“154M…must be nice. We over here looking for an M but Lord, let me get back in my lane.”
That was the tweet sent by WNBA rookie sensation A’ja Wilson, commenting on LeBron James’ new contract with the Lakers, reigniting the debate on gender pay inequality, and the WNBA wage gap.
Wilson, who was taken first overall by the Las Vegas Aces in the 2018 WNBA Draft, will earn $52,564 in her rookie season. By comparison, her NBA counterpart Deandre Ayton will start his professional career earning $6.8 million playing for the Phoenix Suns — a difference of $6.7 million.
Almost immediately after Wilson hit send, the usual trope of mansplaining, know-it-all “sports reporters” went on the attack. Clay Travis of Fox Sports was the highest-profile offender, tweeting back:
“A WNBA player asked why LeBron & other NBA players made so much more money than they did. Here’s your answer: the entire WNBA made $25 million in revenue last year. The NBA made $7.4 billion.”
Then Alex Griswold, a writer for the conservative rag Washington Free Beacon, jumped in to back up Travis’s claim:
Conservative publication The Federalist took it one step further, publishing an op-ed “WNBA Players Should Stop Complaining. If Anything, They’re Over Paid. In it, Tho Bishop and his fragile, male ego wrote, “Wilson is a 21-year-old athlete who probably hasn’t thought a great deal about economics. It’s understandable for someone in her position to be envious of the paychecks earned in major professional sports leagues…Of course, the real issue has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with the fact that the WNBA simply isn’t very popular with Americans.”
Ok, so let’s start by stating the obvious: Yes, the WNBA wage gap is real. It exists in both pro basketball and in society at large. That fact shouldn’t come as a shock, although it is shocking how many people balk at such a claim in the face of overwhelming evidence.
Since 1980 the gender wage gap has narrowed slightly, but for the past 15 years, it’s been relatively stable. Looking at a Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of full-time and part-time workers in the United States, women earned 82 percent of what men earned. Basically, it would take 47 extra days of work for women to earn what men did in 2017.
Compare that to the U.S. Census Bureau’s findings that full-time, working women earned 80 percent of what their male counterparts did annually. In 2017, women aged 25 to 34 earned 89 cents for every dollar a man in the same age group earned. We also have to account for variations in the wage gap based on race.
“Among full-time workers in 2016, Hispanic or Latina, black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN), and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (NHPI) women had lower median annual earnings compared with non-Hispanic white and Asian women. But within racial/ethnic groups, black, Hispanic, AIAN, and NHPI women experienced a smaller gender pay gap compared with men in the same group than did non-Hispanic white and Asian women.”
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) predicts that the gender wage gap will not end till 2119 — which is a hundred years from this writing. And what about professional basketball specifically? A quick glance at the numbers should make it fairly obvious.
The WNBA pays about 20 percent of its revenue to its players, while the NBA pays 50 percent to its players. The WNBA set the 2018 salary cap at $110,000, with the players’ median income coming in around $71,635. Starting rookies earn no less than the $50,000 minimum. This, of course, doesn’t include endorsement deals and individually negotiated salaries and just outlines what’s guaranteed under the WNBA-WNBPA collective bargaining agreement.
On the other hand, the NBA capped teams at $101.869 million for the 2018–19 season, and under the NBA-NBPA’s collective bargaining agreement, the minimum team salary is $91.862 million. That’s 90 percent of the salary cap and allows teams to determine mid-level salaries based on the overall, team salary average while setting the minimum starting salary at $582,186.
WNBA players earn $450,000 less than a rookie NBA player, and even the best players in the WNBA can only expect small bonuses for performance, according to Altius Directory:
- The bonus for winning a WNBA championship is $10,500.
- The bonus for making the WNBA Finals is $5,250.
- Players named “MVPs” earn a $15,000 bonus.
- Players named “Rookies of the Year” earn a $5,000 bonus.
- All-WNBA First Team players each get a $10,000 bonus.
- Players participating in the WNBA All-Star game get a $2,500 bonus.
So why such a gap? Let’s look at some of the reasons critics of equal pay commonly use.
