The Future Of The WNBA Would Be Helped By Higher Pay Today
By:
Gradelo Staff
3 weeks ago
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(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Nneka Ogwumike would like the WNBA to pay her more money. The WNBA should want the same thing. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

A few months ago, I argued there is a significant gender-wage gap in professional basketball. While the NBA gives 50% of its revenue to its players, it appears the WNBA pays out only about 20% of its revenue.

Not surprisingly, several WNBA players responded to that story with calls for higher pay. Nneka Ogwumike noted specifically that the players should set a goal of receiving 50% of league revenue, telling ESPN: "Knowing how far we need to go, that’s a good marker. If you just think of it from a principle standpoint, it makes sense. Hopefully we can work toward that."

Obviously the players want more money. But I think they are not the only people who should want the WNBA players to be paid better.

I think the WNBA should want to see its players paid better.

This may seem counterintuitive. Consider the following quote:

The financial results of the past season prove that salaries must come down. We believe that players insisting on exorbitant prices are injuring their own interests by forcing out of existence clubs which cannot be run and pay large salaries except at a personal loss.

This sounds like something someone with the WNBA (or even the NBA) might have said recently. But actually it comes from baseball’s National League — in 1879. Yes, the argument that high salaries are going to destroy a sports league go back nearly 140 years. And such arguments have been repeated frequently since.

A few weeks ago, James Dolan announced that he intended to sell the New York Liberty of the WNBA. In reporting the story, The New York Times noted:

In 2015, Dolan told “Real Sports” on HBO that the Liberty were a consistent money loser and said he had nearly handed the team back to the league: “It hasn’t made money. Its prospects of making money, at that time and even today, are still slim.”

Again, it is not surprising to hear Dolan claim he lost money on the Liberty. But before The Times — or anyone else — accepts this as true, we should remember:

  • The NBA has made similar claims about its teams very recently, and there is good reason to doubt that story.
  • Owners of professional sports teams have made similar arguments for more than a century.
  • Because teams tend not to show us their books, there is no way to determine if anything they say is true.

As for the WNBA, I tend to agree with Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post. I doubt business is as bad as James Dolan’s quote suggest. In a league in which players receive only about 20% of league revenue, it seems hard to believe there are serious financial losses. That being said, there is an incentive to claim losses exist. Certainly, if the WNBA was definitely turning a profit, it would make it harder for the league to refute a call for higher player salaries when the CBA is renegotiated.

Then again, maybe there is also an incentive for the WNBA to stop resisting the players’ call for higher wages.

As Commissioner Lisa Border recently emphasized, the WNBA is a very young league. The past history of professional sports leagues indicates that leagues do much better after many decades (certainly more than two) have elapsed. Part of this improvement surely comes from having more and more people exposed to the league. But expanding the talent pool a league draws from can also help. For example, it is not unreasonable to argue that baseball got much better after 1947: Racial integration gave baseball teams access to more talent, and more talent definitely improves the product a sports league offers.

The WNBA certainly has a number of very talented players today. But the low pay in the WNBA has had a detrimental impact on its talent pool. The most obvious example is Diana Taurasi, who sat out the 2015 season after her team in Russia agreed to pay her not to play in the WNBA.

Taurasi was motivated to accept this offer because the relatively low salaries in the WNBA lead many players to play professional basketball throughout the year. When the WNBA season is over, a majority of players as the WNBA itself notes  join teams in other countries. In many cases, the international teams pay many times what the WNBA is willing to pay. Although the pay can be substantial, it is difficult for a professional athlete to continue playing with no significant breaks.

It recently occurred to me, though, that the lack of pay isn’t just an issue for current players. Consider for a moment the teams in the Final Four of the 2017 women’s NCAA volleyball tournament. As you watch these teams (and yes, this is on tonight!), you should notice something about the rosters: Of the players on the four teams in the final (Nebraska, Penn State, Florida and Stanford), four women are 6 feet 6 inches or taller.

This is an exceedingly uncommon height for women. How uncommon? It is argued that 6-6 women are less common than 7-foot men. But when you look at the rosters of the final six teams in the 2017 men’s NCAA volleyball final, you don’t see any 7-0 players. Why? As a Forbes contributor noted in 2013, those men have a huge incentive to play basketball even if they are not that good.

So why are very tall women playing volleyball? Well, I am sure they love the sport. But imagine pay in the WNBA was much higher. It is likely higher pay would encourage more girls (especially very tall girls) to acquire the skills necessary to compete in basketball. In other words, higher pay might make some girls decide they love basketball a bit more than volleyball. And that would deepen the future talent pool for the WNBA.

Ultimately, ownership of a team in a relatively young league is an investment that promises to generate very high returns in the distant future. If the WNBA wants the future to be as bright as possible, it shouldn’t pay its players more today just because that would make the game better today; it should also pay its players more today to encourage more girls to play basketball. And that will ultimately make the future of the WNBA much better.

