Three years ago, I wrote about the gender wage gap in basketball. At the time, we knew average salaries in the WNBA were about $80,000, and the league’s total payroll was about $12.5 million. We didn’t know, though, WNBA revenue. Looking at the league’s television deal with ESPN and ABC, as well as minimum ticket prices, I estimated at the time that league revenue was potentially about $60 million. Given this revenue estimate, it appeared WNBA players were paid about 20 percent of league revenue.
In 2020, though, the players negotiated a stronger collective bargaining agreement (CBA), one that raised average salaries to about $130,000 and total league payroll to about $20.3 million. If revenues were still $60 million, then after the new CBA players were receiving approximately 34 percent of league revenue. Yes, NBA players receive 50 percent of the league’s basketball-related revenue; however, the new CBA appeared to close the gender wage gap considerably.
The story I told, though, depended on my estimate of league revenue. Whereas Forbes clearly reports NBA revenue, all we seemed to have for WNBA revenue was my estimate. As it turns out, I was very, very wrong!
The WNBA is projected to bring in between $180 million and $200 million in combined league and team revenue this year, up from about $102 million in 2019, according to people familiar with the matter.
Haque’s sources are people who work in the WNBA, people who actually had access to the league’s revenue numbers. And again, it indicates that my past estimates of league revenue were far too low.
Before we explain what all this means for the players, we have to note a difference in how revenue is counted in the NBA and WNBA. As Haque notes:
Unlike in the men’s league, the National Basketball Association, team revenue and league revenue are considered separate in the WNBA. Team revenue is largely made up of ticket sales, merchandise, food and beverage sales, local corporate sponsorships and local broadcasting rights. Teams use these funds for player salaries.
Haque goes on to note that league revenue comes from sale of national media rights and corporate sponsorships. It appears the WNBA is arguing that players are not entitled to the revenue from league sources. Of course, the product being sold at the league level is still the players. No one is watching national broadcasts of the WNBA to see “the league”. We are all watching the players. Consequently, I am going to argue that the WNBA players are entitled to a split of all revenue.
Given this new revenue report, if players were paid $12.5 million in 2019, that translates to 12 percent of the revenue that year. Of course, the following year, players got a raise. Even after this raise, however, players were only receiving approximately 20 percent of league revenue.
Since then, the situation has gotten much worse. Unlike the NBA, WNBA player salaries are not directly tied to league revenue. Yes, there was some language that suggested revenue sharing in the 2020 CBA, but as Haque explained, it is almost impossible for that sharing to ever happen. Consequently, average salaries today are still only about $130,000, with league payroll around $20 million.
But league revenue—according to Haque’s sources—is now between $180 and $200 million. If the players are only getting $20 million, that means players are now receiving only 10 percent of league revenue!
Five years ago, players were not happy when they thought they were only getting about 20 percent of league revenue. As Kelsey Plum said back in 2018:
“I’m tired of people thinking that us 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 percent of shared revenue within their league, whereas we receive around 20 percent.
Given what we now are hearing about WNBA revenue, it appears Plum and her fellow players only got to 20 percent after salaries were renegotiated. And, today, Plum and her colleagues are doing far worse.
It is important to put this in perspective. Once upon a time, the major men’s sports were dominated by the reserve clause. This clause—placed in every player’s contract—said that once a player signed with a team, he couldn’t negotiate with any other team unless that original team released the rights to that player’s services. Such a clause existed in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association. Obviously, if a player can only negotiate with one team, their salary will be depressed. Consequently, it is not surprising to learn that in 1970-71, NBA players were paid 27 percent of league revenue. WNBA players have free agency, of course, so players can negotiate with more than one team. But because the WNBA has a strict salary cap that doesn’t grow with league revenues, they are put in a much worse position than major men’s sports athletes.
To put this in perspective, Kelsey Plum will be paid $200,000 this year by the Las Vegas Aces. If the WNBA shared 50 percent of its $180 million revenue with its players, average salaries in the league would be more than $500,000. And, since Plum is above average, she could expect her salary to be more than $1 million.
Or to put it another way… Plum is only getting about 20 percent of what she would (and should) get if the WNBA shared its success with the players making that success possible!
It is important to emphasize that this story is about more than player salaries. Jennah Haque’s story indicates the WNBA is far more successful than we previously believed. In 1970-71, the NBA reported $32 million in revenue, which translates to $244 million in 2023 dollars. Yes, that is a bit more than Bloomberg reports today; we have to remember, though, the WNBA has achieved its revenue number today with a poor television deal. ESPN and ABC are paying the league $25 million per season to broadcast their games. Major League Soccer—with lower television ratings— just signed a deal with Apple that will pay that league $250 million per year. If the WNBA simply negotiated a better television deal, they would be far beyond where the NBA was at this point in its history.
All of that means—and this should be increasingly clear to everyone—that the WNBA is on path to someday be much like the NBA is right now. That is a huge story, and the WNBA—and the NBA, and sports media in general—should be broadcasting this story everywhere.
One suspects, though, the WNBA doesn’t want to do that. If everyone knew how much money was coming in, some very uncomfortable questions would be asked. For example…
- Why can’t players have charter flights to games like the NBA?
- Why are players, such as Brittney Griner, supplementing their WNBA incomes by playing in leagues around the world?
- Why can’t players like Griner and Plum finally get paid 50 percent of league revenue like their counterparts in the NBA?
The WNBA doesn’t seem to want to answer those questions. So, the WNBA’s success—at least for now—isn’t talked about enough. Perhaps it is time for the WNBA to admit and broadcast their success and finally start paying their players!