Bring up the WNBA today, and you will bring up a discussion about how WNBA players are treated like second-class citizens. WNBA players fly on commercial flights unlike the private jets of NBA players. Their minimum salary is far smaller than NBA players, with star Brittney Griner arguing that WNBA players should make at least half of their NBA counterparts. Former NBA star Jalen Rose told Ebony that the WNBA should focus more on marketing their players and storylines in the way the NBA does, and through that route eventually earn equal salaries.
There is no denying that these calls for equality are often met by Twitter trolls who counter with sexist or homophobic slurs. But Rose is committing a mistake made by both enlightened reformers and hard-nosed businessmen who believed that if you marketed a product well enough, people would inevitably buy it. Ask the Ford Edsel and New Coke how that turned out.
Product is what determines the success of a business, not marketing or storylines. And while the WNBA is a good thing which should continue to be promoted, the idea that WNBA players should make anything close to their NBA counterparts is well-meaning but fundamentally flawed.
The League Difference
The WNBA has some reasons to claim that the league is getting more popular, such as “a 31 percent increase in television viewership and a 66 percent spike in merchandise sales” reported by the Seattle Times. But it remains miniscule compared to the NBA.
We do not know how much total revenue the WNBA as a league receives, though David Berri with Forbes argues that it is at least $50 million. To put that number in perspective, the lowest revenue earned by a NBA team was $170 million by the Milwaukee Bucks. The NBA is a massively larger and more successful product than the WNBA for a variety of reasons, which means that it is simply ridiculous for WNBA players to earn equal or even half of NBA salaries like Griner argued for.
Some proponents of more equal wages acknowledge that lower WNBA revenues mean that WNBA players will get paid less to some degree, but focus instead on the fact that the NBA pays its players a substantially larger percentage of league revenue (known as Basketball Related Income or BRI) compared to the WNBA based on free arrest records. This is a better argument, but the problem here is that as a smaller business with less appeal, the WNBA has less room for error and profit to share. Many WNBA teams are unprofitable and attendance is declining. And contrary to what Jalen Rose argues, all of the ESPN or NBA marketing in the world will not make Diana Taurasi or Brittney Griner household names like LeBron or Curry are.
Larger businesses throughout our economy, not just sports, can have larger profits because there are differences in scale. Comparing the WNBA and NBA on a one-to-one basis through percentages makes as much sense as assuming that Amazon and a local corner shop can devote the same percentage of their profits towards paying workers.
The WNBA’s Future
In addition to all of these aforementioned factors explaining the wage gap, there is one more crucial factor which should be pointed out about the WNBA’s potential to grow. Most people would assume that the WNBA’s audience would be women who want to see women’s basketball. But NBA commissioner Adam Silver observed in April that the WNBA’s core demographic are older men who want to see women’s basketball. In short, these are basketball fanatics who watch the WNBA in the summer because there is no NBA or college basketball to watch.
The WNBA does have more room to grow simply due to being smaller than either of those two sports behemoths, but it offers a less appealing product to the masses and is a significantly smaller business. Paying its players substantially more out of a misguided desire for equality will hurt the league and ultimately the players over the long term.