Diana Taurasi made the All-Women's National Basketball Association First Team in 2014 and helped the Phoenix Mercury win the league's championship. That season, she was paid the WNBA maximum salary of $107,500. In 2013-14, the Phoenix Suns employed Dionte Christmas for 198 minutes. For those minutes–the only minutes Christmas has ever played in the National Basketball Association–he was paid the league minimum of $490,180.
The difference between what men and women are paid for essentially the same job is referred to as the gender wage gap. In the United States, that gap is estimated to be 0.78—that is, a woman is paid 78 cents for every dollar paid to a man doing the same work. While that's bad, the Taurasi-Christmas comparison suggests the gender wage gap in professional basketball is worse. And it might look worse still if we compared Taurasi to an equivalent NBA starter and team star, a $14.7 million-a-year player like Washington's John Wall, instead of someone buried deep on the bench.
Of course, one might argue that these are unfair comparisons. The NBA generates far more revenue than the WNBA; as such, it's no surprise that the former's players are paid a higher salary. It's tempting to assume that when we account for the revenue disparity between the NBA and WNBA, the gender wage gap disappears. Unfortunately, that seems to run counter to the data. Even when we consider differences in revenue, there remains a significant gap between the wages paid to WNBA players and their NBA counterparts.
In general, two factors dictate a worker's wage. The first is the revenue generated by the firm that employs them. The second is the worker's ability to bargain for a share of that revenue. For example, the NBA in 2013-14 had league revenues of around $4.7 billion. The union and the owners have agreed, via collective bargaining, that about half of that revenue should be paid to the players. This share is similar to the deals reached with players in the National Football League and Major League Baseball.
We do not have a website like Forbes.com that reports WNBA revenues, and the league did not respond to a VICE Sports interview request. Nevertheless, we do have some public information to approximate those numbers.
The WNBA has a broadcasting deal that pays the league $12 million per year. Average attendance in 2014 was 7,578 per game. The Handbook on the Economics of Women in Sports reports that average ticket prices in 2011 were $15. Given 204 total home games and assuming ticket prices haven't changed—if anything, it seems likely they've increased—total 2014 gate revenue in the WNBA figures to be at least $23.2 million.
So, if we ignore revenue from all other sources—such as merchandise, sponsorships, and playoff ticket sales—and we assume average ticket prices have not changed in four years, we can say that league revenue in the WNBA is at least $35 million.
How much of this is paid to the players? Currently, the average league salary is $75,000. With 154 players logging minutes in 2014, the WNBA would have paid its players $11,550,000. In other words, the television deal by itself is sufficient to pay every player's salary—which means the WNBA players' union essentially has given league owners all other revenue sources.
More to the point, the WNBA is only paying its players about 33 percent of league revenue—a far lower number than the NBA's 50 percent, never mind the English Football League players who are paid 76 percent of league revenues.
Also remember: we clearly are underestimating WNBA total revenues. So our 33 percent figure is likely too high. Yet whatever the exact number, it appears a significant gender wage gap exists in basketball, with WNBA players only getting–at most–about 0.67 of what NBA players receive, even after adjusting for much higher NBA revenues.
What would Taurasi receive if she played under the NBA rules, without a dollar more of additional WNBA revenue? Let's do the basic math.
In 2013-14, the NBA capped the salary of a player with at least ten years of experience at $19,181,750, or about 3.8 times the wages of an average player. If the WNBA paid 50 percent of its revenues to its players, the average player–given the above estimates for the WNBA—would receive $114,249, which is more than the current league maximum. In turn, a maximum player like Taurasi—a veteran superstar receiving 3.8 times more the average salary—would be paid $440,313, roughly four times what she actually made in 2014.
At this point, you may be wondering: Why haven't WNBA players been able to demand the same share of revenue that NBA players receive? Discrimination should never be discounted, but there is another issue to consider. The percentage of revenue the WNBA is giving is similar to what we saw in professional male sports in the 1950s. For example, the NBA in the 1950s paid 41 percent of its gross receipts in salaries to its players. In the same decade, the NFL paid 32 percent of its revenue to its players, while MLB only gave its players 17 percent of its revenue.
