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‘We’re trying to move the needle’: WNBA investigating LVCVA’s sponsorship of Aces players

Updated May 19, 2024 - 12:25 am

The WNBA is opening an investigation into the Aces one day after the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority announced it was sponsoring the team’s 12 rostered players, a league source confirmed to the Review-Journal on Saturday.

News of the probe broke during the fourth quarter of the Aces’ 89-82 home win over the Los Angeles Sparks. Steve Hill, LVCVA President and CEO, was at Michelob Ultra Arena for the game. When informed of the investigation, Hill said he hadn’t been contacted by the league.

“We did this the right way,” Hill said Saturday of the move to pay each individual player $100,000. “We’re happy to answer any questions they have.”

The arrangement

Hill, in a video posted on X, surprised the Aces players with the sponsorship offers after Friday’s practice. He told the team the only requirements of the deal were to “just play” and represent the city.

That statement, though incomplete, could be what drew a raised eyebrow from the WNBA.

Hill told the Review-Journal on Friday the LVCVA entered separate sponsorship agreements with individual Aces players without the knowledge of the team. The agency did so by talking with each’s player’s representation, Hill said. He compared the sponsorships to name, image and likeness deals for college athletes.

One issue could be the fine print of the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement. It prohibits teams and team affiliates from entering into an understanding in which a “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 nonbasketball services) to a player under Contract to the Team.”

Hill said Friday players signed contracts mandating them to “reach mutually agreeable opportunities for appearances on (the city’s) behalf.” He also said players would be expected to wear gear provided by the LVCVA.

That seems to fall within the WNBA’s guidelines. The CBA says an example of a prohibited agreement would include compensation from a sponsor or third party that “is substantially in excess of the fair market value of any services to be rendered by the player.”

The LVCVA has entered previous sponsorship agreements that include a roster of over 100 social media influencers, former players, leagues and events. Board members agreed to spend $1.2 million to sponsor the next two editions of the NBA Summer League on Tuesday and also approved spending $5 million to sponsor Wrestlemania 41 at Allegiant Stadium in 2025.

The money the LVCVA is giving to the Aces players comes from the organization’s revenue from room taxes imposed on motel and hotel rooms and from space rentals for booths at conventions and trade shows at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Aces’ reaction

This isn’t the first time the Aces have been scrutinized by the WNBA for financial reasons.

The league investigated the team for allegedly circumventing the salary cap by making under-the-table payments to players in February 2023. A simultaneous probe examined the team’s handling of former player Dearica Hamby, who was traded to the Sparks while pregnant.

Coach Becky Hammon was suspended two games and the WNBA rescinded the Aces’ 2025 first-round draft pick four months later after the league found the team violated rules regarding impermissible player benefits and workplace policies.

Star forward A’ja Wilson referenced that punishment when asked about the WNBA’s latest investigation into the Aces on Saturday.

“We can’t ever start just normal. There’s always going to be something,” Wilson said. “And that’s OK. We’re trying to move the needle. We’re trying to make things better for franchises, for players, for teams.”

Hammon said she and the team weren’t included in the business dealings.

“Most sponsorship people go after the top two people,” Hammon said. “In this situation from what I understand, is (the LVCVA) 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 have nothing to do with it.”

Sparks coach Curt Miller said he was “uneducated about everything going on.”

“I’m excited the league is in a really fun position with the viewership, the eyes on our game and the talent that is in our game,” Miller said. “We win people over once we get people to our games.”

Contact Callie Lawson-Freeman at clawsonfreeman@reviewjournal.com. Follow @CallieJLaw on X.

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