Inside the WNBA's Fight for Higher Pay

It's not just about better salaries vs. the bottom line. It's about the lives caught in the balance.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorOctober 29, 2018

Dust sticks to her sneakers. Empty Gatorade bottles and trash line a slippery sideline. The tattered net has one too many loops popping out. At least she has a court, she tells herself. At least there is a broom at the front desk, here in this local gym in Chico, California, to sweep the dust. She's used to making do, making rundown courts feel like home.          

Layshia Clarendon, a guard for the Connecticut Sun, moved to the area last offseason to live with her now-wife's family. The two couldn't afford their own house yet. Not with Clarendon's WNBA salary.

She wouldn't disclose what she was making, saying only that it was not a maximum contract ($115,500, plus bonuses, in the WNBA). One report said the six-year WNBA veteran made $91,700 last year. That is far more than she made in her earlier years in the league, when she had to sustain herself on a total of $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

It takes some degree of financial freedom to be a professional athlete. More than just being above the poverty line, you need to be able to eat, train, travel, work long hours. Clarendon could have supplemented that by spending her WNBA offseasons playing overseas—many players do, and make much, much more money there than they can here—but she refused to subject herself to it after a miserable experience playing in Prague.

She felt lonely and sad and drained as each day crawled by there in 2013, the offseason after her rookie year. No friends, no family. Her back flared up as she dealt with constant spasms. The pain was so acute that she dreaded going to practice. She wasn't improving her game. She sunk into a depression. "This isn't the journey for me," she told herself. So she gave up the six-figure salary and moved back to the U.S.—back to a constant, aggravating fear of running out of money.

She couldn't always afford to eat as healthy as she would have liked back then; salmon at $15 a pound, for example, was too expensive. She couldn't go out with friends more than once every few weeks because food and drinks added up. She couldn't afford a $200 monthly Equinox membership to stay in shape during the offseason, so she bought a $29.99 LA Fitness one. The ceilings were so low there that the basketball would hit the roof when she shot threes. And there she was, a WNBA All-Star, a woman who led Cal to its first Final Four in school history, waiting in line to get time on a free-weight machine or time on the court. She'd call local high schools and colleges to request gym time, only to be turned away, knowing NBA players with the same requests are greeted with a red carpet of videos, selfies and tweets.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Securing a court at an affordable rate is still a struggle. On this day, Clarendon's wife comes to shoot around with her in the dusty Chico gym. But the broom is nowhere to be found. Irritated, Clarendon begins her workout anyway. She is about to bust a move when she slips and falls. Tears tumble out of her and won't stop.

"Are you freaking kidding me?" she says to her wife. "I'm a professional basketball player! I'm just trying to get better. How can I get better when I have to worry about a thousand things?"

WNBA players are energized and frustrated and mobilized and tired. Tired of hearing they must wait to be compensated more. Tired of hearing their league is "young." The NBA was like this in its early days. They flew commercial then, too. So stay quiet. Just be grateful the WNBA exists at all.

"Maybe if we saw things changing and we saw more investment in the WNBA and more belief from the higher-ups, then maybe we would be patient. But we haven't seen that," says Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics star, former WNBA MVP and vice president of the Women's National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) executive committee. "The players in the league aren't going to allow things like this to just occur and us to sit back and be happy for what we're given so far. We truly believe we deserve more.

"It's a fight and a battle every single day, just trying to get toward equality somehow."

Maybe if we saw things changing and we saw more investment in the WNBA and more belief from the higher-ups, then maybe we would be patient. But we haven't seen that. — Elena Delle Donne

The 144 women who play in the WNBA are not asking to be paid the astronomical sums NBA players receive; such figures aren't remotely possible. They know the two leagues are not comparable businesses. The NBA is expected to generate over $9 billion in revenue this year, according to the league, while the WNBA will generate "less than 1 percent of that" (Forbes' Dave Berri has the revenue as $60 million).

But as they approach an October 31 deadline for either the league or the players to opt out of their current collective bargaining agreement, players are fighting for a higher share of the revenue. They receive about 22 percent, compared to NBA players, who receive about 50 percent, according to Forbes.

