The Basketball Gender Wage Gap: Why WNBA Athletes Play in Russia
The United States Women’s National Team (“USWNT”), in its lawsuit against US Soccer, drew much-needed attention to the gender wage gap in sports. And while the negotiation of USWNT’s new collective bargaining agreement represents a historic win for female athletes, the pay disparity between men and women persists in other professional sports, including basketball.
In fact, these financial inequities have prompted more than half of Women’s National Basketball Association (“WNBA”) athletes to play for teams overseas. This list includes top players such as Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, and Diana Taurasi. According to women’s basketball agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas, the largest contracts offered to players have come from clubs in Russia and Turkey, allowing some players to earn six to seven times the maximum WNBA salary ($228,094) during the off-season. In the past, some players have even elected to forego the WNBA season entirely, choosing instead to compete in Russia.
Brittney Griner, a WNBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, is among the list of female athletes who have played abroad as a way to supplement their income. Last February, one week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Griner was detained by customs at an airport in Moscow for drug charges while traveling to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg. Griner’s story made headlines across the country and placed a spotlight on the gender pay gap in American sports. Colas, who has represented Griner throughout the entirety of her professional basketball career, wrote in an LA Times op-ed, “While her detention has risen to the top of news for its geopolitical relevance, supercharged by celebrity, at its underbelly lies a story of gender-pay disparity here in the United States.”
In light of Griner’s sentence and the war on Ukraine, many WNBA players have chosen to forego playing in Russia this year. The WNBA recognizes this, and although it has attempted to supplement its athletes’ salaries through various marketing deals, it is unlikely that this will be sufficient to keep players from competing overseas.
The inequities that exist in women’s basketball are apparent when one considers the base pay salaries of the WNBA versus the NBA. The three highest paid WNBA athletes, for example, each earn $228,094 per season. The estimated minimum salary for NBA players, on the other hand, is just north of $1 million for the 2022-2023 season. This wage gap has been attributed to differences in revenue generated by the respective leagues. It is worth noting, however, that while the men receive a 50-50 split of league-generated revenue, the women are given half that at 25%. In the most recent WNBA collective bargaining agreement, the league agreed to allot 50% of revenue to players. However, the 50% share is contingent upon the league reaching certain growth benchmarks.And as of October 2021, those targets have not been met.
With the WNBA’s current ESPN deal expiring in 2025, the league has an opportunity to narrow the gender wage gap and generate more revenue. Under its current media rights deal, ESPN paid the WNBA $27 million in 2021. In contrast, the NBA receives an average of $2.67 billion from ESPN and Turner Sports annually. By expanding its TV rights and increasing media coverage, the WNBA can incentivize brands to make more lucrative investments through team sponsorships and athlete endorsements, ultimately making it more feasible for women to forego playing abroad.
Until this happens, however, it is hard to imagine a reality in which WNBA athletes remain stateside during the off-season. These women play overseas out of necessity. They are simply not afforded the same opportunities and financial stability as their male counterparts and, as we saw in Brittney Griner’s case, the consequences of these inequities can be severe.
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