“>

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Nneka Ogwumike would like the WNBA to pay her more money. The WNBA should want the same thing. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

A few months ago, I argued there is a significant gender-wage gap in professional basketball. While the NBA gives 50% of its revenue to its players, it appears the WNBA pays out only about 20% of its revenue.

Not surprisingly, several WNBA players responded to that story with calls for higher pay. Nneka Ogwumike noted specifically that the players should set a goal of receiving 50% of league revenue, telling ESPN: “Knowing how far we need to go, that’s a good marker. If you just think of it from a principle standpoint, it makes sense. Hopefully we can work toward that.”

Obviously the players want more money. But I think they are not the only people who should want the WNBA players to be paid better.

I think the WNBA should want to see its players paid better.

This may seem counterintuitive. Consider the following quote:

The financial results of the past season prove that salaries must come down. We believe that players insisting on exorbitant prices are injuring their own interests by forcing out of existence clubs which cannot be run and pay large salaries except at a personal loss.

This sounds like something someone with the WNBA (or even the NBA) might have said recently. But actually it comes from baseball’s National League — in 1879. Yes, the argument that high salaries are going to destroy a sports league go back nearly 140 years. And such arguments have been repeated frequently since.

A few weeks ago, James Dolan announced that he intended to sell the New York Liberty of the WNBA. In reporting the story, The New York Times noted:

In 2015, Dolan told “Real Sports” on HBO that the Liberty were a consistent money loser and said he had nearly handed the team back to the league: “It hasn’t made money. Its prospects of making money, at that time and even today, are still slim.”

Again, it is not surprising to hear Dolan claim he lost money on the Liberty. But before The Times — or anyone else — accepts this as true, we should remember:

  • The NBA has made similar claims about its teams very recently, and there is good reason to doubt that story.
  • Owners of professional sports teams have made similar arguments for more than a century.
  • Because teams tend not to show us their books, there is no way to determine if anything they say is true.

As for the WNBA, I tend to agree with Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post. I doubt business is as bad as James Dolan’s quote suggest. In a league in which players receive only about 20% of league revenue, it seems hard to believe there are serious financial losses. That being said, there is an incentive to claim losses exist. Certainly, if the WNBA was definitely turning a profit, it would make it harder for the league to refute a call for higher player salaries when the CBA is renegotiated.

Then again, maybe there is also an incentive for the WNBA to stop resisting the players’ call for higher wages.

As Commissioner Lisa Border recently emphasized, the WNBA is a very young league. The past history of professional sports leagues indicates that leagues do much better after many decades (certainly more than two) have elapsed. Part of this improvement surely comes from having more and more people exposed to the league. But expanding the talent pool a league draws from can also help. For example, it is not unreasonable to argue that baseball got much better after 1947: Racial integration gave baseball teams access to more talent, and more talent definitely improves the product a sports league offers.

The WNBA certainly has a number of very talented players today. But the low pay in the WNBA has had a detrimental impact on its talent pool. The most obvious example is Diana Taurasi, who sat out the 2015 season after her team in Russia agreed to pay her not to play in the WNBA.

Taurasi was motivated to accept this offer because the relatively low salaries in the WNBA lead many players to play professional basketball throughout the year. When the WNBA season is over, a majority of players as the WNBA itself notes  join teams in other countries. In many cases, the international teams pay many times what the WNBA is willing to pay. Although the pay can be substantial, it is difficult for a professional athlete to continue playing with no significant breaks.

It recently occurred to me, though, that the lack of pay isn’t just an issue for current players. Consider for a moment the teams in the Final Four of the 2017 women’s NCAA volleyball tournament. As you watch these teams (and yes, this is on tonight!), you should notice something about the rosters: Of the players on the four teams in the final (Nebraska, Penn State, Florida and Stanford), four women are 6 feet 6 inches or taller.

This is an exceedingly uncommon height for women. How uncommon? It is argued that 6-6 women are less common than 7-foot men. But when you look at the rosters of the final six teams in the 2017 men’s NCAA volleyball final, you don’t see any 7-0 players. Why? As a Forbes contributor noted in 2013, those men have a huge incentive to play basketball even if they are not that good.

So why are very tall women playing volleyball? Well, I am sure they love the sport. But imagine pay in the WNBA was much higher. It is likely higher pay would encourage more girls (especially very tall girls) to acquire the skills necessary to compete in basketball. In other words, higher pay might make some girls decide they love basketball a bit more than volleyball. And that would deepen the future talent pool for the WNBA.

Ultimately, ownership of a team in a relatively young league is an investment that promises to generate very high returns in the distant future. If the WNBA wants the future to be as bright as possible, it shouldn’t pay its players more today just because that would make the game better today; it should also pay its players more today to encourage more girls to play basketball. And that will ultimately make the future of the WNBA much better.

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