By: Jacquelyn D. Heath
Special to The Milwaukee Times
When WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian prison camp on December 8, 2022 after being detained for 10 months for allegedly bringing illegal hashish oil cartridges into the country, the public was happy and relieved that her freedom had been restored. However, simmering beneath the elation was the stark truth of why Griner found herself in Russia in the first place. It wasn’t due to a vacation getaway, but for bottom-line economics – namely, pay inequity.
Female professional athletes like Griner are just as talented and skilled as their male counterparts – with the college and professional statistics and Olympic medals to prove it. However, the salaries of female versus male basketball pros don’t even begin to compare. According to Spotrac, a data service that tracks player contracts, the top four picks in the most recent WNBA draft received 3-year contracts worth $226,668, or $75.500 per year. On the other hand, typical NBA top draft picks signed 4-year contracts for $45.6-million with an average annual salary of $11.4-million.
In addition, WNBA players are reported to be able to earn 5 to 8 times their WNBA salaries from overseas play. That can add $1.1- to $1.8-million to female players’ annual earnings; quite a boost, but still it pales in comparison to the annual earnings of a male NBA player – even a modestly talented rookie. Hence, athletes like Brittney Griner are forced to play overseas just to “make ends meet,” support their families, and make the most of their skills.
Those who try to justify this pay disparity cite any of the following reasons: the NBA’s 75-year existence versus the WNBA’s 25 years; greater revenue generated by the NBA versus the WNBA; and the NBA’s longer season (4 months) versus the WNBA (3 months).
There is also the disparity of revenue sharing. This involves pooling and redistributing certain earnings sources among competing teams in a league to lessen economic inequalities among teams. These measures may include sharing earnings generated by national, regional and/or local media rights and merchandising earnings (all those tee-shirts, jerseys and other sports-logo gear), among other things. Currently, revenue sharing ratios for the NBA are a 50-50 split for players and team owners; in the WNBA the ratio is 20 percent for the players and 80 percent for the team owners.
Critics of this double standard have offered some suggestions for bridging the NBA/WNBA pay gap. They include: improving marketing activity for the WNBA; getting WNBA players more involved in promoting the league; extending the WNBA season; and revamping the WNBA revenue-sharing model to be comparable to that of the NBA.
Whether these measures would raise the profile – and the earnings – of WNBA players doesn’t excuse or dismiss the current reality. That is, WNBA players earn far less that their NBA counterparts, despite doing essentially the same work that requires the same skill level.
There definitely is something wrong with this picture. It’s called discrimination and it’s wrong…period.