Basketball’s Gender Wage Gap Narrows (but doesn’t vanish!)

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According to High Post Hoops, the average WNBA player got paid less than $80,000 last year.  Meanwhile, the average NBA player earns $7.4 million in 2019-20 while the highest-paid player — Steph Curry — is being paid $40.2 million. Due to an early-season injury, Curry has only played four games this season. Although it’s possible he might return toward the end of the season, if Curry doesn’t play more than 500 minutes this year he will finish the season being paid more per minute played than an average WNBA player was paid for the entire 2019 season.

In fact, Curry is being paid more than three times what all players in the WNBA were paid last year.  The WNBA employed 156 players in 2019.  Given the aforementioned average wage, this means all NBA players were paid less than $12.5 million. So, there appears to be a substantial gender wage gap in professional basketball.

But looking at salary totals may not be the right way to look at it (then again, maybe it would be!). NBA revenues are reported to be $8 billion and per the league’s collective bargaining agreement about half of this goes to the NBA’s players. So, if the WNBA’s revenue was $25 million one could argue that WNBA players — despite the low pay in absolute terms — would be treated the same as their NBA counterparts and no gender-wage gap would exist.

Unfortunately, WNBA revenues are definitely not that low.  The television deal alone pays the league $25 million per season.  With additional revenue from the gate, sponsorships, Twitter, FanDuel, Tidal, local broadcasting deals, merchandise sales, and the WNBA League Pass; WNBA revenue has conservatively been estimated to be $60 million.  Given that figure, WNBA players — as I have noted in the past — were only being paid about 20% of league revenues in the past.

Yes, there has been a significant gender wage gap between the NBA and WNBA.

But the WNBA and its players have now signed a new collective bargaining agreement. Both sides have been quite enthusiastic about what this means for the league.  As Kelsey Trainor observes there is a reason many of the WNBA players like this deal. The new agreement gives the women of the WNBA a much better-funded pregnancy benefit, better lodging and travel conditions, expanded player programs (i.e. funding for completing an undergraduate degree as well as training for other careers beyond basketball), and a greater commitment to marketing by the league.

In addition, the players are going to see an increase in pay. A question, though, remains.  What percentage of revenue is now going to the players?  According to the press release announcing the new collective bargaining agreement: “…for the first time in WNBA history, the average cash compensation for players will exceed six figures, averaging nearly $130,000…”

Let’s say that the WNBA again employs 156 players next year. If average salaries are $130,000, then the players will be paid $20,280,000.  If revenues were only about $40 million, that would give the players about 50% of revenue. But again, a conservative estimate of WNBA revenue places that figure at about $60 million.  And that means that if average salaries are $130,000, the WNBA is only paying about 34% of its revenue to its players.

In other words, after this deal, the WNBA is still not being paid as well as their NBA counterparts.

Yes, the gender wage gap is not as large as it was.  But this gap still persists.

The CBA does say, though, that in the future there will be a 50-50 split. There is some reason to be suspect that maybe this doesn’t really mean WNBA players will really be paid like NBA players. First of all, the 50/50 split depends on the league achieving certain revenue targets.  If that happens, Trainor notes

“…revenue shared with the players will be split, with 25% distributed to the players and the other 25% to increasing league marketing and promotional agreements. While certainly a better model than the prior revenue share, which was estimated to only give the players around a 20% share of the revenue, it still remains to be seen what this percentage will actually look like.”

In other words, even if the revenue target is reached it doesn’t look like the players are going to be given 50% of the league revenue.  And that means, across this agreement — which extends until the 2027 season — the WNBA will not be paying its players like the NBA pays its players.

The WNBA will be in its 31st season in 2027.  To put that in perspective, in the NBA’s 37th season (1982-83; we don’t have data from the 31st season in 1976-77) it was reported the NBA was paying 59% of its revenue to its players. And according to testimony the NBA gave to Congress in 1957, the NBA in 1954-55 — when it was just nine years old — was paying 45% of its total operating income to its players.

Again, today the NBA pays about 50% of its revenue to its players. Not only are the WNBA players not doing that well after this agreement, but it also appears the WNBA players are not doing as well in percentage terms as NBA players were when its league was less than 10 years old and league revenue (in 2019 dollars) was less than $16 million.

So on the one hand, this deal is far from perfect.  The gender pay gap continues. And WNBA players are still behind where the NBA was in its infancy.

On the other hand, the deal does mark a significant step forward.  And it is not just the higher pay and better benefits that matter.  The language of the WNBA has changed.  Historically the WNBA and its NBA partner seemed to go out of its way to tell people that the WNBA was not profitable and the entire operation was a significant cost to its owners.

This agreement seems to mark a change in that approach.  Here is how WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert described the new agreement:

“We approached these negotiations with a player-first agenda, and I am pleased that this agreement guarantees substantial increases in compensation and progressive benefits for the women of the WNBA. I want to thank the players, led by WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike and the WNBPA Executive Committee, as well as WNBPA Executive Director Terri Jackson, for their hard work, innovative thinking and professionalism throughout the process.  I also want to thank the league’s Labor Relations Committee and Board of Governors for their investment, commitment and leadership as we look forward to working together to make the WNBA a sustainable and thriving business for generations of women’s basketball players to come.”

Yes, the word “investment” now seems to be a significant part of the WNBA vocabulary.  And throughout the entire statement, it never says the WNBA “isn’t profitable!”  Yes, that’s progress.

Changing language, though, is not the key.  The true mark of this deal is whether or not it truly fixes the biggest problem facing the WNBA. Currently, the majority of its players are not just playing in the WNBA but also in leagues around the world.  Not only does this mean the WNBA players are not in the United States promoting the WNBA the entire year, but it also means the players run the risk — either due to injury or fatigue — of missing part of or entire WNBA seasons.

Perhaps this will change significantly in the future. Not only are players receiving more money in salaries, but the agreement also states that it is possible for the top players to earn as much as $500,000 in salary, bonuses, prizes, and marketing deals.  And that means it is possible the mass exodus of players when the season ends (an exodus that led to the postponement of the Mystics 2019 championship parade), might be a thing of the past.  If that happens, this deal will definitely be a huge positive for the WNBA.

So yes, the gender pay gap in professional basketball continues to persist. But this new agreement is a step forward.  And hopefully, when this deal expires and the WNBA enters its 4th decade, women in professional basketball will finally be given as much as the men of the NBA have always received.

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  7. This is manipulative and unforthcoming. The premise if your argument is that male athletes are somehow responsible for the fact that fans aren’t watching women’s basketball or buying merchandise. Currently, acknowledging gender differences is allowed only when it conveniences women, which is hypocritical. Male athletes are more athletic, more entertaining and thus, generate up to a hundred times more revenue than the WNBA. Moreover, using gender to guilt-trip the NBA into a profit sharing agreement is NOT gender equality/independence and the Elephant is still very much in the room. A different rhetoric is needed.
    I have a question:
    – Why can’t the NBA and WNBA be completely fiscally separate?

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