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What Will It Take for the WNBA to Get the Pay and Exposure It Deserves?
Hot girl summer vibes aside, the league still hasn’t leveled the playing field for its players
A few hot girl summers ago, a friend introduced me to the beloved fan culture that exists around the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). The WNBA began with only eight teams: the Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets, and New York Liberty in the Eastern Conference, and the Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Sacramento Monarchs, and Utah Starzz in the Western Conference. Depending on where you lived, in the late ’90s, unless you traveled, these games were mostly (if not completely) inaccessible due to the number of teams and limited network television coverage.
For over two decades, WNBA games have been a travel destination for many, yet remain a special gathering site for Black women to fellowship. We hold space on and off the court. I was religiously inducted into two-hour drives from Boston, Massachusetts, to Uncasville, Connecticut, to see the Connecticut Sun play at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The WNBA has been the perfect addition to our Black girl summer traditions long before the phrase “hot girl summer so you know she got it lit” earwormed itself into our recent consciousness thanks to Megan Thee Stallion and Nicki Minaj.
On August 11, the New York Liberty hosted their first regular-season game at the Barclays Center against the Seattle Storm. A warm 7,715 fans descended in Brooklyn to support the Liberty in their third and final Seattle Storm matchup. Tina Charles scored eight of New York’s first 13 points and a season-high 20 first-half points. Seattle led by as many as nine points in the half. New York ultimately fell to the Storm 84–69 in their Brooklyn debut.
To sustain this league, it is clear these games must be accessible. They need network contracts to expand their coverage, normalize their profession, and heighten their presence in the industry.
The post-game Liberty locker room energy was somber, but hopeful when asked how it felt to be at Barclays. Liberty guard Brittany Boyd said, “It felt good to be in Brooklyn. I’m happy so many people came to watch us play. I appreciate the good energy.” After all, the Liberty used to play at the historic Madison Square Garden, but due to the sale of the team, they were moved to Westchester County Center. Imagine moving from a 20,000-seat venue in midtown Manhattan to a 5,000-seat venue an hour north in White Plains, New York. Their fan attendance plummeted instantly, impacting their overall revenue, hence the enthusiasm to be back in Brooklyn for game 23. Boyd adds, “We are facing some adversity right now. I’m excited to see how we get to where we want to go.”
The adversity ahead of the New York Liberty is more than this game or this season: It is league-wide. Across the board, the league is experiencing widening support for women’s basketball juxtaposed against ongoing gender equality struggles, all deeply entangled in the uncanny for-profit business of professional basketball.
In 2017, the WNBA scored its highest attendance in six years. In 2018, despite an attendance drop, there was a 64% percent rise in TV ratings, with average viewership per game at 413,000 fans. Attribute this to a multi-year CBS Sports Network contract that now brings the games into the homes of 50 million Americans. My friends and I will always have our memories of road-tripping to WNBA games, but let that be a cult culture phenomenon for our nostalgia brunch conversations. To sustain this league, it is clear these games must be accessible. They need network contracts to expand their coverage, normalize their profession, and heighten their presence in the industry.
Meanwhile, as corporate and societal momentum is increasing around the WNBA, the fact that they are women professionals is still an equality struggle. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research data on pay equity and discrimination, women, on average, earn less than men in nearly every single occupation. High Post Hoops reports that 2019 WNBA staff salaries range from just under $42,000 to $127,500. Black Enterprise reports that with a starting salary of $41,202, WNBA players earn $20,000 less than the median U.S. household income. On average, players make $71,635 a year. WNBA veteran players’ salaries cap out at $110,000.
The minimum salary of a professional NBA player is $582,180. They cap out at $109.14 million for the 2019–2020 season. These numbers are a serious call for action.
Unfortunately, the wage disparity debate has become a moral one. Culturally we deep-dive into societal pathos feeling bad that women aren’t paid enough. Simply feeling bad about it with no plan to apply pressure and seek systemic change paralyzes our ability to create viable paths toward equity. For conservatives, this condescending sad story narrative feeds into bootstrap mythology. After all, per the American dream, the United States is a land of equal-opportunity economic mobility, where hard work is rewarded with economic success. For liberals, it creates another opportunity to wave their righteousness, as they fight for the rights of the suffering of Black women.
