A Couple of days ago, LeBron James took to Twitter to congratulate Minnesota Lynx star, Lindsey Whalen on her iconic career in the WNBA.
The star point guard announced Monday that after a magnificent 15 year career in the WNBA, she would be leaving to go focus solely on her job as head coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of Minnesota.
“I would like to announce that after 15 seasons in the WNBA I am going to retire after the 2018 season,” Whalen said in a press release. “I would like to thank the WNBA, the Connecticut Sun, and the Minnesota Lynx for believing in me all of these years. I look forward to the next chapter in my basketball career and wish my Lynx coaches and teammates all of the best in the future.”
— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 13, 2018
When I read the news, I was kind of ashamed of myself. I’m not the biggest sports fan, but I should have heard of Lindsey Whalen.
- 4x WNBA Champion
- 6x WNBA All Star
- WNBA’s all time wins leader with 322 and counting (54 in the playoffs)
- 2,334 assists (3rd all-time)
- 13 straight playoff appearances
- 8 trips to the Finals.
Then I heard that Whalen may be making $500,000 as a women’s collage coach (at least that’s the last coach’s salary who had the job). This is in comparison to her current salary of $110,00 as a WNBA player. That’s right, she was only making $110k!
This lead me down a whole list of other questions. Why isn’t Lindsey Whalen a household name like LeBron James or other male athletes in the NBA? Are people just not watching the WNBA? Even more importantly, why is there such a wage disparity between the WNBA and the NBA?
So, first some facts about WNBA versus NBA.
The WNBA was officially approved by the NBA in 1996 (league play started in 1997). It is made up of 12 teams and played from May to September.
- In 1997, it originated with 8 teams.
- It is 68.5% Black, 24.5% White, 3.5% Latina, and 2.8% other.
- The average attendance per game was 7,716 in 2017.
- The average viewers on television was 171,000 in 2017 (2018 does appear to be higher averaging 266,300 viewers)
- The WNBA plays 34 games in regular season.
- Median WNBA Salary is $ 71,635
— Punch Jackson (@RecretionCanada) July 2, 2018
The NBA was founded in 1946 and was called the BAA before changing its name to the NBA in 1949. It is made up of 30 teams and played from October to June.
- In 2015 the NBA was composed of 74.4% Black, 23.3% White, 1.8% Latino, and 0.2% Asian.
- The average attendance per game was 17,978 in the 2017-2018 season .
- The average viewer on television was 1.89 million
- The NBA plays 82 games in regular season.
- Median Salary for NBA Player is 6.4 Million
So, at first glance you would think this is simple math. The WNBA is viewed by less people on TV and the attendance of the games is significantly less. Based on this, shouldn’t the WNBA make less?
LeBron James, (who just signed a $154 million contract with the Lakers) makes sense given the number of games played and the viewers, right?
Not so fast.
Even though it is understandable that WNBA should not make what NBA players make because the league is much younger, it generates a lot less revenue, and only plays 34 games per season as compared to 82 games the NBA plays, the disparity in the salaries is so significant that any reasonable person would ask themselves why.
Why professional athletes that are on National TV are only able to make a starting salary of $52,000 a year and an average salary of about $71,635?
So let’s break it down.
According to Professor and Economist Dave Berri who writes for Forbes, it’s estimated that the WNBA brings in a bare minimum of $51.5 million in revenue. ESPN pays 25 Million per year to broadcast some of the games and it is estimated that at least 26.5 million is brought in from attendance. WNBA games average about 7,716 fans per game.
This is not counting a deal with Twitter, jersey patches promoting sponsors, local TV deals, and even merchandise sales.
Dave Berri was also able to figure out that even if WNBA players made $75,000 on average a year, then with the 157 players they were paid about $11,7775,000 combined. That means that the WNBA is only paying its players at maximum 22.8% of its revenue to its players. And that percentage appears to be actually shrinking not increasing.
— Swish Appeal (@SwishAppeal) August 16, 2018
This is significantly lower than the NBA, who pays it players 50% of its revenue (before the lockout it was 57% ). NFL players are guaranteed 47%, NHL players get 50% and Major League Baseball shelves out between 48.5% and 51.7% of its revenue.
Let’s not even talk about English League Players who make about 70-76% of league revenues.
Many make the argument that the league would not be profitable if they paid WNBA salaries that were equal to other professional organization, that half the teams are not even in the black yet. But this seems to be some of the same tactics that were used by the NBA, NFL, and MLB in the 1950s to justify not paying them a decent share of the profits.
Dave Berri in 2015 wrote a piece for Vice were he stated that:
“It’s also notable that WNBA owners continue to claim that the league has financial problems, saying in 2014 that only half of the teams in the league were profitable. Such arguments have been used by sports league owners since the 19th century, and historically many athletes have bought into them, believing that higher pay would threaten the survival of their teams and leagues.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s when players felt strong enough to fight for a bigger cut.
Imagine for a second that the WNBA did start paying an equal salary comparable to that of the NBA. This would cause the average salary to go up by almost $100,000. From $75,000 to almost $164,000 and players that have been in the league longer would make significantly more money. Star players like Nenka Ogwumike, 2016 MVP, who because of the cap only make $95,000 now would make around $880,000.
Those numbers sound a lot better to me. So, why are WBNA players salaries so low? There is a lot of moving parts but overall, I believe players are falling victim to the same things that mens professional teams fell victim to in the 1950s. That because the league is relatively new, players still feel like they should be lucky to play and are made to believe that if they start making demands that the league may cease to exist.
The only difference from the 50s and now is, we don’t have time to go through the process of waiting for twenty years until the league starts paying these talented athletes what they deserve! It is a known fact that other countries with pro teams are willing to pay. The WNBA runs the risk of losing good players to countries like Russia (they paid Dianna Taurisi $1.5 million to sit out of the WNBA in 2015).
We need to figure this out now and pay these athletes their fair share and I need to start going to more WNBA games.