In the US, that’s a decent wage, in general, considering the U.S. Census Bureau listed the annual median personal income at $33,706 in 2018. However it’s not a decent wage for a professional athlete. It’s especially not a decent wage for one of the most coveted positions in a women’s sports league that has been around for more than two decades.
The WNBA is the longest-lasting professional women’s sports league in the U.S, with 23 years under its belt. And while the league has found its footing, unfortunately its players struggle to. Each opportunity they get, they continue to fight for a higher WNBA salary.
A spot in the WNBA is one of the hardest jobs in the world to get. For perspective, there are more professional astronauts in the world (560) than WNBA players (144)! (Seasoned astronauts earn an annual salary upwards of $144,566 by the way.) And yet, these elite female athletes are barely compensated relative to the revenue they’re delivering, with the support of very little marketing.
However, hope is on the horizon. The new eight-year CBA, which began with the 2020 season and runs through 2027, provides the foundation to chart a new course for women’s professional basketball.
So today, we’ll take a look at the new average WNBA salary from 2020 on, the highest and lowest paid players, and how that stacks up to the NBA (spoiler alert: it’s ridiculous!). Plus, we’ll reveal what the refs in the WNBA make, and it might shock you.
In the WNBA, the maximum income a player could earn in 2016 was $109,000. For Russia that number tripled to $325,000 per season. While in China that number triple-doubled to $600,000 per season.
As a result, almost three-quarters of WNBA players were playing for teams overseas. With some, such as Washington Mystic Kristi Toliver, juggling three teams.
For example, a week after Minnesota Lynx guard Seimone Augustus finished her seven-month season in Russia with the Dynamo Kursk, she was back in Minneapolis for WNBA training camp. At the time – her eleventh year in the league – that had been her routine for eight years. To make a satisfactory wage, the three-time WNBA champion gave up summers, time with her family and her wife, to play overseas.
Even more egregiously, Diana Taurasi sat out of the 2015 WNBA season because her Russian team, which paid her more than $1 million, wanted her to rest.
Obviously this overseas continual play is hard on the players’ physical and mental well-being. Furthermore, the WNBA team owners don’t like it, because their talent can get hurt, which can cost them their season. As a result, this was a big sticking point for all in the 2020 CBA negotiations.
The result was a huge step in the right direction. WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike and the players did a phenomenal job negotiating the latest the CBA, bringing the WNBA maximum base salary up to $215,000 in 2020. That’s a $97,500 increase from the previous year! Though, it’s worth nothing, that even that new maximum is still a fraction of the millions that top women’s players earn overseas in Russia, China, and Turkey.
The new contract stated that salaries need to begin being paid “on or about June 1.” So the league required teams to cut rosters down to 11 or 12 players below the salary cap by May 26, 2020. After those adjustments, here are the 2020 WNBA rosters each team had. You can also see the breakdown of each player’s salary, and how those combine to use up the 2020 WNBA Team Salary Cap of $1,300,000. Check out the 2021 salary cap sheet here.
Furthermore, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird also helped create a plan with USA Basketball to pay members of the Olympic team another $100,000 to train in the United States. This providing even more motivation to not play and train overseas.
When asked how they arrived at the $100,000, Diana said, “Working with USA Basketball, working with other players, that was the number that we felt really comfortable with, that people would want to stay and actually do it.” All in all, things (the average!) in the WNBA are on the up and up!
As mentioned, the average 2020 WNBA salary is $100,658.51. That’s up from $74,349.14 in 2019. The average is reasonable to measure as the league standard, because there are no tremendous outliers at either end, skewing the results. They also created additional bonuses and prize pools that raise the total compensation by 53%, the WNBA said.
There are also additional cash compensation elements to consider.
The biggest win here is the revenue sharing, which starts in 2021. That allows them an opportunity to profit as they drive profit. Past revenue sharing was tied to ticket sales and provided about a 20% option for the players. But it wasn’t triggered because the specified goals weren’t met. Excitingly, this new revenue-sharing plan, the union believes, has a more realistic chance of benefiting the players. The cash additions include:
Another compensation lift comes in the new quality of travel arrangements. Finally, the women have room to stretch out with Premium Economy class status (such as Comfort/Economy Plus) for all players for regular-season air travel. Plus, they can rest better with individual hotel room accommodations for every player. And, there’s also a Player Advisory Panel to address new travel concerns as they occur.
Now, players can receive their full salary while on maternity leave. There’s also a new annual childcare stipend of $5,000. And players with children are provided two-bedroom apartments.
Added workplace accommodations will provide a comfortable, safe and private place for nursing mothers. Finally, new, progressive family planning benefits of up to a $60,000 reimbursement are now included, for veteran players for costs directly related to adoption, surrogacy, oocyte cryopreservation or fertility/infertility treatment.
The WNBA has pledged to work with its affiliated leagues, teams and sponsors to provide off-season job opportunities designed to prepare players for their post-playing careers. They will also help veteran players interested in coaching careers with opportunities.