They'd also like more sponsorship investment in and media coverage of their sport. Women's sports receive just 4 percent of all sports media coverage, according to a 2014 study by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.

"What we're discussing and fighting for is a lot more intricate than simply pay us more. It's a lot deeper than that. It's infrastructural," says Nneka Ogwumike, the 2016 WNBA MVP for the Los Angeles Sparks and the president of the WNBPA executive committee. "Why is this so hard for people to understand? It's kind of business 101. You're not going to make money off a product that you don't invest in. We are the product. The W is the product. And the investment is not there.

"And I think that the infrastructure for there to be leadership to contribute to those investments is not present. Not to discount at all any of the previous leadership that we've had, but, you know, everyone keeps asking the same questions: We're 22 years in, and the same questions keep being asked, the same problems keep happening."

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Because of this, they cannot focus on just winning championships. They have to win hearts, minds, eyes, wallets. They have to solve a Rubik's Cube of issues out of their control—mainly convincing companies that women are worthy investments.

"It starts with these companies taking initiative, like, 'Look, we have these female role models. Why not use them?'" says Elizabeth Williams, an Atlanta Dream forward and secretary of the WNBPA executive committee. She's calling from Ankara, Turkey. "We're in this time where we're talking about how important strong women are. We've got Me Too. We've got all this stuff going on, but are you actually going to step up and compensate us?"

Calling from different countries around the world—some 10, 12 hours away—the WNBA players in this story stress that their product has never been better. Over and over, they use the word "product." Product, product, product.

But the more they use that word, the more it makes one forget that they are people. People with mortgages and bills and dreams and fears and families.

This advocating, this proving, this aching to be seen—all while being subject to vitriol across social media—is emotional labor. It is a third job, beyond playing here and overseas. And it weighs heavily on a league that is majority women of color and that players say is disproportionately queer.

"People at the margins are always having to be their own biggest advocates in terms of fairness and fighting for what they believe in and what they desire," Clarendon says.

Kayla McBride had dreamt of playing in the WNBA all her life. It was a goal she wrote on her wall with a red crayon at age 11. But the Las Vegas Aces guard soon found playing in the league was far less glamorous than her dreams had made it out to be. Coming out of Notre Dame as the No. 3 overall pick in 2014, she scored 13 points per game as a rookie, including two 30-point outbursts, for the San Antonio Stars (who relocated to Vegas in 2018). But her salary was just $48,000.

Then she went to Sopron, Hungary, and broke her foot. She couldn't play and feared her Hungarian team would stop paying her. "You feel helpless," McBride says. She got surgery in February but had to be ready to play again in April for the WNBA season, not just so she could help her team but also so she could play well enough to secure another overseas contract. So she could earn a living.

So she came back quicker than she was supposed to, which she says led to her breaking her foot again in 2016. As a result, she had to sit out six months and lost out on half of the money she could have made overseas the following fall. For McBride, and many players, the fear of injury is the fear of losing overseas money.

"It's scary. It can be taken away at any second, your career and your cash flow," McBride says. "It's just how it works, you know?

"Sometimes it does take the joy away from the game."

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 15:  Kayla McBride #21 of the Las Vegas Aces stands on the court during her team's game against the New York Liberty at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on August 15, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Aces won 85-72. NOTE TO USER: User e
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As she speaks, McBride is at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, about to hop on a flight to go play in Yekaterinburg, Russia, until next WNBA season. The two-time WNBA All-Star will be paid six times her annual WNBA salary in Russia.

"It gets harder every time, leaving your family," McBride says. "My 12-year-old sister, Jayden's, dream is to be in the WNBA, and I don't want her to deal with the things I'm dealing with. I want her to have financial stability."

Players feel momentum from the 2018 season, which produced encouraging numbers for the league in viewership and TV ratings. People who had never watched women's basketball before saw how physical, how skilled, how uptempo the game is. They saw Maya Moore weave through an entire full-court press, bodying her way to the hoop. They saw Liz Cambage drop a league-record 53 points, swinging her elbows wide to secure a rebound at all costs.

