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Fair Game? The Las Vegas Aces and the Sponsorship Debate

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The WNBA is taking a closer look at the Las Vegas Aces’ new sponsorship deal. What should’ve been a moment of celebration turned controversial when the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority offered a staggering $100,000 sponsorship to each member of the team. The deal applies to both the current season and will be repeated for the 2025 season, offering an unprecedented amount in the WNBA. This sponsorship exceeds the salaries of six current players, including rookie Kate Martin, a former Iowa player and teammate of Caitlin Clark, who will make $67,249 in her inaugural season.  

As is often the case with recent news, the story began with a tweet. On May 17th, the LVCVA announced their groundbreaking sponsorship: “We’re going #ALLINLV and sponsoring EVERY. SINGLE. PLAYER on the LV Aces roster!” The tweet continued, “We would like to offer each of you, individually, a sponsorship for this year in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars. The offer’s really simple. We want you just to play, we want you to keep repping Las Vegas, and if you do a three-peat, there’ll be icing on the cake.” LVCVA CEO Steve Hill elaborated, stating that the contract would require players to wear LVCVA merchandise and make various appearances at conventions and other events organized by the tourism authority.

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“We get things from our agents all the time,” A’ja Wilson, 2023 Finals MVP,  told the press after the team’s win over the Sparks. “They wanted it to be a big moment because it’s something that’s never happened before. I don’t understand the investigation; I haven’t dived into it yet. I just looked at my phone and was like, ‘Oh wow, just another day in the life of the Aces.’ We can’t ever just start normal, it’s always going to be something, and that’s okay.” 

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The Aces were stripped of their first-round draft pick in 2025, and head coach Becky Hammon was suspended for two games. This came after a league investigation found the team was violating rules regarding impermissible benefits and workplace policies. Despite this, their back-to-back championship runs were not affected. Last year, the team maintained a roster of just 11 players to remain under the salary cap. 

It is almost ironic that both championship-caliber teams in Vegas face issues with the cap. The Golden Knights, Vegas’s NHL team, come under fire like clockwork every playoff season for making controversial LTIR moves, placing players on the reserve so their salaries allegedly don’t count towards the NHL cap, only to reactivate them heading into the playoffs. Is it cheating, as with the LVCVA’s sponsorship, or just against the spirit of the rules, as the other WNBA team-owners claim?

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As per the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement, teams and their affiliates are prohibited from entering into agreements where a “sponsor, business party, or third party pays or agrees to pay compensation for basketball services, even if such compensation is ostensibly designated as being for non-basketball services, to a player under contract to the team. Hill’s ‘just play’ comment might’ve caused the issue, in retrospect. The implication that players are being paid for simply playing on the court is problematic.

The investigation was confirmed last Saturday by the Las Vegas Sun. Head Coach Becky Harmon discussed this sponsorship in a post-game interview. “I’ll put it to you real simple. Most of the sponsorship people go after the top two people,” she said. “This situation, from what I understand is, they wanted the whole team. They called individual agents. I don’t know the details,” she added. “I had nothing to do with it. The Aces don’t have anything to do with it.  That’s what happened.” 

To reiterate, this does not violate cap rules because the Las Vegas authority did not orchestrate it with the club.The investigation is likely due to other teams raising questions about the fairness of the sponsorship and whether it violates the spirit of the cap rules. But is this not a slippery slope? How is one able to prove if something violates the spirit of the rules, or is simply a sponsorship from a city that adores their back-to-back championship team?

The investigation raises significant questions about where to draw the line with sponsorships and player pay in professional sports. While the LVCVA’s sponsorship deal does not technically break the salary cap rules, it has stirred up a debate about whether it’s fair. As the WNBA continues to grow and attract more attention, these issues will likely be more prevalent. 

This answer is still unknown. The WNBA community anxiously awaits the answer. Are these all signs of growing pains, as the league grows in popularity? Will this affect Caitlyn Clark’s extremely impressive portfolio of sponsors? Many things are left up in the air, and it’s going to be a ride to see what the WNBA decides and how the Aces proceed. For now, the Las Vegas Aces remain focused on the game, but the outcome of this investigation could have a lasting impact on the league. Whether this sponsorship is seen as a clever marketing move by a supportive city or an unfair advantage, it highlights the ongoing evolution within the WNBA.

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