Pay fairness in girls’s sports activities: How the WNBA is enjoying the lengthy sport

LOS ANGELES — Katie Lou Samuelson had the right sneakers to mark the anniversary of Title IX. Earlier than the Sparks’ dwelling sport in opposition to the Chicago Sky on June 23, Samuelson unwrapped white tissue paper in a black shoe field to disclose her custom-decorated pair of Puma sneakers.

“Pay girls athletes,” Samuelson’s sneakers proclaimed in a daring white font throughout a black background.

The sneakers included a mark for the anniversary of Title IX on the again of the left shoe and Brittney Griner’s initials and jersey No. 42 on the proper.

The Phoenix Mercury heart’s detainment and conviction in Russia for hashish possession has grow to be a logo of the pay-equity difficulty plaguing the WNBA, the place even stars like Griner — a WNBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and eight-time All-Star — journey abroad throughout their WNBA offseason for salaries value greater than 4 or 5 instances what they earn at dwelling.

Worldwide leagues, established a long time earlier than 26-year-old WNBA, have lengthy been monetary lifelines for American gamers who spend 5 months in entrance of home-country crowds then jet off for seven-month seasons in Turkey, Spain, Russia, China or Australia .

The unique places and large paydays come on the expense of attending main occasions like weddings and birthdays or spending time with family members, to not point out extra put on and tear on a participant’s physique.

Samuelson, who additionally performs in Spain, can image a future for the WNBA when gamers aren’t as compelled to play abroad, but it surely’s a good distance off. The WNBA common season would most likely must be longer than 4 or 5 months. Rosters would want to broaden from 12 gamers. Salaries must rise.

The steps to shrink the pay hole begin with rising the WNBA, a accountability shared by the league, gamers and brokers.

“As girls in sports activities, we have now to play the lengthy sport,” stated Allison Galer, whose shopper checklist at her company Disrupt the Recreation consists of the Sparks’ Chiney Ogwumike, Washington ahead Elizabeth Williams and reigning rookie of the yr Michaela Onyenwere.

Rising TV rankings and merchandise gross sales point out the WNBA is climbing in reputation. It’s a current growth, discovering its origin in Bradenton, Fla., the place the WNBA held its pandemic bubble season in 2020. The disastrous yr had a silver lining for the WNBA. Viewership for the WNBA Finals grew 15% from the earlier yr when nearly all different leagues have been experiencing vital viewership decline. Off the court docket, unapologetic advocacy from gamers for Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter and voting rights bolstered the WNBA’s picture as a pacesetter in social justice.

Many firms are championing range, fairness and inclusion within the wake of 2020, which ought to make the WNBA and its gamers prime targets for endorsement offers from manufacturers seeking to join with youthful, digital-savvy and predominantly feminine prospects.

“We are the league that [says] put your cash the place your mouth is,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert stated.

A generally repeated statistic from Girls in Sport says solely 0.4% of whole sports activities sponsorship between 2011 and 2013 went to girls. That tiny sliver is often dominated by athletes who star in particular person sports activities.

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams have been the one feminine athletes in Forbes’ prime 50 this yr with the 24-year-old Osaka checking in because the highest-paid feminine athlete on this planet. Her estimated whole earnings of $59.2 million ranked nineteenth general, and $58 million got here from off-court offers. Williams earned $45 million of her $45.3 million off the court docket and ranked thirty first.

The highest-earning feminine athlete has been a tennis participant in yearly since Forbes began monitoring the information in 1990, reinforcing an ecosystem that undervalues ​​girls in workforce sports activities, Engelbert stated.

“Earlier than I am executed,” she added, “we will change the damaged valuation mannequin.”

The WNBA is valued at greater than $1 billion, a spike resulting from a current $75 million capital increase. The money from two dozen traders was the largest-ever capital raised for a girls’s sports activities property.

The cash shall be deployed over three to 5 years, Engelbert stated. It is earmarked for model elevation and advertising; globalization of the WNBA; innovation and development of shopper touchpoints; and human capital and operational optimization, in response to an announcement from the league asserting the transaction.

The place it will not go is to participant salaries.