Because athletes, such as Kevin Love, have become more outspoken about their mental health, positive changes were made for mental health as well. The WNBA enhanced the players’ mental health benefits and resources. And the new CBA also includes an augmented and holistic domestic/intimate partner violence program that includes education and counseling.
Finally, a joint Nutrition Council committed to identifying resources and address proper nutrition to optimize athletic performance was added. And players are now provided access to experts in women’s health, as well as have the opportunity for representation on league policy committees.
All of these wins are a giant step forward. But there is still a significant amount of work to be done to compensate our female athletes correctly. Though, the WNBA won’t be paying every player’s salary this season.
Due to the pandemic, WNBA executives and players agreed that any person who is considered “at risk” for the virus could opt out of playing and still receive a full paycheck, according to NBC Sports. Meanwhile, other athletes who were not “at risk” could also decide not to play for various reasons, but they would not receive any pay.
For those who opted out this season, Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving ensured they wouldn’t have to worry about their finances. The 28-year-old point guard committed $1.5 million, through his KAI Empowerment Initiative, to help cover the salaries of WNBA players who forgo playing during the 2020 season.
In addition to the fund, Irving also partnered with the investment banking company UBS to provide financial literacy programs to every WNBA player.
In addition to Kyrie, sponsors are stepping up. For example, Converse offered to pay the majority of their icon Natasha Cloud’s $117,000 contract for the 2020 season, when she elected to sit out.
In 2020, DeWanna Bonner, Elena Delle Donne, Emma Meesseman, Liz Cambage, Brittney Griner, Skylar-Diggins Smith, and Sue Bird are all the highest paid WNBA players at $215,000 when only considering base salary. In 2019, DeWanna Bonner was the WNBA’s top earner at $127,500.
This is to be expected. Salaries typically increase sharply after years three and four when rookie contracts are up. At that point, an elite player quickly begins nearing the maximum WNBA salary, while an average player’s salary increases more gradually.
Rookies typically earn the least money, and the minimum rookie salary is $57,000 this year. So the players making $57,000 in 2020 are some of the lowest paid WNBA players. They include:
“154M…must be nice. We over here looking for a M but Lord, let me get back in my lane.”
That’s a tweet by Las Vegas Aces WNBA sensation A’ja Wilson, about LeBron James’ new contract with the Lakers. And it sure did reignite the debate on gender pay inequality.
The gender wage gap is nothing new, and it’s certainly not just relegated to basketball. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, working women earn 80 percent of what their male counterparts do annually. Furthermore, the gap widens for black women. Specifically, in 2016, Hispanic or Latina, black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN), and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (NHPI) women had lower median annual earnings compared with non-Hispanic white and Asian women full-time workers.
The NBA pays 50 percent of its revenue to its players. According to a Forbes analysis, NBA teams brought in around $5.9 billion in revenue in 2015–2016.
Previously WNBA was required to pay about 20 percent of its revenue to its players if certain goals were hit (they weren’t!). That has been update to 50% with more reasonable goals. You can see how the gap was previously quite wide at 30%.
Though, the gap will still be wide in 2021, because the women’s total revenue will be much smaller than the mens. Even 50% of a smaller pie is still a smaller slice. While revenue data isn’t accessible for the WNBA, approximating it puts it at about $70 million in 2019.
Here’s the breakdown: The WNBA brought in a minimum of $45 million through ticket sales (the average median ticket price found on WNBA.com in 2019 was $17.42. Multiply that by 2,614,000 tickets sold (avg game attendance was 6,535 fans times 40 games), and in 2016 signed a deal with ESPN increasing what the network pays to broadcast games from $12 million to $25 million per season.
Plus, the league also brings in revenue from merchandise sales, sponsorship, and licensing agreements. So, in 2021, the women can expect about 50% of $70 million. No billions there.
On the other hand, the NBA capped teams at $101.869 million for the 2018–19 season. Under the NBA-NBPA’s collective bargaining agreement, the minimum team salary is $91.862 million. That’s 90 percent of the salary cap, and allows teams to determine mid-level salaries based on the overall, team salary average, while setting the minimum starting salary at $582,186. That’s a lot more ($525,186 – half a million!) than the women’s $57,000 minimum in 2020.
Meanwhile, the average 2020 NBA salary is $7.7 million. That’s up from $6.4 million in 2019. The average WNBA player makes $100,658.10 a year. That’s less than an eighth of what an NBA rookie makes ($820,000) on average.
Unfortunately, when you look at the top players, it doesn’t get any better for the females. Consider the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry, who was the highest-paid NBA player for the 2019-2020 season, at about $40.2 million. Followed by Chris Paul at $38.5 million. Meanwhile, the highest earner in the WNBA at that time was Phoenix Mercury forward, DeWanna Bonner at just $127,000.
While the contrast is striking, the new CBA was a positive step towards compensating the women more. Even Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr joined those speaking out in praise of the WNBA’s new labor deal. “I read that they got their own hotel rooms on the road, which may not seem like a big deal to you but it took us forever to get that in the NBA,” Kerr said.
