Katie Lou Samuelson had the perfect shoes to celebrate the anniversary of Title IX. Before the Sparks’ home game against the Chicago Sky on June 23, Samuelson unwrapped a white tissue paper inside a black shoe box to reveal his custom-embellished Puma sneakers.
The Samuelson shoes were advertised in bold white font on a black background, “Pay Female Athletes.”
The sneaker featured the Title IX anniversary insignia on the back of the left shoe and Brittney Griner’s initials and jersey number 42 on the right.
The Phoenix Mercury center’s detention and conviction in Russia for keeping secrets has become emblematic of the pay problem plaguing the WNBA, where even stars like Griner — a WNBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and eight-time All-Star — earn four or five times what they earn at home in the WNBA offseason. travel abroad for more than double the salary.
Established decades before the 26-year-old WNBA, international leagues have long been a financial lifeline for American players who spend five months in front of their home crowd, then take off for seven-month seasons in Turkey, Spain, Russia, China or Australia. .
Exotic locations and massive paydays come at the cost of attending big events like weddings and birthdays or spending time with loved ones, not to mention the extra wear and tear on the player’s body.
Samuelson, who also played in Spain, can envision a future for the WNBA when players don’t have to play overseas, but that’s a long way off. The WNBA regular season should probably be longer than four or five months. The squad should expand from 12 players. Wages should have increased.
Steps to reduce the pay gap begin with raising the WNBA, a responsibility shared by the league, players and agents.
“As women in sports, we have to play the long game,” said Allison Galer, the agent who represents the Sparks’ Chiney Ogwumike, Washington forward Elizabeth Williams and reigning Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyen.
Rising TV ratings and product sales indicate the WNBA’s growing popularity. It’s a recent boom, with its origins in Bradenton, Fla., where the WNBA is holding its 2020 pandemic bubble season. There was a silver lining to the disastrous year for the WNBA. Viewership for the WNBA Finals was up 15% from last year, while nearly every other league saw significant declines in viewership. Off the court, Breonna Taylor’s unapologetic advocacy for Black Lives Matter and voting rights has strengthened the WNBA’s image as a leader in social justice.
Many companies are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion beyond 2020, which should make the WNBA and its players prime targets for deals by brands looking to connect with younger, digitally savvy and predominantly female customers.
“We are such a league [says] put your money where your mouth is,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
The oft-repeated statistic from Women in Sport shows that between 2011 and 2013 only 0.4% of total sports sponsorship went to women. This small lane is usually dominated by star athletes in individual sports.
Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams were the only female athletes in Forbes’ top 50 this year, with Osaka, 24, the world’s highest-paid female athlete. His estimated earnings of $59.2 million ranked 19th overall, with $58 million coming from out-of-court settlements. Williams earned 45 million of her $45.3 million on the court and was ranked 31st.
Engelbert said the highest-paid female athlete has been a tennis player every year since Forbes began tracking the data in 1990, reinforcing an ecosystem that devalues women in team sports.
“Before it’s over,” he added, “we will change the broken assessment model.”
The WNBA is valued at more than $1 billion, thanks to a recent $75 million capital raise. The cash from twenty investors was the largest capital raise ever for a women’s sports property.
Engelbert said that the money will be available in three to five years. It is designed for brand promotion and marketing; the globalization of the WNBA; innovation and growth of consumer touch points; and human capital and operational optimization, according to a statement from the league announcing the transaction.
Where it won’t go is the players’ salaries.
While the 2020 collective bargaining agreement provides a number of benefits, including six-figure salaries on average, higher pay for star players and fully paid maternity leave, the players have yet to secure equal revenue sharing.
WNBA players are guaranteed only a 50-50 revenue split if the league meets stated but undisclosed goals. According to Forbes, the WNBA had approximately $60 million in revenue in 2018. The NBA, which is 50 years old, earned $7.4 billion that year and is on track for $10 billion in revenue this year.
The dual task of raising revenue and amending the CBA, which runs through 2027, makes it unlikely that raising player salaries will be the next domino to fall in the WNBA’s pay-cap battle.
“Everybody wants to go straight to the paycheck,” said Samuelson, the former No. 4 overall pick who played for four teams in four years in the WNBA. “But there are a lot of different things that need to be put in place before that happens.”
Aside from the increased pay, players point to issues such as a lack of charter flights — especially in this compressed season when teams often play games every day — or training facilities. The Sparks have split their practice time this season between three venues: a gym rental in Torrance, USC’s Galen Center and Crypto.com Arena, where they also play.
The best foreign leagues meet demands off the field. Not only are players well paid, but they play among elite competition while honing their skills. The development opportunity is especially important for young players who get limited playing time in the WNBA, which does not have a practice squad or development league. The wealthiest teams, including Griner’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, run by a pair of Russian oligarchs, are known to provide players with their own apartments, private car services and luxury travel accommodations.
But opportunities to play abroad are dwindling, Galer said. He doesn’t think any agent will send an American player to Russia amid Griner’s detention, the war in Ukraine and the Euroleague suspension of Russia’s top teams UMMC Ekaterinburg, Dynamo Kursk and MBA Moscow. COVID-19 has also crippled the foreign market.
Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike said with stagnant WNBA salaries, “there’s more weight on sponsorships and brand partnerships.”
Reinventing a sponsorship plan for WNBA players requires hustle and deliberate branding efforts from individual player agents and the league. From her first day as commissioner in 2019, Engelbert said the WNBA had a “marketing problem.” To solve the problem, it tried to encourage players to stay in the United States during the offseason in exchange for league marketing deals with WNBA partners that provided compensation for participation in advertising campaigns.
The hope is to turn reigning MVP 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 for the best Spanish league and Euroleague.
The marketing money offered by the WNBA still can’t cover the difference in an overseas contract that pays $10,000 to $15,000 a month.
“Is it better for the players to be here for bargaining purposes? Sure,” Galer said. “But if every player stays here, the pot won’t necessarily grow.”
Engelbert said she would never close overseas opportunities for players, but asked them to prioritize the WNBA and make it financially worthwhile for the league. Standing behind the podium at All-Star weekend, Engelbert celebrated the progress made in the last one.
During a press conference at the league’s midseason event in Chicago, the commissioner announced an additional $1.5 million will be given to players from the league’s marketing contract pool. Charter flights for the WNBA Finals were on their way. The playoff bonus pool increased by nearly 50% to $500,000.
“We’re just trying to get away from the chip,” he said at the event.
Engelbert echoed that statement when describing the WNBA’s journey toward pay equity. No one can solve the problem with just a sweeping statement, but recent developments have commissioners, players and agents looking to a bright future.
Nneka Ogwumike said she hoped “it won’t be long before we see minimum wages reaching six figures”.
And Engelbert is already scouting cities for potential expansion teams starting in 2024 or 2025.
“We’re only going up from here,” Galer said. “We just have to build it.”