Excuse one: “The NBA raises more revenue than the WNBA, so it makes sense that they have more money to pay players a higher salary, and after two decades the WNBA is still not that profitable.”
According to an analysis by Forbes, NBA teams brought in around $5.9 billion in revenue in 2015–2016. That same data doesn’t exist for the WNBA, but we can put some rough numbers together.
The WNBA brings in a minimum of $26.5 million through ticket sales (the average median ticket price found on WNBA.com in 2017 was $16.88. Multiply that by 1,574,078 tickers sold equals $26.5 million), and in 2016 signed a deal with ESPN increasing what the network pays to broadcast games from $12 million to $25 million per season. The league also brings in revenue from merchandise sales, sponsorship and licensing agreements, though the amount is unknown. Based on the numbers we do know, the WNBA brought in at least $51.5 million in 2017. So it’s a safe bet the league has some wiggle room when it comes to negotiating salaries with the players’ union.
Excuse two: “We shouldn’t invest in a league that doesn’t draw a crowd and is still young and unstable.”
In 2017, the WNBA registered its highest total attendance (1,574,078) and highest average attendance (7,716) since 2011. The year was highlighted by double-digit, year-over-year attendance growth by the Los Angeles Sparks (+17.8 percent), Connecticut Sun (+15.3 percent) and Minnesota Lynx (+12.3 percent). The Sparks had their highest average attendance (11,350) since 2002, while the Lynx had their highest average attendance (10,407) since their inaugural season in 1999. The 2017 regular season also saw record sales on WNBAStore.com, an increase of 18 percent over the previous season.
Excuse Three: “We’re losing money,” say team owners.
It’s a line you hear often from corporate CEO hacks and greedy owners when they’re pressed on the equal pay issue. “[The New York Liberty] hasn’t made money,” James Dolan, chairman and franchise owner of Madison Square Garden company, told HBO’s “Real Sports” program in 2015, adding that he was considering handing his franchise back to WNBA leadership to prevent financial loss. “Its prospects of making money, at that time and even today, are still slim.”
While searching frantically for a potential buyer, Dolan fails to mention that his net worth comes in at $1.6 billion, and his ownership of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers — raising combined revenue of $672 million in 2017 — makes his New York Liberty a welcomed loss from business to report when Dolan files his income tax return.
Former Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria also used the excuse that his team was costing him money every year, only to sell the team in 2017 for a billion dollars more than he “paid” back in 2002. Loria didn’t actually put any money down for the Marlins, as Major League Baseball bought his Expos for $120 million and gave Loria a $38 million, interest-free loan to cover the rest of John Henry’s asking price.
The substantial increase in the franchise’s value is thanks to the citizens of Miami-Dade County and former MLB COO Bob DuPuy, who threatened the “death” of Major League Baseball in Miami if a budget for a new stadium wasn’t approved by the end of the night on Feb. 21, 2008. Hours later, both the county commissioners and city council approved funding for a $525 million home for the Marlins, with the city flipping $127 million and the county covering just $50 million of the construction costs.
Marlins Park ended up costing $634 million, 80 percent of which would end up funded by taxpayers. With interest compounding over 40 years, the actual cost to the county to repay the $409 million in bonds is roughly $2.4 billion. The combined expenses incurred by the city and county for the construction of Marlins Park total $2.61 billion through 2049.
Loria’s Marlins were also one of four teams accused of using competitive-balance revenue improperly. Competitive-balance revenue paid to small-market, low-payroll teams by big-market, high-payroll teams is meant to balance competition and must be spent to improve the on-field product. While there is sufficient evidence indicating Loria violated the revenue-sharing terms under the CBA, there is still an outstanding grievance yet to be ruled upon.
Worse yet, Loria is still claiming a $141 million loss on the sale of the Marlins, conveniently allowing him to avoid offering anything back to the county and city that saved baseball in Miami, despite the club technically being a foreign entity stashing cash in the British Virgin Islands.
