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  • Cooper Burke

WNBA Looking for Its Moment to Bust Open Checkbooks and Narratives
Graph via Slow Reveal Graphs

In terms of women’s sports, the WNBA is the cream of the crop. However, salaries and revenue from the league struggle to reflect the status that it holds in women’s sports. For years, the rallying cry from supporters to the league has been that the women are woefully underpaid.

The WNBA’s athletes, including Kelsey Plum, Britney Griner and others have long campaigned for an increase in salary cap and player salaries. The average salary for the WNBA is $113,295, while the average NBA salary is an eye-watering $9,511,690 and a median salary of $4,558,680. These numbers have a large disparity, but the NBA currently paces all professional sports in terms of highest salary and salary cap.

Kelsey Plum went on the record advocating that the WNBA “get paid the same percentage of revenue shared” as the NBA’s 50% revenue share. The WNBA receives only a 20% revenue share, but there are only 12 teams to the NBA’s 30, meaning that each team receives the same percentage of revenue share in each league at 1.67%. Interestingly, the WNBA only has 12 players on each team, meaning that they receive a higher revenue share per player at 0.14% of league revenue.

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)

While salaries may not match the NBA’s, the league has struggled to turn a profit despite posting positive revenue growth numbers in the past few years. Revenue accounts for their overall merchandise sales, TV deals and endorsements, while profit accounts for revenue minus expenses. Their profit numbers are not public, as they are not a public company, but estimates are that they continue to lose money.

Some conservative estimates allege that the league loses around $10 million dollars a year, and their revenue includes the NBA’s help in subsidizing the league. No business that has been around for 25 years and still operates at a loss stays functioning, but the WNBA is a special case.

This is not an insult to the athletes- they are at the pinnacle of sport, regardless of gender and are some of the best basketball players in the world. However, the WNBA simply does not move the needle in terms of viewership and fan engagement. The WNBA recorded its highest average attendance of 6,615 fans per game in 2023, equivalent to the attendance of a Triple-A minor league baseball team.

For the WNBA to equal the NBA in terms of revenue, they would have to make 123 times more per year. This means that the WNBA catching the men’s league in salary cap and player salary is a pipe dream, especially because the NBA is ingrained in the public consciousness.

The WNBA has almost no history, and that is a big problem for overall acceptance of the league. Many fans have little to no loyalty to WNBA teams even in their own cities  

There is a concerted effort to preserve an outlet for women’s sports as the young stars of tomorrow need strong role models. However, the WNBA can only progress if athletes and talking heads understand that the league and the women’s game is a different sport than the NBA. They must recognize that not tuning into the WNBA does not make an average sports fan misogynistic or bigoted if they do not enjoy the league’s brand of basketball- it is a personal preference.

For years, many athletes in the MLB and NFL weren’t paid nearly as much (even adjusted with inflation) as they are now, and to see today’s salaries required a massive explosion in public interest.

Tailoring the game to fit the athletes is the path to success for the league- women’s basketball is a different sport with different strategies and tactics, much like Formula One is a different sport from NASCAR. Women play more passing-heavy game with lower scoring numbers and they have a different-sized ball and three-point line.

As soon as the WNBA recognizes the fact that they are different from the NBA instead of competing with them, players can establish themselves. Another problem the women’s game has is that it latches on too tightly to stars like Caitlin Clark and Sabrina Ionescu. Clark is a generational talent in her sport, but her coverage is nearing a saturation point.

Bryon Houlgrave/NCAA/Getty Images

For example, ESPN was so keen on cashing in on Clark’s star power that they sent Holly Rowe to Iowa City for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament to report exclusively on Clark and her tournament. Reducing a bastion of sports journalism and professionalism like Rowe to fan-like status does nothing but mock the accomplishments of other players.

To put this in perspective, imagine the frustration and outrage if ESPN announced there was going to be a reporter dedicated to coverage of LeBron. Both players are stars like we have never seen before, but the WNBA’s great failure is the inability to highlight the broader things in the game that make it different.

All this to say, the WNBA has a steep hill to climb, but it is possible if they find a market that appreciates their business. Their heavy-handed approach so far has worked against them and brought on vitriol against the organization, even when they are providing an outlet for the next big stars women’s game.

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