The WNBA: Setting an Example for Pay Equity in Sports

Last Tuesday, the WNBA reached a tentative agreement to increase pay and benefits for their players— a huge step in the right direction in terms of bridging the pay gap for women in sports. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA), once ratified by the players and the WNBA Board of Governors, will include a 53% total pay raise, maternity benefits, as well as changes to the structure of the season. The pay raise will increase the average base salary for a WNBA player from $116,000 to $130,000, and with new performance based bonuses, top players will earn roughly $500,000 a year. Maternity benefits will include full, paid maternity leave and a guaranteed 60,000 towards adoption, surrogacy or fertility treatments.

With this said, the salary of a WNBA player still doesn’t come close to measuring up against an NBA player; an average NBA player’s salary is about $7.5 million. This is reasonable, though— it is indisputable that women’s basketball receives significantly less attention and draws in significantly less income, so they should not be paid exactly the same: this is why the focus is on fair pay rather than equal pay for women in sports. Regardless, this new agreement is a good example of progress; one that other major sports associations, who have been completely unwilling to make efforts to negotiate the fairness of their athletes’ salaries, should pay attention to. 

In sports like soccer, the fight for equal pay is still making headlines, but not making progress. Just last year, the US Women’s National Soccer team filed a class action lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation for gender-based discrimination, just months before bringing home their fourth FIFA World Cup. “Despite the fact that these female and male players are called upon to perform the same job responsibilities on their teams and participate in international competitions for their single common employer, the USSF, the female players have been consistently paid less money than their male counterparts,” the lawsuit said. “This is true even though their performance has been superior to that of the male players.” This is an instance where, unlike in the WNBA, there is absolutely zero justification for the fact that women are being paid less than their male counterparts.

On what grounds can the women make such an accusation of superiority? Well, first we can look at the number of World Cup wins each team has under their belt. You might ask, how many times have the men won a World Cup?

Never. The last time they placed in a world cup was in 1930. The women, conversely, have placed in every women’s world cup (8 of them, since 1991), and won first place in 4. They also have 4 Olympic gold medals, where the men’s has rarely qualified for the Olympics, despite having an Olympic team for only 5 years to men’s 23.

In 2019, the USWNT won their fourth World Cup in a victory against the Netherlands.

In response to the USWNT’s lawsuit, the USSF argued that the difference in pay is “based on differences in aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex” and that the two teams are “physically and functionally separate organizations.” However, looking at game revenue from the USSF’s own financial statements, the women’s games generated about $900,000 more revenue than the men’s games from 2016 to 2018. In the year following their 2015 World Cup win, women’s games generated $1.9 million more than the men’s games. It’s a complicated issue, but even factoring in revenue versus expenses, the number of bonuses each team receives (the women receive much fewer World Cup bonuses), and the performance of each respective team on the world stage, it is clear that the pay gap between the women and men’s team is unreasonably large.

Every time a sports league steps up to the plate, listens to its players, and negotiates an agreement like the WNBA did this week, strides are made towards pay equity for women in sports. Now the WNBA will be seen as a shining example of what can happen when associations take the issue of pay equity seriously, and there’s only one thing left to ask: what will it take for groups like the USSF to finally follow suit?