Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley would seem to be a married couple that has it all. Both are veteran professional athletes currently starring in the WNBA for the Chicago Sky. According to High Post Hoops, each player is paid $117,500 this season; which means this couple’s household income — just from the WNBA — is $235,000. Relative to an average couple in their early 30s, Vandersloot and Quigley are doing quite well.
And if we look back at sports history, both Vandersloot and Quigley appear to have nothing to complain about. Back in 1954, Willie Mays — the National League MVP –led the New York Giants to a World Series championship. For this effort he was paid $12,500; or $116,403 in 2018 dollars. In other words, Vandersloot and Quigley are paid about as well as one of the greatest players in baseball history in one of his greatest seasons.
Then again, maybe Mays wasn’t really paid that well. According to data collected by economist Rod Fort, the New York Giants reported $3.1 million in income in 1954 and paid their players less than $540,000. In other words, the Giants only paid about 17% of their revenue to their players. Such a split was not surprising. The average team in 1954 paid less than 20% of their revenue to their players in 1954.
It’s easy to understand why baseball players were paid so little in 1954. At that time the contract of baseball players contained the “reserve clause” which generally allowed teams to renew a contract with a player whether they wished to stay with the team or not. This means that Mays spent most of his career with the Giants, negotiating all of his contracts with a team that could simply renew his deal without Mays’ agreement. In such an environment it is not surprising that Mays did not get a pay increase after his remarkable 1954 season and — relative to players today — was never paid all that well. In 2018 dollars, the best Mays was paid in any one season wasn’t quite one million dollars.
It is a similar story in the WNBA today. Vandersloot and Quigley might be able to negotiate with other teams when their contracts expire (there is a reserve rule that can limit stars from moving). But in terms of money, it wouldn’t make much difference. The WNBA has a cap on how much individual players can make. Therefore, whether this couple played for the Chicago Sky or someone else, their wages would be essentially the same.
Not only does the WNBA have a cap on individual salaries, the cap isn’t really linked to WNBA revenues. In other words, as revenues rise, WNBA salaries do not necessarily keep pace. Consequently, we should not be surprised that — like a baseball player in 1954 — WNBA only receive about 20% of league revenue.
The NBA often emphasizes that they partially own the WNBA. However, the league does not treat the women of the WNBA the same as the men who work for the NBA. This is not only true today. It is also true when we look at how the men of the NBA were treated historically. Back in the late 1960s, NBA attendance was a bit less than what we see in the WNBA today. But even when the NBA was struggling, NBA teams apparently paid more than 50% of their revenue to their players. And this has been true for the past 50 years. As the NBA has grown, players have consistently been paid at least 50% of league revenue.
If that were true today, Vandersloot and Quigley would both see substantially higher income. To see how much higher, let’s start with WNBA revenue today.
The WNBA has a variety of revenue sources. Beyond gate revenue, there is a $25 million broadcasting deal with ESPN, subscriptions to WNBA League Pass, merchandise sales, local television and radio agreements, and deals with Twitter, FanDuel, and Tidal. Teams also have sponsorship agreements that can be quite lucrative. Although we don’t know precisely how much revenue all these deals generate, last summer it was conservatively estimated that WNBA revenue was at least $60 million. Since then, though, the WNBA has announced a leaguewide sponsorship with AT&T and a new broadcasting deal with CBS Sports Network.
All of this suggests that the league revenues in the WNBA are likely more than $60 million this season. Nevertheless, let’s be conservative and stay with this number. If the WNBA’s revenue is $60 million and the league gave 50% of this revenue to it players (i.e. like the NBA), what would Vandersloot and Quigley be paid?
A 50% split would give the WNBA players $30 million. As of the All-Star break, 151 different players have played in the WNBA this season. Given this number of players, the average salary in the WNBA would be $198,675. In other words, a 50% split would mean the average player would be paid 69% more than Vandersloot and Quigley’s salary right now.
Of course, Vandersloot and Quigley aren’t average. Both of these players are WNBA All-Stars. To see how much two All-Stars should be paid, let’s follow the methodology used to determine pay in men’s college basketball and women’s college basketball. Specifically, let’s assume all players are guaranteed a minimum wage and allocate remaining pay in terms of how many wins each player produces.
The results of these calculations are reported for the top 20 WNBA players at the All-Star break.
|Player||Team||Projected Wins Produced||Projected Salary|
|Courtney Vandersloot||Chicago Sky||8.40||$938,989|
|Kristi Toliver||Washington Mystics||6.76||$770,389|
|Elena Delle Donne||Washington Mystics||6.31||$711,707|
|Jonquel Jones||Connecticut Sun||6.32||$705,940|
|Sylvia Fowles||Minnesota Lynx||5.81||$670,005|
|Alyssa Thomas||Connecticut Sun||5.89||$663,891|
|Kayla McBride||Las Vegas Aces||5.65||$638,578|
|Alysha Clark||Seattle Storm||5.55||$634,229|
|Nneka Ogwumike||Los Angeles Sparks||5.17||$593,663|
|Allisha Gray||Dallas Wings||5.24||$589,573|
|Liz Cambage||Las Vegas Aces||5.19||$585,048|
|DeWanna Bonner||Phoenix Mercury||5.02||$580,725|
|Allie Quigley||Chicago Sky||4.66||$547,303|
|Erica Wheeler||Indiana Fever||4.62||$526,182|
|Brittany Boyd||New York Liberty||4.61||$524,987|
|Jasmine Thomas||Connecticut Sun||4.46||$521,390|
|Dearica Hamby||Las Vegas Aces||4.30||$492,796|
|Natasha Cloud||Washington Mystics||4.26||$488,062|
|Chelsea Gray||Los Angeles Sparks||4.17||$478,869|
|Napheesa Collier||Minnesota Lynx||4.10||$453,921|
Following the steps detailed to measure Wins Produced for WNBA players, Vandersloot led all WNBA players in productivity at the All-Star break. If she maintained that pace for the entire season she would finish with 8.4 Wins Produced. And if the WNBA gave 50% of its revenue to players and paid players for wins, Vandersloot would be paid $939,989. A similar set of calculations indicates Quigley — who is on pace for 4.7 Wins Produced — would be paid $547,303. Put this together, if the WNBA paid like the NBA, Vandersloot and Quigley would see their joint WNBA income increase from $235,000 to $1,486,202.
Yes, this couple is getting only 16% of what they would be making if they were paid like NBA players. Or in other words, this couple is missing more than one million dollars.
We don’t know if Willie Mays complained about his salary in 1954. But after he saw what happened when baseball changed its labor market (after he retired in the 1970s) he should have definitely been a bit miffed about how he was paid during his career.
Likewise, Vandersloot and Quigley should be a bit miffed about their joint income in 2019. Again, the NBA paid more than 50% to its players when it was a struggling league in the late 1960s. So the WNBA is not just behind the NBA in terms of pay today, it is a bit behind the NBA in terms of history.
Perhaps, though, this can change before Vandersloot and Quigley retire from the WNBA. Currently, the WNBA players and the league are negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. Given the age of this couple (again, both are in their 30s) this is likely the last chance the league can improve player pay before these players leave the game. Right now this couple is doing better than an average couple. But one suspects, maybe they want that million their contracts are missing this year.