They saw NBA players support WNBA players, too. LeBron James invited Delle Donne onto The Shop, his new HBO show, and wore an Aces practice shirt; Isaiah Thomas wrote on the Players' Tribune, "If you don't respect women's basketball, you're a joke"; Kyrie Irving praised Sue Bird's court vision; Deandre Ayton was "starstruck" and "speechless" after meeting Diana Taurasi.

Las Vegas Aces ♦️♠️ @LVAces

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But economic realities stifle higher-salary potential at the moment. The WNBA has not turned a profit in its 22 years of existence, according to numbers cited by sources and in other reports, losing significant amounts of money each season. This past season, the league lost $12 million (it was projected to lose $5 million). Empty seats fill the arenas.

And now, even more uncertainty looms after league president Lisa Borders stepped down in early October to become the first president and CEO of Time's Up. The announcement was shocking and unsettling, given the amount of turnover with WNBA leadership (Borders was the league's fourth president) and the CBA negotiations. Players have already voted on the CBA, but if either side does opt out, there will be a need to negotiate a new one that addresses player salaries and other pressing matters.

The NBA has shown it's not averse to investing in a product that enables it to reach a wider audience. Earlier this month, it announced it would pay elite high school prospects $125,000—more than the max WNBA contract—to play in the G League for a year instead of taking the one-and-done college route.

Women's players are in need of a similar investment, because exacerbating their already problematic situation, the money overseas that many depend on appears to be drying up as well. There are fewer spots, and fewer big-time contracts, for American imports unless you are a Moore-, Taurasi- or McBride-caliber player.

"The overseas jobs aren't the same," says Indiana Fever guard Cappie Pondexter, a seven-time WNBA All-Star who has also played in Russia, Turkey and Australia. "It could not be a lot of money. It could be horrible living situations."

WNBA players would like to not have to go overseas, to be able to play 82 games here in the States, and not have to worry if their overseas clubs will pay them on time. Or at all. "I have my guard up," says Monique Billings, a forward for the Dream, calling from Daqing, China. "I have a friend who played in some country in Europe three years ago and still hasn't gotten paid."

Financial realities remain, though.

"The tickets are very inexpensive, but even at low prices, we're not selling enough tickets to run a viable business," NBA commissioner Adam Silver tells B/R Mag. "At the end of the day, the consumer always wins, and right now we don't have a winning consumer proposition.

"And I'm frustrated with that."

At the end of the day, the consumer always wins, and right now we don't have a winning consumer proposition. — Adam Silver

Silver and the league office have a vested interest in making the WNBA profitable. The NBA owns about 50 percent of the WNBA, and five of the 12 WNBA owners are NBA owners. "In essence, we've incurred 70 percent of those losses over the last 22 years of operating the league," Silver says, "so it's critically important from the NBA's standpoint that we figure out a way to create a model that's sustainable for the long term."

So what is the NBA doing right now to help grow the WNBA?

Silver says the league office is "doubling down" on the WNBA. He has brought in a consulting firm to strategize on how to grow the brand and better market its players, calling the present WNBA moment a "reboot."

"There's no one in the NBA league office or no WNBA owner right now who's saying they're giving up," Silver says.

One issue that has been raised by players, to B/R Mag and in CBA negotiations, is the lack of exposure for WNBA games—why more aren't televised on ESPN. How can fans be induced to buy a ticket to watch a game in real life when there are so few opportunities to watch them in the comfort of their own home? And how can fans come to respect the WNBA Finals as a legitimate, must-watch game when the first game of the 2018 Finals ran on a secondary, difficult-to-find channel like ESPNews?

Silver, though, says pushing for more ESPN coverage for the WNBA isn't a top priority for him.

Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

"I'm a little bit frustrated by that demand," says Silver, who negotiated the ESPN contract. "I thought [ESPN] was very generous with the exposure they've given us. That's not to say we shouldn't be fighting for even more, but to me, the biggest issue with the WNBA right now is not the need for more exposure on ESPN."

Silver says more of a focus for him is social media, especially platforms that carry live sports, since the WNBA must attract a younger audience.

