Pay equity in women’s sports: How the WNBA is playing the long game

LOS ANGELES — Katie Lou Samuelson had the perfect shoes to mark Title IX’s anniversary. Ahead of the Sparks’ home game against the Chicago Sky on June 23, Samuelson unwrapped white tissue paper from a black shoebox to reveal his custom-decorated pair of Puma sneakers.

“Pay women athletes,” Samuelson’s shoes proclaimed in bold white font against a black background.

The sneakers included Title IX anniversary branding on the back of the left shoe and Brittney Griner’s initials and jersey #42 on the right.

The detention and conviction of center Phoenix Mercury in Russia for possession of cannabis has become a symbol of the pay equity problem plaguing the WNBA, where even stars like Griner – WNBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and eight times All-Star — traveling overseas during their WNBA offseason for salaries worth more than four or five times what they earn at home.

International leagues, established decades before the 26-year-old WNBA, have long been financial lifelines for American players who spend five months in front of home country crowds and then fly out for seven-month seasons. in Turkey, Spain, Russia, China or Australia. .

Exotic locations and massive paydays come at the expense of attending major events like weddings and birthdays or spending time with loved ones, not to mention the added wear and tear on a player’s body.

Samuelson, who also plays in Spain, can imagine a future for the WNBA when players aren’t as forced to play overseas, but that’s still a long way off. The WNBA regular season is likely to last longer than four or five months. Roster should grow from 12 players. Salaries should increase.

Steps to closing the pay gap begin with growing the WNBA, a responsibility shared by the league, players and agents.

“As women in sports, we have to play for the long haul,” said Allison Galer, whose client list at her agency Disrupt the Game includes Sparks Chiney Ogwumike, Washington forward Elizabeth Williams and rookie title of the year Michaela Onyenwere.

Rising ratings and merchandise sales indicate the WNBA is growing in popularity. This is a recent boom, originating in Bradenton, Florida, where the WNBA held its pandemic bubble season in 2020. The disastrous year had a silver lining for the WNBA. Viewership for the WNBA Finals was up 15% over the previous year, while nearly every other league saw a significant drop in viewership. Off the court, the players’ unabashed advocacy for Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter and voting rights has bolstered the WNBA’s image as a social justice leader.

Many companies are championing diversity, equity and inclusion in the wake of 2020, which should make the WNBA and its players prime targets for endorsement deals from brands looking to connect with more customers. young, digitally savvy and predominantly female.

“We are the league that [says] put your money where your mouth is,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said.

An oft-repeated statistic from Women in Sport indicates that only 0.4% of total sports sponsorship between 2011 and 2013 went to women. This small piece is usually dominated by athletes who play in individual sports.

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams were the only female athletes in Forbes’ top 50 this year, with 24-year-old Osaka the highest-paid female athlete in the world. His estimated total earnings of $59.2 million ranked 19th overall, and $58 million came from out-of-court deals. Williams earned $45 million of her $45.3 million off the court and placed 31st.

The highest-earning female athlete has been a tennis player every year since Forbes began tracking data in 1990, bolstering an ecosystem that undervalues ​​women in team sports, Engelbert said.

“Before I’m done,” she added, “we’re going to change the broken rating model.”

The WNBA is valued at over $1 billion, a spike due to a recent $75 million capital raise. The money from two dozen investors was the biggest fundraiser ever for women’s sports ownership.

The money will be deployed over three to five years, Engelbert said. It is intended for brand elevation and marketing; globalization of the WNBA; innovation and growth of consumer touchpoints; and human capital and operational optimization, according to a league statement announcing the transaction.

Where it will not go is in the salaries of the players.

Although the 2020 collective agreement guaranteed several benefits such as six-figure salaries on average, higher pay for star players and fully paid maternity leave, the players have not yet obtained an equal share of income. .

WNBA players are only guaranteed a 50-50 revenue split if the league meets prescribed but undisclosed goals. The WNBA had an estimated revenue of $60 million in 2018, according to Forbes. The 50-year-old NBA raked in $7.4 billion that year and boasted $10 billion in revenue that year.

The dual task of increasing revenues and changing the CBA, which extends to 2027, makes it unlikely that increasing player salaries will be the next domino to fall in the pay equity fight. WNBA.

“Everyone wants to go straight to salary,” said Samuelson, a former No. 4 overall pick who played on four teams during his four years in the WNBA. “But there are so many different things that need to be stepping stones before that happens too.”

Along with the increased pay, players point to issues such as a lack of charter flights – especially during this compressed season when teams often play games every other day – or training facilities. The Sparks have split their practice time between three venues this season: a gym rental in Torrance, USC’s Galen Center and Arena, where they also play.

The top foreign leagues respond to these demands off the pitch. Not only are the players well paid, but they play among the elite competition while honing their skills. Development opportunities are especially important for young players who have limited playing time in the WNBA, which has no practice squads or development league. Wealthier teams, including Griner’s UMMC Ekaterinburg which is controlled by a pair of Russian oligarchs, have been known to set up players with their own apartments, private car services and luxury travel accommodations.

But opportunities to play overseas are dwindling, Galer said. She doesn’t think an agent will send an American player to Russia in light of Griner’s detention, the war in Ukraine and the Euroleague suspension of top Russian teams UMMC Yekaterinburg, Dynamo Kursk and MBA Moscow. COVID-19 has also paralyzed the overseas market.

With WNBA salaries stagnating, “there’s a lot more weight on sponsorships and brand partnerships,” Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike said.

Recreating the sponsorship plan for WNBA players requires hustle and intentional brand building efforts from individual player agents and the league. On his first day as commissioner in 2019, Engelbert said the WNBA had a “marketing problem.” To help solve it, she tried to encourage players to stay in the United States during the offseason in exchange for league marketing agreements that include compensation for participating in advertising campaigns with WNBA partners. .

The hope is to turn players such as reigning league most valuable player Jonquel Jones and WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper into household names. But those stars played overseas last year, with Jones playing for Russia’s UMMC Yekaterinburg, the same club as Griner. Copper was named MVP of the top Spanish league and Euroleague.

The marketing money offered by the WNBA still can’t make up the difference of an overseas contract that brings in between $10,000 and $15,000 a month.

“Is it better for the players to be here for marketing purposes? Of course,” Galer said. “But the pot doesn’t necessarily get bigger for every player if he stays here.”

Engelbert said she would never close overseas opportunities for players, but wanted them to prioritize the WNBA and the league to make it financially worthwhile. Standing behind a podium on the All-Star weekend, Engelbert celebrated the progress made in the latter.

At a press conference in Chicago during the league’s mid-season event, the commissioner announced that an additional $1.5 million would be available for players in the marketing deal pool of the league. Charter flights for the WNBA Finals were on the way. The playoff bonus pool grew by around 50% to $500,000.

“We’re just trying to get away,” she said at the event.

Engelbert repeated the phrase when describing the WNBA’s journey to pay equity. No one can just fix the problem with a sweeping statement, but recent advancements are pushing the commissioner, players and agents into a bright future.

Nneka Ogwumike said she hoped “it won’t take much longer to see six-figure minimum wages”.

And Engelbert is already scouting cities for potential expansion teams that will launch in 2024 or 2025.

“We only go up from here,” Galer said. “We just have to build it.”

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