This probably isn't a coincidence. Back then, baseball players were bound by the reserve clause, which the federal antitrust protection made possible. Football and basketball players recently had formed their unions, but neither group showed any willingness to walk off the job. Management was strong, labor was weak, and it wasn't until the 1970s that unions in professional men's sports leagues indicated a willingness to strike. Without that threat, there isn't much workers can do to improve their lot.
To date, WNBA players, like athletes in the 1950s, have not appeared willing to walk off their jobs. Why not? In part, it may be because both the league and high-level women's professional basketball as a whole are relatively young, and that players are grateful simply for the opportunity to play. It's also notable that WNBA owners continue to claim that the league has financial problems, saying in 2014 that only half of the teams in the league were profitable. Such arguments have been used by sports league owners since the 19th century, and historically many athletes have bought into them, believing that higher pay would threaten the survival of their teams and leagues.
For example, Marvin Miller faced significant opposition from baseball players when he organized baseball's labor union in the 1960s. "From time immemorial," Miller later wrote, "the baseball powers-that-be force-fed the players propaganda: The commissioner (although appointed and paid by the owners) represented the players; players were privileged to be paid to play a kid's game; and (the biggest fairy tale of all) baseball was not a business and, in any case, was unprofitable for the owners."
More recently, the NBA claimed during its last labor negotiations with the players that it was losing money. Both Nate Silver and I found that claim to be unbelievable. Nevertheless, when negotiations concluded the NBA was able to extract a greater share of revenue from its players. As a negotiating tactic, crying poor seems to work.
Of course, such claims are very difficult to independently verify, as sports leagues do not tend to make their financial information available to the public. And even if they did, it's possible, even likely, that the numbers would paint a misleading picture. As Toronto Blue Jays executive Paul Beeston once told author and economist Andrew Zimbalist, "Anyone who quotes profits of a baseball club is missing the point. Under generally accepted accounting principles, I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss and get every national accounting firm to agree with me."
Besides, whether or not owners are actually losing money isn't entirely relevant to the question of how much should players be paid. It's quite possible for a firm to underpay its workers and lose money or go out of business though overall mismanagement. It's also possible for a league to be profitable and individual teams to lose money because of how certain teams are managed or because particular geographic markets don't provide sufficient support.
Despite all this, the WNBA's claims of financial distress have helped produce a very favorable agreement for the league. WNBA players are paid a lower share of revenue than their NBA counterparts, and the WNBA owners get to pocket the difference. But is this actually helpful to the league's future? Going back to Taurasi: like many WNBA stars, during the offseason she plays overseas, for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia. There, Taurasi's annual salary is $1.5 million, and earlier this year she announced that UMMC was paying her an additional six-figure sum to sit out the current WNBA season.
When another league is paying your players to not play, your league has a problem.
The current CBA between the WNBA and its players calls for the maximum salary to increase to only $121,500 by 2021. At that rate, it seems likely that more of the league's stars might be tempted to follow Taurasi's lead; in fact, when Taurasi announced her decision, ESPN's Kate Fagan reported that foreign clubs already had been offering other players bonuses or contracts contingent on their sitting out the WNBA season. That can't be good news for the league's future. One suggested solution is to increase the maximum salary for the game's very best players, like Taurasi, while limiting the total number of maximum salaries to one per team. Such an approach, though, ignores the story the data appears to be telling: the WNBA is currently paying its players a lower share of revenue than the NBA.
Here's a better way: treat WNBA players like their NBA counterparts. Establish gender equality in basketball pay by increasing the player share of league revenue to around 50 percent. This could do more to give both WNBA stars and rank-and-file players a fairer shake. The money would matter. So would the goodwill. According to Fagan, WNBA players have declined those Taurasi-like sit-out offers in order to play in the league largely out of a "sense of solidarity" and a desire to "grow the WNBA." If players can share for the good of their sport, perhaps it's time for owners to return the favor.