Over the course of the past WNBA season, player salaries became a surprisingly inflammatory talking point that reached far beyond the usually intimate world of women’s basketball media. Stars from Skylar Diggins-Smith to rookie phenom A’ja Wilson were emboldened to discuss, with ever-increasing frankness, the huge disparity between their salaries and those of NBA players.
“People try to hijack this issue and say that women’s basketball may not be as interesting a game, because they disparage women in sports, period,” Diggins-Smith wrote in a widely mis-aggregated as-told-to essay on Wealthsimple this summer. “But we don’t even make the same percentage of revenue!”
So when the NBA announced a program that would pay top-tier high school recruits $125,000 to play in the G League for one year instead of going one-and-done in college, the response from WNBA players was predictable.
Hahahahahahahahhahahahahaha let me get one of these “select contracts” https://t.co/80zcLpdGOL— A'ja Wilson (@_ajawilson22) October 18, 2018
These “select contracts,” as they’ve been coined, place the devaluation of WNBA talent in stark relief. Like the NBA, the WNBA is home to the world’s best basketball players in its category. Unlike in the NBA, WNBA players make so little that they’re compelled to play year-round, taking contracts overseas during the seven-month WNBA offseason that can reach 10 times what they make stateside. The WNBA has kept its finances opaque, but the information available suggests that players make a substantially smaller share of league revenue than what NBA players receive.
Kelsey Plum wants to make one thing clear pic.twitter.com/Q0YURK0kUj— SB Nation (@SBNation) July 13, 2018
The biggest issue with the introduction of the “select contracts,” though, isn’t the $10,000 or so disparity between the yearly salaries of an 18-year-old man with no professional experience and arguably the greatest women’s player of all time (Diana Taurasi). It’s that the NBA sees the G League—a minor league of the men’s game, with minimal opportunity for a direct return—as more worthy of investment than the women’s game as a whole.
The $125,000 “select” salary isn’t in any way related to the G League’s profit margins; it’s designed to get the best talent available in-house, and to compete directly with the NCAA. High school players already had the option to play in the G League. The only thing that’s changed is now they can potentially make four times more than the league’s $35,000 base salary.
On some level, quadrupling the league’s average salary for top-level young talent at the snap of a finger is a smart move for the NBA. They’re attempting to grow their monopoly on the world basketball market’s highest tier, and this approach paves the way for the eventual elimination of its minimum age restriction altogether. There are currently 27 G League teams—11 more than there ever were in the W—and the league wants all 30 NBA teams to soon have a G League equivalent.
In contrast, the league’s commitment to the WNBA consistently appears to be no more than the bare minimum. The first game of the 2018 WNBA Finals was on the nearly-impossible-to-watch ESPNNews, and the league’s biggest stars consistently lament its poor marketing and media coverage. Profitability and sustainability are obviously vital to any business, but not investing now in the WNBA for a bigger long-term payoff is remarkably short-sighted.
The women’s game has much more room to grow than the G League. Viewership and interest grew this year despite the league’s built-in disadvantages — few national broadcasts, the challenge of selling players who work abroad for most of the year and play just 34 regular season games — so imagine what difference even a G League-level investment might make. Not only could the NBA effectively double its basketball talent pool, it can substantially grow its overall viewership with the continued promotion of another best-in-the-world basketball product to fans who never actually need to choose between following the NBA and the WNBA.
When more WNBA players — scattered across the world with the international teams they’re obliged to play with thanks to the design of the WNBA and its contracts — vocalize their frustration that G League players can now make more than they do, they’ll be completely justified. Luckily, they can soon act on their grievances: players have until Oct. 31 to decide if they want to opt out of the current CBA after next season.
Perhaps then they can negotiate salaries that reflect the WNBA’s status as a vehicle for future growth and profit across the board, not one that make the league seem like an afterthought.