“I think we got that kind of midway through my career, first half of my career. We shared rooms with roommates. If we wanted our own room we had to pay the difference. And that just seemed like kind of a petty thing that the owners were hanging onto, but we could never win that in collective bargaining. And I remember when we finally won it, it was a really big deal.”
Though, the fight is not over. Nor will it be for quite some time. Former WNBA President Lisa Borders told Forbes that bias against female athletes is at the heart of the pay disparity, and that’s one thing that will take generations to change.
“Let’s be clear, there is a lot of sexism that still goes on. People do not believe that women can be superb professional athletes. That frankly is an ignorant perspective, but if you haven’t had the opportunity to see a game, a player, or experienced the game, then perhaps you have an uninformed perspective. We invite folks into the area to actually see a game.”
However, the men of the NBA are on their side. NBA players have expressed their WNBA fandom daily in recent years. Kyle Lowry said, “sick handles,” explaining why he watches the WNBA in a video promoting the league, with Anthony Davis adding, “Mad skills.” And recently, the WNBA hoodie finally got its moment in the spotlight, becoming the hottest item in the still very-much-fashion-concerned bubble, according to GQ.
So the future looks bright, but what exactly can make the future brighter? The most powerful way for the women to raise their wages again in the future may be to strike. According to economics professor Dave Berri in a 2016 radio discussion, “Until very recently in most sports, women have not gone on strike or threatened to go on strike.” And historically, that’s how the most progress was made.
For example, the first time men and women got paid the same amount of money in a sports competition was at the 1973 US Open. There, legend Billie Jean King raised the issue of unequal pay, lobbied hard, and then threatened to sit out. Eventually, Ban Deodorant stepped in to offer equal pay. Which led to the other four major tournaments offering equal prize money to both genders, inspiring the 2017 movie “Battle of the Sexes.”
“She got wages changed by just threatening not to play anymore,” said Berri. “And that really is the story of sports. And we’ve seen this throughout the history of sports. If the players are not willing to walk away, they cannot change their wages.” So don’t be surprised if WNBA players walk the walk once the current CBA expires.
Now that you know more about WNBA players’ salaries, what about the professionals who support them every day? Up next, we’ll check out how much WNBA coaches and referees make. Because without them leveling up, too, the women will have a much harder time taking the game to the next level.
Unfortunately WNBA coach salaries are not public. But, we can look at college coaches, as a gauge. However, coaches of college women’s teams average less than one fourth of men’s team head coaches’ salaries.
Pat Summitt of Tennessee was the highest paid women’s basketball coach, at $1.125 million per year in base salary. There are also now five coaches of college women’s basketball making $1 million or more annually.
Back in 2015, of the Big Ten women’s basketball coaches, Kevin McGuff of Ohio State was the highest paid by salary per year at $850,000. And the lowest was Indiana’s Teri Moren at $300,000. While the average salary was $424,322 per year.
That numbers seems a little high for colleges across the country. For example, Baylor University ranks third in the largest difference between men’s and women’s team head coaching salaries. But it ranks first among all Power Five schools in average salary for women’s team coaches at $339,000.
Though bonuses can add a significant amount. The best coach in the Big Ten by NCAA Tournament Games per season, Maryland Terrapin’s coach Brenda Frese earns between $300,000 and $400,000 in base salary. But the Maryland women’s basketball team’s run to the Final Four triggered bonuses topping $100,000. As a result, she made between $800,000 and $900,00 per year after bonuses.
The takeaway is that most women’s basketball college coaches probably make about $350,000 in base salary. One would hope that WNBA coaches make a similar amount. Though, based on how much money the players are paid today, it seems unlikely.
And unfortunately, many coaches of the women’s game are men today. In fact, there are fewer women coaches today than ever before. When Title IX was enacted in 1972, women led ninety percent of women’s teams. That’s 47 percentage points higher than today’s number.
Back in 2016 the WNBA joined the National Basketball Referees Association. Today WNBA refs work a shorter season, as only 12 teams play 36 regular-season games. (The 2020 regular- season featured an all-time high 36 games per team, up two games from 34 in 2019.) Though, often refs can make more in playoffs and finals games.
New referees for the NBA begin at $600 per game or $250,000 per year. While seasoned referees with three to five years of employment can earn $3,500 per game or $500,000 annually. And if they referee an NBA playoff or final game, they can earn between $800 and $5,000 per game.
Plus, their compensation packages typically include travel stipends, insurance, and retirement benefits. Regardless, those surrounding the men’s game appear to make more.
See each team’s players’ WNBA salary for 2021, as reported by Spotrac. As cored, unrestricted free agents, and free agents get settled onto their teams, we’ll update their salaries below.
Now that you know how much money our favorite stars earn, continue to invest in them! Buy tickets and merchandise. And insist that your friends watch the WNBA as fervently as you do.
Written by Megan Mitzel, youth basketball coach, and Founder of Queen Ballers Club.
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