The National Basketball Association (NBA) is one of the most popular sports leagues in America. Many people watch games on TV while others buy expensive tickets to experience the beauty of the game on-court. The players have worked hard their whole lives to make it to the most competitive league of basketball in the world and their paychecks reflect the incredibly hard work they dedicate. To be more specific, the NBA splits its revenue approximately 50-50 with the men’s players. However, in the WNBA (Women’s NBA), the players are estimated to receive just 20% of league revenue. This seems unfair.
At first glance, this appears sexist and some say WNBA players are being treated as second class citizens, but there is one important factor why they are paid less than NBA players. Many argue and believe that women are not as entertaining ballplayers as their fellow male players. Therefore, the WNBA does not fill up as many seats as NBA games, meaning there will be less money paid by fans to pay the players. In fact, for last season, the WNBA only generated $60 million in annual revenue while the NBA raked in a tremendous $8.76 billion! Ultimately, both leagues depend on their entertainment appeal and receive most of their revenue from fans.
The average WNBA player makes $75,000 a year. This is less than a tenth of what an NBA rookie makes – $820,000 on average. The difference is even more startling when you consider that the average NBA salary is $2.5 million! It does not get better for the top female players. For the 2019-2020 season, the highest-paid NBA player was Golden State Warriors guard, Stephen Curry at about $40 million. In contrast, the highest earner in the WNBA was Phoenix Mercury forward, DeWanna Bonner, who received a mere $127,000. This may seem sufficient compared to a regular person’s salary, but for the time and effort put into a difficult sport, it is not. To be a top player in the league and be paid that little is harsh. As another star WNBA player, A’ja Wilson, put it, “We over here looking for a million but Lord, let me get back in my lane.”
In the end, WNBA players are doing the same job as NBA players. Not only do they need exceptional skills on the court like dribbling and shooting, but players also need to be in peak physical condition and to have a warrior-like mindset. The female players have the same dedication as the male players, arguably even more, but the large pay disparity between the leagues exhibits the disproportionality in player salaries, especially as noted between the two best players in each league.
To compensate for their paltry salaries, many WNBA players, especially rookies, opt to compete overseas during the offseason. Most of the rookies will earn even less with a starting salary of $42,000. That is nearly $21,000 less than the median U.S. household income. Yes, professional athletes have second jobs. Players who play overseas mean that they are playing almost year-round, with minimal resting periods for their bodies to recover. Not only will fatigue lead to an increased risk of injuries, but they are also separated from their families and have to deal with the emotional changes involved with uprooting their lives.
A former NBA player and current sports analyst for ESPN, Jalen Rose, points out an underlying problem regarding the WNBA pay disparity. To summarize what he said – the problem is female players never get built out for national consumption. The public does not get a chance to get to know who they are away from the floor, which in most instances in sports helps draw attention toward the product on the floor. He is absolutely correct. One does not have to be a passionate basketball fan to see the cultural impact of NBA superstars such as Stephen Curry and LeBron James. To fix this problem, one of the simplest things to execute is for the NBA to utilize its big publicity platform and contribute some of it towards the WNBA. This will shed light on the female talent and eventually grow the fan base. As a result, players will gain money through greater attendance, endorsements, jersey sales, advertisements, etc.
On the bright side, there is a positive change that has recently been implemented. Earlier this year, there was a new agreement that gives top-tier WNBA players the opportunity for salaries greater than $500,000, while others can make between $200,000-$300,000. It would also increase the average compensation to $130,000. This serves as a major boost. Nonetheless, regular basketball fans can contribute to change as well. Since the WNBA tickets are so much cheaper than NBA tickets ($18 compared to $90 on average), attend a game and support the female players giving it their all on the court.
Graphic: Jiah Lee