Today is a historic day in women’s sports—but it’s also tinged with disappointment. The Women’s National Basketball Association has announced a new agreement that will change the way its players are paid, after a long road of negotiations between the players’ union and the WNBA offices. It offers a pay increase, full pay during maternity leave, and, most importantly, a revenue split between the teams and the Association, according to The New York Times.
These changes are a shining city on a hill in the darkness that has been the pay equity battle for women in sport, but it could have been so much better. By better, I mean that it should have been so much closer to what male players are getting, considering that the WNBA was created and is partially owned by the NBA, a company whose revenue stretches around the circumference of the earth.
The major tentpoles of the agreement are the pay increase, the improved off-season opportunities, maternity leave, and revenue splitting. All of these things are good. But how good is good? According to the Times, the maximum salary for players is going to increase by 83 percent, bringing the max salary amount to $215,000. The league is also putting money towards marketing agreements with players, giving them an opportunity to make another $250,000 at maximum. Cool. But in comparison to the max salaries that can be earned in the NBA, the equity math just doesn’t math.
Let’s take a look at Zion Williamson, 19, who was the number one NBA draft pick for the Pelicans. In his first two years, Williamson will make $20 million. This salary is guaranteed even if he misses a portion of the season—which he is likely to do as he’s currently injured—and it doesn’t factor any potential sponsorship deals that Williamson may sign throughout his career. The players of the WNBA were not asking to make millions (humble queens), but the pay gap between a few hundred thousand a year and a few tens of millions a year is one that I’m too poor even to calculate.
The maternity leave portion of the agreement is the least complaint inducing section thus far. From the Times:
“This agreement also would provide maternity leave with full salary, a dedicated space in arenas for nursing mothers, and a $5,000 child care stipend. Veteran players also would be able to seek reimbursement for up to $60,000 in costs directly related to adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing, and fertility treatment.”
But it is shocking to see that in a profession where one’s body is their livelihood that anyone has to ask or negotiate for full maternity leave. Elite basketball players don’t just grow on trees.
Players will also be given better opportunities to earn during the offseason. Before this agreement, most players went to overseas leagues to supplement their pay and stay active, but it also increased the risk of injury and affected their seasons in the states. The WNBA is agreeing to work with other leagues to find new opportunities to keep the players stateside and allow them to have some sort of rest period while also ensuring that all players are present at the start of training camp. The New York Times reported:
“In exchange for these and other benefits is a new requirement that will be gradually phased in: Players must be in W.N.B.A. training camps from the start. No more reporting late, or even after the season begins, to finish commitments to clubs overseas, with exceptions built in only for national team play and players in their first three seasons.”
This portion of the agreement may add years to players’ careers if they’re spending more time recovering than they are flying back and forth to piecemeal a salary comparable to their male counterparts. And they will undoubtedly need all those extra years if they ever plan to make anything close to what Zion Williamson is going to make after not playing an entire first year.
Then there is the revenue split, which is the Moby Dick of this agreement. The NBA splits its revenue with players on a 50/50 basis. After all, the players are the product. People are not tuning into the dunk contest every year to listen to league commentators; they want to see tall players with big personalities do big jumps. WNBA players wanted a comparable split because they, too, are the product (and anyone who argues that concept has never looked at Sue Bird’s Instagram account). With the new agreement, “players are estimated to receive just 20 to 30 percent of league revenue. By 2021, if the league reaches certain revenue markers in broadcast agreements, marketing partnerships, and licensing deals, the W.N.B.A., and its players could be splitting revenue equally.”
‘Could’ is such a strong and damning word. Broadcasting agreements and marketing partnerships are high stakes popularity contests. Players are in an uphill battle to attract more money to the sport in an environment where they’re not getting equal coverage or equal star status treatment. They’re not packaged and promoted to within an inch of their life in the same way that the 2019 draft class for the NBA is promoted. The men’s draft was so heavily promoted that I can name the top four picks even though I have almost zero interest in the NBA. Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett, and De’Andre Hunter are at the forefront of my mind, but who plays on the Golden State Warriors besides Steph Curry? Fuck if I know. Who are the star players on the WNBA’s Washington Mystics? Couldn’t list any without a Google search first.
This is a problem. Why? because the Washington Mystics are the reigning WNBA champions. The league should have promoted that so hard that I bleed red and black (Mystics team colors) from my eyeballs, but I only know this thanks to Twitter and a few live streams on YouTube TV. Who will be to blame in 2021 if the revenue markers aren’t hit—the product, or those in charge of marketing the product? It doesn’t matter, because the players will be the ones paying for it for the next eight years until it’s time to negotiate another contract.
Still, the new CBA is an astronomical leap forward for the players who worked for it to exist. I don’t seek to rob them of such an accomplishment. But being an athlete at their level is hard. It’s hard in ways that fans can’t even begin to quantify. Some of them are national champions, some of them are champions in European leagues, some of them are Olympic medalists—and all of them are talented enough to have made it to the professional level. Getting a decent wage and excellent maternity leave at this tier of sport shouldn’t be an accomplishment; it should be the norm. The day that I’m waiting to celebrate is the one in which sports reporters can complain openly on Twitter that women basketball/soccer/hockey players make too much money. Sign a five-year multi-million deal with Arike Ogunbowale, so I know it’s real.