Equal pay? Not for the WNBA.
By Maci Weeks
The highest scoring WNBA basketball player of all time, Diana Taurasi, has played more than 10 years of overseas basketball to supplement her income as a pro player, according to ESPN. Why would arguably the best player in the league need extra income?
Recently, stars of the WNBA have been vocal about the fact that there is a significant wage gap between the women’s national basketball league (WNBA) and the men’s national basketball league (NBA). The women are fighting for increased salaries, but the term “equal pay” has been used quite frequently in press conferences and interviews. While, in theory, this is definitely a positive concept, equal pay is not the term for which the WNBA should be fighting their battles.
For a moment, let’s play a game. Name 3 NBA players any position, any era, any team.
Easy, right? Surely, at least one player came to mind. And even if you couldn’t fill all three spots, the names Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Larry Bird, Steph Curry, Magic Johnson, and James Harden probably at least ring a bell. Now, do the same, except name 3 WNBA players. Again, any position, any era, any team.
Could you name three? Two? Did you even know one name? Aside from Diana Taurasi, who was mentioned just above, have you ever even heard a WNBA player’s name? Tamika Catchings, Elena Della Donne, Skylar Diggins, Brittney Griner, Cynthia Cooper, Sue Bird are some of the most famous WNBA players, and most people would not even recognize their name as people of any importance. This sets the primary groundwork for why the WNBA should not use the term equal pay if they are passionate about an increase in salary.
The Actual Gap
Equal pay to most means just that, a salary that is the same for both genders in the specific job. So, if a beat cop pair has a male who makes $4000 more dollars than their female counterpart, that would be an excellent time to fight for equal pay. The same job, the same work, they should be paid the same.
Therefore, when WNBA players use the terminology “equal pay” the immediate connotation is that female players are looking to be paid the same as NBA players. The average men’s basketball player earns a $6.4 million dollar salary, while the average women’s player earns $71,365. The NBA averages 17,000 fans per game, while the WNBA averages just 7,716 attendees.
The NBA makes $2.6 billion in revenue each year, while the WNBA makes just $30 million. To put that in perspective, the Michael Jordan of the women’s league, Diana Taurasi, makes just $60,000 and plays overseas in the offseason where she earns $100,000 to increase her income.
Obviously, for professional athletes, this pay is incredibly low. However, when the women use the term equal pay, there’s one glaring issue…where would all the money come from? The NBA and WNBA are not even in the same arena as far as attendance, recognizability, coverage, and merchandise sales. The question that the WNBA should be asking is why there is such a difference in these areas.
These four issues would need to be made equal before the discussion of equal pay could even begin, otherwise, a play at that kind of widespread salary increase would sink the WNBA. It is clear though, some players know equal pay is not what they should be after.
Stars Stepping In
Former Fighting Irish superstar Skylar Diggins Smith, who now plays for the Dallas Wings, says “Before we even talk about base salary or anything like that, we don’t even get paid the same percentage of the revenue that we bring in, which is kind of unbelievable. People try to hijack this issue and say that women’s basketball may not be as interesting a game, because they disparage women in sports, period. But we don’t even make the same percentage of revenue!”
This is 100 percent true. While the NBA players make 50 percent off of revenue from games, the WNBA makes just 20 percent. Furthermore, the base salary for an NBA rookie is $838,464, and their minimum salary increases each year they are in the league. The base salary for a rookie in the WNBA is just $50,000. Players in the WNBA can earn small bonuses for winning MVP awards, league championships, rookie of the year, and awards alike. The cap for WNBA players is $110,000, while the cap for NBA is $100 million and is considered a soft salary cap.
While this seems like a drastic difference, there are bigger gaps that the WNBA needs to work out in order to gain higher wages. First, viewership would need to drastically increase. In the WNBA, games get just 413,000 viewers per game. The NBA gets 1.46 million viewers per game.
The NBA averages 17,000 fans per game, while the WNBA averages just 7,716 attendees. When attending or watching WNBA games, it is not uncommon to see lower levels with hundreds of empty seats. That is never the case for NBA games, even the lower caliber teams. Another issue is recognizability. As mentioned earlier, most cannot name any WNBA player, while many can name multiple NBA players. Furthermore, most cannot name a single team in the league. Diggins-Smith blames this and low attendance on broadcasting companies. While the NBA earns up to 85 percent of ESPN coverage time during their season, the WNBA receives less than 2%.
“People always talk about, “Well, you gotta have more people in the seats.” But nobody puts us on TV! We have a competitive game, great match-ups; everything that would yield people wanting to see us, plus the success of women’s college basketball.
But you rarely see the WNBA on the “Worldwide Leader in Sports”: ESPN. You rarely see them talking about women’s sports in general, let alone highlights of the WNBA games. Yes, LeBron is one of the best athletes in the world, but they’ll go into everything that he ate before they show a highlight of a WNBA game.
I was a guest on the His & Hers that featured Jemele Hill and Michael Smith and is no longer on ESPN. I was filling in for Jemele during game five of the WNBA Finals — Minnesota versus LA. That’s the longest the series could go. And they have a board where they write down what’s gonna happen on the show. And game five of the WNBA finals was not even on the board.
They asked me, “Well, is there anything that you wanna talk about?” And I kinda scoffed and said, “Uh, game five of the WNBA Finals?” So they just scribbled it into one of the blocks. It was so symbolic, that moment. It’s kinda unbelievable how the WNBA is viewed and treated even by the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.”” -Diggins-Smith
Finally, the cut of merchandise sales between men and women is completely different. While men earn around 30 percent of their merch sales, women earn no cut. Diggins says “Tamika, Elena, and I have all had the top three jerseys for the last four or five years, and we’ve seen nothing.”
It is clear what the women of the WNBA need to be fighting for– equal percentages. The NBA and WNBA are not even in the same gym when it comes to how much the league brings in. This is largely to do with the fact that the NBA is 72 years old, while the WNBA is just 20. The 50-year head start has given the NBA the time to refine its craft and become the multi-billion dollar company it is. However, the WNBA can start fighting for equal percentages, as Diggins-Smith suggests.
If the WNBA ever wants a chance to be as highly paid as NBA players, they have to start with merchandise and revenue cuts, airtime, and rebranding themselves to be more recognizable to the general public.
While the WNBA does not have a shot at total equal pay yet, they could see great benefits following improvement in these areas.
Diana Taurasi, after returning from her last overseas season, said it best; “It’s time for the younger players to stay here in the United States, make a lot of money and be influential for the change of the game.”