Though the 2020 collective bargaining settlement secured a number of advantages like six-figure salaries on common, larger pay for star gamers and totally paid maternity depart, gamers have but to safe equal income sharing.

WNBA gamers are assured solely a 50-50 cut up of income if the league meets prescribed however undisclosed targets. The WNBA had an estimated $60 million in income in 2018, in response to Forbes. The NBA, 50 years older, raked in $7.4 billion that yr and boasted $10 billion in income this yr.

The twin duties of rising income and amending the CBA, which runs by 2027, makes it unlikely that rising participant salaries would be the subsequent domino to fall within the WNBA’s pay-equity struggle.

“Everybody desires to go straight to the wage,” stated Samuelson, a former No. 4 general choose who has performed on 4 groups in her 4 years within the WNBA. “However there are such a lot of various things that have to be stepping stones earlier than that occurs too.”

Aside from elevated pay, gamers level to points akin to the dearth of constitution flights — particularly throughout this compressed season that has groups typically enjoying video games each different day — or apply services. The Sparks have cut up their apply time between three venues this season: a fitness center rental in Torrance, USC’s Galen Middle and at Enviornment, the place additionally they play video games.

Prime abroad leagues meet these off-court calls for. Not solely do gamers receives a commission nicely, however they play amongst elite competitors whereas honing their abilities. Alternative for improvement is very vital for youthful gamers who get restricted enjoying time within the WNBA, which has no apply squads or developmental league. The richest groups, together with Griner’s UMMC Ekaterinburg that’s managed by a pair of Russian oligarchs, are identified to set gamers up with their very own flats, personal automotive companies and luxurious journey lodging.

However the alternatives to play abroad are dwindling, Galer stated. She would not suppose any agent will ship an American participant to Russia in gentle of Griner’s detention, the struggle in Ukraine and the Euroleague’s suspension of the highest Russian groups UMMC Ekaterinburg, Dynamo Kursk and MBA Moscow. COVID-19 additionally crippled the abroad market.

With WNBA salaries stagnating, “there’s much more weight on sponsorships and model partnerships,” Sparks ahead Nneka Ogwumike stated.

Recreating the sponsorship blueprint for WNBA gamers requires hustle and intentional brand-building efforts from particular person participant brokers and the league. From her first day as commissioner in 2019, Engelbert stated the WNBA had a “advertising difficulty.” To assist clear up it, she has tried to encourage gamers to remain in the USA in the course of the offseason in change for league advertising agreements that present compensation for taking part in advert campaigns with WNBA companions.

The hope is to show gamers akin to reigning league most precious participant Jonquel Jones and WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper into family names. However these stars performed abroad final yr, with Jones enjoying for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, the identical membership as Griner. Copper was named MVP for the highest Spanish league and the Euroleague.

The advertising cash supplied by the WNBA cannot but make up the distinction of an abroad contract that pays between $10,000-$15,000 a month.

“Is it higher for gamers to be right here for marketability functions? In fact,” Galer stated. “However the pot would not essentially get greater for each participant in the event that they’re staying right here.”

Engelbert stated she would by no means shut down abroad alternatives for gamers however wished them to prioritize the WNBA and for the league to make it financially worthwhile to take action. Standing behind a podium on All-Star weekend, Engelbert celebrated the progress made within the latter.

Throughout a information convention in Chicago on the league’s marquee midseason occasion, the commissioner introduced an extra $1.5 million could be out there to gamers from the league’s advertising settlement pool. Constitution flights for the WNBA Finals have been on the way in which. The playoff bonus pool elevated by roughly 50% to $500,000.

“We’re simply making an attempt to chip away,” she stated on the occasion.

Engelbert repeated the phrase when describing the WNBA’s journey towards pay fairness. Nobody can merely clear up the problem with a sweeping declaration, however the current progress has the commissioner, gamers and brokers wanting towards a vibrant future

Nneka Ogwumike stated she’s hopeful “it will not take for much longer to see minimal salaries be six figures.”

And Engelbert is already scouting cities for potential enlargement groups launching in 2024 or 2025.

“We’re solely going up from right here,” Galer stated. “We simply must construct it.”

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