the Sparks on Saturday, Aces coach Becky Hammon said that the tourism bureau reached out to all the individual players and agents and wanted to have a sponsorship deal with all of them, but that the Aces organization wasn't involved in it.

"I'm going to put it to you real simple like this: Most of sponsorship people go after the top two people," Hammon said. "[ A'ja Wilson] is taken care of -- she's got plenty of stuff going on. [ Kelsey Plum] has plenty of stuff. In this situation, from what I understand, is they wanted the whole team. So they went and called individuals, agents. I don't know the details. I have nothing to do with it; the Aces don't have anything to do with it. It's just odd, but that's basically what happened."

Wilson, after the win, said she had just seen news of the investigation on her phone, adding that getting sponsorships like this is part of the growth of the game.

"We get [things] from our agents all the time; they wanted it to be a big moment because it's something that's never happened before," Wilson said. "I don't understand the investigation; I haven't dived into it yet. I just looked at my phone [after the game] and was like, 'Oh, wow, just another day in the life of the Aces.' We can't ever start just normal, it's always going to be something, and that's OK."

Before the win, the Aces' second of the season, point guard Chelsea Gray added: "They're investing in us, and so they put their money where their mouth is. We've done so much for the city and having fun doing it. It was a great moment for me and my teammates, of somebody actually putting funds behind, saying that they're supporting and they want to have our back."

The tourism authority posted a video on X of president and CEO Steve Hill telling the players in the locker room the news on Friday. "The Aces have been on a historic run -- two-time world champions," Hill said on the video before informing the players. "We're here to do something historic with them, too."

The sponsorship does not violate the WNBA's salary cap because the authority did not orchestrate the sponsorship with the club. But other teams are likely to raise questions about the fairness of the sponsorship and whether it violates the spirit of the cap rules. And now, the league has stepped in to look deeper into it.

Such a deal likely would give the Aces a tremendous advantage in landing free agents if other teams are unable to match the offering. According to the website Spotrac, which tracks player salaries, the sponsorship is higher than the earnings of six Aces players.

"Definitely more than my salary," said rookie Kate Martin, who makes $67,249, according to the website. "I'm super thankful. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming, but this is very much real life, and that is what all these players deserve. I wouldn't be getting this crazy bonus if it weren't for how great all of these players have played in the last few years."

The $100,000 also is a big addition even to what the top players make. Wilson and Plum are the highest-paid Aces at $200,000 each, and Gray is right behind at $196,267.

"When we're talking about growing the game ... taking that next step, it can't always be 'investigate, investigate, investigate.' It has to be like, 'We're trying to move the needle. We're trying to make things better for franchises, for players, for teams,'" Wilson said.

Before the game, Alysha Clark, whose salary is listed at $110,000, said, "[For] the LVCVA to see our value and to help close that pay gap, it says a lot about the character of the people that are there. So, I'm extremely grateful. I'm honored to be able to represent this organization and this city and be able to put on for the city, give back to this city and pour into the community, and that's what they did for us. It was really, really special."

Wilson, who had 22 points,10 rebounds and 3 steals in the win, was also quick to express her gratitude.

"On the players' side, I'm super grateful to be in a franchise, in a city that constantly wants more [for] us. That wants us to [not] worry about stuff, just go play and go win, and have fun at that," she said. "I'm blessed with or without that 100K, because at the end of the day, we're going for something bigger than that.

"We're going to continue to do that, continue to be us. We can't really listen to this outside noise going on. But I'm not shocked."

Last year, the WNBA took away the Aces' 2025 first-round draft pick and suspended Hammon for two games following the investigation that found the franchise violated league rules regarding impermissible player benefits and workplace policies.

According to the league, at the time, the team violation entailed promises of impermissible benefits during contract extension negotiations for Hamby. The respect in the workplace violation stemmed from comments Hammon made to Hamby in connection with the latter's pregnancy.

Information from ESPN's Michael Voepel, Alexa Philippou and the Associated Press was used in this report.