WNBA players have contended for some time that their pay is unfair, that they deserve something closer to what their male counterparts in the NBA are paid. Recently, Draymond Green, one of those highly paid male players, poured a little gas on the fire by offering his opinions on the subject (in short, the women shouldn’t complain).
On the surface, it appears that the women have little argument — there is no comparison between NBA and WNBA revenues — but first let’s understand what WNBA players want. Kelsey Plum, a star player in the WNBA (ever heard of her?), explains: “I’m tired of people thinking that (we) players are asking for the same type of money as NBA players ... we are asking for the same percentage of revenue shared within our CBA. NBA players receive around 50% of shared revenue within their league, whereas we receive around 20%.”
Well, either way, it’s a tough sell for a league that can’t turn a profit and survives on handouts from the NBA. A bigger cut for the players means higher subsidies from their benefactor. Shouldn’t the league be able to stand on its own before it offers such rewards?
The NBA and WNBA have little in common, other than they play the same sport.
The NBA is 75 years old, the WNBA 25. The WNBA is 50 years behind in building its brand and working out labor issues. WNBA players want what NBA players spent decades trying to obtain.
The NBA’s average attendance is 17,760, the WNBA’s 6,535. The 2019 NBA Finals averaged a little more than 20 million viewers per game; the 2019 WNBA Finals averaged about 400,000 viewers per game.
The NBA has 30 teams, the WNBA 12.
The NBA’s average ticket price is variously reported at between $51 to $89; the WNBA’s $17.
NBA games average 2 million TV viewers per game; WNBA games averaged 246,000 viewers during the 2019 regular season, according to Sports Media Watch (we’ll ignore the 2020 season impacted by the pandemic). And that’s a 7% improvement.
The NBA’s annual revenues are $7.92 billion, the WNBA’s $60 million — which would not even cover the combined salaries of NBA players Kevin Love and Damian Lillard. Revenues, of course, are not to be confused with profits.
All of which leaves the WNBA a little short of money. NBA commissioner Adam Silver reports that the WNBA has lost an average of $10 million every year it has existed, which the NBA subsidizes out of the goodness of its politically correct heart.
Which leads us here: The average NBA salary is about $7.5 million; according to the league, the average WNBA salary in 2019 was reportedly about $116,000, but a new collective bargaining agreement — which runs from 2020 to 2027 — provides a 53% pay increase, plus maternity leave at full salary, $5,000 for child care, and as much as $60,000 for adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing and fertility treatments. Under the CBA, base salaries increase to $130,000 and the league’s elite players can earn upward of $500,000.
The WNBA’s problem is simple: It doesn’t generate the interest or the revenue to support a pay structure anywhere close to what the men’s game can offer. The men’s league casts a big shadow, which is why the WNBA plays its season from July to October. The league is nearly irrelevant to the average sports fan. Diana Taurasi is called the “Michael Jordan of the WNBA.” Ever heard of her?
Nobody wants to acknowledge that some sports translate better than others for both men and women, for whatever reason. Women’s tennis is as popular or more popular than the men’s game, and women’s gymnastics is much more popular than the men’s sport. But not women’s basketball — college or pro (according to the NCAA, the average attendance for college basketball for the 2018-19 season was 1,625 for Division I women and 5,650 for Division I men).
LPGA golfers face the same challenge. There’s a big gap between PGA Tour and LPGA Tour prize money. The latter doesn’t produce the same revenues or interest as the men’s game (quick, name five of the best LPGA players). It might not be fair, but it is reality.
It hasn’t helped that women’s sports came late to the game. It seems preposterous now, but only 50 years ago women’s high school sports largely did not exist. The Olympics didn’t allow women to run an event longer than 800 meters until the 1972 Games, when the 1,500-meter run was added to the program; meanwhile, the men were also contesting longer distances — 3,000-meter steeplechase, 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon. It wasn’t until 1984 that the Olympics created a marathon for women.
It has taken decades to overcome such backward thinking, and the women’s games have been playing catch-up ever since. That’s where the WNBA finds itself in its search for an identity (and higher pay) on the American sports scene.