Keep all of this in mind when you hear the “we’re going broke” line from owners. The team might be going broke, but if the fiscal situation was that dire, you’d see owners pulling Roger Dorns and selling every inch of advertising space in the ballpark to whomever for whatever. They’d trade star players for cash and a dirt-cheap outfielder who played for the Giants, but “not those Giants.” And billionaire owners wouldn’t hesitate to cut their losses and claim a multi-million dollar loss come tax season while their unreported profits from the sale of the team avoid taxes and earn interest in offshore banks while every day, American taxpayers spend the next 30 years paying for the very thing that allowed the owner to sell the team in the first place — plus interest.
And finally: “The WNBA just hasn’t been around long enough.”
As of this writing, the WNBA is completing its 22nd season. It only took a decade for the league to stabilize its finances, and its fan base was on par with any professional sports league starting up.
In the early days of the NBA, men’s pro basketball struggled to find a fan base. After its first 20 years, attendance to the 1964–65 season was 6,019. In other words, only 33 percent of what the average NBA teams draws today, and less than what we see in the WNBA.
So why haven’t players earned more? To answer that, we have to look back at the history of professional sports.
During the ’50s and ’60s, MLB players were in the same position WNBA players currently find themselves. The league had stabilized and the players formed a union. But the labor-management relationship was still new, and it took players until the late ’60’s and ’70s to really flex that union muscle and achieve increases in salaries and benefits.
Similarly, the WNBPA is still a young union, and players have yet to feel powerful enough to threaten a walkout, strike, or boycott. At the negotiation table, team owners continue to claim they face financial ruin while offering players “gold dust among the chicken feed,” leaving players two options: risk direct action or play year-round in international leagues that pay more.
Most recently the WNBPA has looked at other revenue streams through REP Worldwide (Representing Every Player), which would bolster licensing opportunities and help athletes grow their personal brands, and a partnership with Model Atelier fashion design firm which will “broaden its reach and appeal to the entire WNBPA membership, along with their loyal and influential fans. The collaboration will feature and celebrate women who play basketball at the highest level and their off-court expressions of style.”
According to economics professor Dave Berri in a 2016 radio discussion, “Until very recently in most sports, women have not gone on strike or threatened to go on strike.”
In fact, the first time men and women got paid the same amount of money in a sports competition was at the 1973 US Open when Billie Jean King raised the issue of unequal pay, lobbied hard, and then threatened to sit out. Eventually, a deodorant company, Ban Deodorant, stepped in to stop the ladies’ sweating and offered equal pay. Eventually, the other four major tournaments offered equal prize money to both genders, inspiring the 2017 movie “Battle of the Sexes.”
“She got wages changed by just threatening not to play anymore,” said Berri. “And that really is the story of sports. And we’ve seen this throughout the history of sports. If the players are not willing to walk away, they cannot change their wages.”
“The WNBA, the league, tells them that they are paying them the best they can, and that is exactly the same story that sports owners have told athletes since the 19th century.”
What can be done to close the WNBA Wage Gap?
The WNBA now has two options. It can either increase the players’ revenue share to 50 percent, like the NBA, or just wait until players get tired of low pay and hit the strike line.
The number one overall draft pick in 2009, Angel McCoughtry, has something to say about this wage inequality: “Pay us like you pay the men. I don’t want to get paid more overseas. I want to get paid in my country.”
It would be wise for the WNBA to also take a cue from the World Surf League. Starting in 2019, equal prize money will be awarded to female and male surfers for every WSL controlled event. The announcement came Wednesday, September 5 and makes it the first the first US-based global sports league to apply pay parity.
But it didn’t come easy, or because the league knew it was the right thing to do.
Sabrina Brennan, co-founder of the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing and a San Mateo County Harbor District commissioner, for years fought for women to be represented and paid fairly at a legendary big wave surf contest at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, California.
Enlisting the help of a pro bono attorney this year, Brennan and her team successfully organized and demanded the WSL offer equal prize money in the upcoming season’s contest at Mavericks. They fought and won as the State Land Commission made equal prize pay a requirement to hold the competition.
Could this lead to a domino effect in winning paying equity for female athletes? Maybe. But, it does leave behind a winning playbook for organized female athletes coming up on contract negotiations.
The winning combo: Issue visibility, public pressure, close analysis of local ordinances and administrative laws, and, as always, boots on the ground. That’s the only way for the WNBA to move beyond the wage gap.