Dunn: Taking Her Shot

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Linda Dunn

Caitlin Clark’s college basketball career has generated a great deal of media coverage and her recent signing with the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) team, Indiana Fever, has reignited a complaint that women have been making since at least the 1860s: Gender Pay Disparity.

The highest salary in WNBA history is $242,000. The minimum NBA salary is $1.1 million. Caitlin Clark’s starting salary is $76,535.

The usual rallying cry is “Equal Pay for Equal Work” but that shoe doesn’t fit this particular foot. The National Basketball Association (NBA) brought in more than $10 billion in revenue annually during its 82-game season while the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) projected total revenue was about $200 million for its 40-game season.

Most of us agree that if WNBA players want better pay, they need to generate more revenue.

But we’d be wrong.

When the WNBA’s revenue went up from $60 million in 2022 to $200 million in 2023 and viewership increased 36% and attendance rose 16%, player’s share of the revenue dropped 9.3%.

Much of the current misunderstanding over the pay disparity is the byproduct of too few of us knowing — let alone understanding or caring about — the history and financial structures of the men’s and women’s professional sports organizations and basketball leagues in particular.

The men’s basketball league was founded in New York City on June 6, 1946, as the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and became the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949, after merging with the National Basketball League (NBL).

The NBA later absorbed the short-lived American Basketball Association (ABA), which many of us older fans remember well for its flashier and more popular style of offensive play as well as a dearly loved red-white-and-blue ball.

The Pacers won three ABA Championships in four years of the League’s nine-year history before merging into the NBA.

Since then, fan engagement in basketball, especially locally, has continued to grow. Surveys show 30% of Americans are fans of the NBA; up from 27% in 2019.

(The NFL still has a lock on “America’s Favorite Sport”.)

Women’s basketball got a later start than men’s basketball and was initially a different game. They played “half court basketball” because women were deemed too delicate for the rigors of full court basketball. (Players were not allowed to cross the center line, so they could only play on their own side of the court.)

In 1971, the passage of Title IX meant women were playing full-court games and the first women’s professional basketball league, the Women’s Professional Basketball League, was established in 1978.

It had $14 million in losses during its three years of existence.

Similar associations were formed at later times and each failed to thrive until the NBA founded the WNBA in 1996. It still subsidizes the WNBA and NBA money that flows into the WNBA cuts into the NBA’s profits. Thus, we assume that the way to increase player pay is to increase WNBA’s revenue.

But that doesn’t work in this situation because while the NBA roughly splits 50% of the NBA’s revenue between the league and the players; the WNBA does not. It pays its players 50% of the league’s incremental revenue. The WNBA hasn’t officially announced their cut between league and players, but it has been estimated to be as low as an 80-20 split in favor of the league.

It’s been estimated that if the WNBA paid 50% of its revenue to players as the NBA does, top WNBA players would achieve pay equity and earn about $3 million.

While it’s unlikely we’ll ever see the WNBA players boasting the same earnings as NBA players, it’s making slow progress towards higher revenue. The WNBA is planning to expand to 16 teams and is negotiating new media rights. The player’s unions is also preparing to opt out of its agreement and force a new collective bargaining agreement – something the player’s union did before in 2018.

How effective these measures will be largely rests not upon how much and how loudly we complain about inequalities but upon whether or not we basketball fans get as excited about Caitlin Clark as we did about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird back in the days when the NBA was facing bankruptcy.

Caitlin Clark seems to have that same star power and potential to energize the fan base. But can she do it alone?

There’s not a single slam dunk recorded during Clark’s NCAA basketball career. But she’s made some incredibly long 3-pointers from behind the logos.

And pay equity has never been a slam dunk in any profession. It’s always been a long shot.

A lifelong resident of Hancock County, Linda Dunn is an author and retired Department of Defense employee.