This is the chicken-or-egg, which-comes-first part of the argument: Maybe the future of sports game coverage is social media, but the league needs to become more popular and viable now to stabilize its bottom line, ensure its future and support financially struggling players—and that seems unlikely to happen unless it gets more exposure on TV.

"If people can't see you, it's hard for any product to grow," Delle Donne says, adding later: "I've always said: WNBA fans are the greatest fans because they have to put in work to find our games. They have to really work hard to be able to find our jersey that they want to wear."

Another topic players have spoken out about is the lack of charter flights. Asked about that, Silver says it is still not close to being affordable—that it would cost more than every ticket sold in the WNBA. "At the end of the day, charter flights are not what's going to bring more fans to the arenas or sell more sponsorships," he says. "That's the reality of where this business is right now."

Indeed, all roads seem to lead back to marketing. Silver praises the diversity of the league, that there is not one prototype for a WNBA player. But he also acknowledges that the marketing of those players has not always been "authentic."

"There's no question that we've made our share of mistakes over the years," Silver says. "I cringe a little bit when I look back at some of the early marketing of our players."

One moment in particular stood out to him, when he was watching Taurasi give an interview where she discussed being dolled up in a full face of makeup in order to fit into an image that just wasn't her.

The goal now is to market players as themselves, as multidimensional people. "They're certainly the best female basketball players in the world," Silver says, "but then once that's established, you have to build out their character around that so people have ways that they can connect with them, beyond basketball on the court."

It's a wall WNBA players constantly run up against: Their stories are rarely told by mainstream outlets, and therefore potential investors know little about them.

NBA players are covered around the clock. Win or lose. On and off the court. In their homes. With their kids, their wives. Their fashion choices, their politics, their music preferences, their favorite foods, their dogs, their cats. Their rivalries and storylines are streaming weeks before a big game. But the WNBA? It's operated under a near "media blackout," says Cheryl Reeve, coach of the four-time champion Minnesota Lynx.

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Reeve would not discuss the nature of salaries but instead focused on the difference in mentality and approach between the NBA and the WNBA. She says the NBA has been a "tremendous" partner but could do more in finding new avenues for revenue growth for the WNBA. She sees the NBA as a global, iconic brand that is creative, always searching for new ways to generate revenue here and abroad.

"Where is that kind of force, the vision, the kind of free flowing of thought? That same thing isn't put into our league as it is put in men's sports and in particular the NBA," Reeve says.

"This is just a massive undertaking in terms of what the mindset needs to be in investing in the WNBA. It's time now."

Clarendon can finally purchase a house, not only because she is no longer on her rookie contract but because she juggles several other jobs, including broadcasting for Pac-12 Networks and doing paid speaking engagements. She says she would be fine financially if she stopped playing tomorrow, but a part of her still worries she made a mistake by not going back overseas.

Maybe she'd be able to afford the fancier cars her friends have, instead of her 2013 white Toyota RAV4. Maybe she would have been able to put down more money on her house or would have had more money to spend on her wedding.

McBride, who now makes the league maximum, feels grateful to be making much more money than she did before, but she knows the vast majority of players cannot secure the kind of contract she did. "Some people are just scratching and clawing," McBride says. The fear of injury, the fear of missing out on her next overseas contract, does not cease.

And her mind constantly circles back to her 12-year-old sister, Jayden McBride. The lefty, the pure scorer, the girl who loves basketball more than she can describe. If her sister is fortunate enough to make the WNBA one day, will she, too, have to worry about not just investing in her future, but sustaining herself in the present?

Wanting better for the next woman is a feeling many of the women in this story share. They watched the league growing up. They never imagined a time it wouldn't be around.

They were like the Dream's Elizabeth Williams, who idolized Yolanda Griffith of the now-defunct Sacramento Monarchs because Griffith was a terror on the glass, a nonstop motor up the floor.

Williams remembers attending a Washington Mystics game with her AAU team, the Lady Neptunes, back in high school. The 2006 game commemorated the WNBA's 10-year anniversary. Fans received mini stuffed panda bears that were wearing tiny white and blue Mystics jerseys.

Williams felt seen, seeing women like her. Seeing a league sustain itself as long as it had.

But surviving is just not enough.


Mirin Fader is a Writer-At-Large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.


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