These discursive patterns focusing on archetypes of Black victimhood and White saviors are exhausting. Most importantly, it is not beneficial to the larger ongoing liberation struggle for gender, race, or labor equality in the United States. It detours us from critiquing the way capitalism exploits all-Black athletic bodies — especially women’s bodies.
Yes, we should focus on the visible lines of disparity demarcation, such as gender and race, yet it is our fear of discussing how class, wealth, and privilege are amassed, distributed, and reproduced in this country that cripples our ability to move toward equitable wage policy strategically.
Capitalism creates dramatic class and earning divisions, allowing it to be a powerful, and often invisible, force in creating disparity. The WNBA seemingly models itself after the NBA, which is loaded with corporate greed, hefty arena contracts, bailouts, and an ever-increasing debt load. A conversation about class, capitalism, and wealth is needed to unpack the question few seem to be asking: How come White men in business with the NBA earn more than everyone? The uncapped, unregulated earning potential of White male owners in the NBA is a business model in direct conflict with the salaries and earning potential of all athletes.
On average, [WNBA] players make $71,635 a year. WNBA veteran players’ salaries cap out at $110,000. The minimum salary of a professional NBA player is $582,180. They cap out at $109.14 million for the 2019–2020 season. These numbers are a serious call for action.
The main factors that determine both NBA and WNBA player salaries are revenue and the percentage of revenue that is distributed with players. Overall revenue is a fluctuating number that depends on ticket sales, suite sales, naming rights, and local TV and radio deals, as well as league-wide media, merchandising and sponsorship revenues, etc. The percentage distributed to players is fixed due to collective bargaining agreements. WNBA players receive 22% of the league’s revenue, while NBA players receive 50%. The fact that there is unlimited revenue-earning potential but a fixed cap for players already points to the truth that a league, like any institution, is solely loyal to sustaining itself as a business and securing the futures of its shareholders.
Often under-discussed is the role of debt used to inflate the NBA’s cash flow during downturns. It shares profits among the franchises to offset the winnings and losses between large and small markets. In 2017, nine NBA teams lost money before collecting revenue-sharing payouts. These nine finished in the red even after receiving their franchise share, according to confidential NBA financial records obtained by ESPN.com. How is the NBA able to pay salaries, team staff costs, and operating expenses after huge losses? The answer is loans. During the recession, the NBA took out $200 million to distribute to “teams in need” to offset struggling economies. NBA teams also accrue debt to manage arena contracts and renovations, pay team payrolls, and take care of anticipated luxury taxes. In 2018, the NBA Board of Governors voted to increase the debt limit of owners from $75 million to $325 million, according to a report from ESPN. The debt load of the NBA is a business model that will eventually burst open. The smaller markets may face discontinuation or bankruptcy, while the larger markets will eventually be bailed out. Is this the business model the WNBA should model itself after to create long-term sustainable wage equality? The answer is probably no. The future salaries of WNBA players will not be protected under a caste system held together by salary caps, unregulated owner returns, and debt. A burst in this bubble will impact players, staff, and fans as it did in the 2008 recession.
The WNBA will always be a gathering space for women, especially women of color. It is beautiful to see dynamic representation on the court. The athleticism, style, and culture the league offers is premium. That is why fans have been rooting for this league’s success since Penny Toler of the Los Angeles Sparks scored the first basket in the first WNBA game — New York at Los Angeles — on June 21, 1997.
The WNBA as an organization mirrors a world we desperately need. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), it has ranked number one for diversity in leadership and hiring practices for the last 14 years. While most organizations are complaining that they can’t find diverse talent, the WNBA not only knows where to find talent, but knows how to establish diverse leadership teams from its corporate office to courtside. This puts it light-years ahead of not only the NBA, but most employers. The WNBA has the values, business acumen, and organizational systems in place to secure the financial futures of its staff and players. An equitable future looks like the WNBA being held in equally high esteem as the NBA, while becoming more fiscally sustainable than the NBA through calculated business practices that distribute wealth throughout the league — versus hoarding it at the top.