nneka ogwumike, wnba, ebony
Credit: Nneka Ogwumike's Instagram

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, after a while there comes a time when everybody gets tired of being treated unfairly.

For the women of the WNBA, that time is now.

On Thursday, Nov. 1, the WNBA Players Association announced that it has voted to break its collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the league.

The association “will opt out of its current collective bargaining agreement, as allowed per a provision,” reported ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel. The CBA was signed in March 2014 and will run through the 2021 season. “The opt-out will not affect the 2019 season, but it means the union and the league will need to negotiate a new CBA before the 2020 season.”



The agreement is a contract between the WNBA and its players that governs trades, salary caps, player contracts and, according to SportingCharts.com, “the distribution of basketball-related income between the league and its players.”

Last season, players spoke publicly about their need for a contract that guarantees better pay and travel conditions. They were bold, fearless and honest in their claims that, essentially, the WNBA treats them like second-class citizens.

And when the NBA’s G League announced that it would offer $125,000 contracts to high school players with no professional experience, their frustrations and outrage only intensified.

Of course, in reality, “only a very small handful of elite G League prospects (out of approximately 400 players) will make the $125,000 salary, whereas approximately 40 WNBA players (out of 144 players) already make the max with a salary base at $115,500—not including incentives and performance bonuses,” a rep from the WNBA told EBONY.

However, this doesn’t change the fact that select 17- or 18-year-old G League rookies’ first-year salaries will be about $10,000 more than that of a veteran on a WNBA team.

There are many reasons why this might be OK to basketball fans and league owners. The most common one I’ve heard from fans is that there is no interest in watching women play basketball (and sports in general)— men are simply more entertaining and exciting in terms of play.

Last season, however, the “total attendance in the WNBA was 1,574,078, with teams averaging 7,716 fans per game,” Forbes’ David Berri wrote in the article “Basketball’s Growing Gender Wage Gap: The Evidence The WNBA Is Underpaying Players.”

Although this per game mark is “more than 10,000 fans below the per game mark seen in the NBA after the 2016-2017 season,” Berri reminded readers that the NBA has had a 50-year head start.

“The WNBA’s attendance in 2017 appears more impressive when we note that the NBA attracted only 6,631 fans per game in 1966-67 (the NBA’s 21st season),” he wrote.

In addition, though the WNBA’s average ticket price in 2017 is not public information, Berri said that in 2017, the minimum gate revenue (which is estimated by calculating attendance and ticket prices) for the league was approximately $26.5 million.

“The WNBA doesn’t just earn money at the gate,” Berri wrote. “We also know that ESPN has increased what it pays to broadcast WNBA games to $25 million per season, from $12 million. In addition, the WNBA earns money from merchandise sales, sponsorships and even Twitter.”

“The amount of money it draws from these sources isn’t known (or at least, I wasn’t able to find this information). Still, we know the WNBA earned at least $51.5 million in 2017 (from the gate and its ESPN television deal). So how much of this was paid to the players?”

Not enough.

These women understand why they aren’t paid millions of dollars like their male counterparts—they realize that the NBA brings in more revenue and, therefore, the men will receive more money. What they don’t understand is why they are paid 22 percent of shared revenue within their league while NBA players receive 50 percent.

“If the WNBA gave $25.8 million (i.e., half of its $51.5 million revenue) to its players, the average player would take home about $164,000,” according to Berri. “Despite being the league MVP, then, Sylvia Fowles is paid only two-thirds of what an average WNBA player would get if the WNBA players were treated the same as their NBA counterparts.”

This obscene wage gap isn’t the players’ only problem. According to Voepel, NBA players fly on chartered flights and stay in five-star hotels while WNBA athletes are required to fly coach and share hotel rooms if they’ve been in the league for four or fewer years.

From a business stance, it makes sense why travel accommodations aren’t necessarily a priority for the league.

“The WNBA is less than 1 percent of the NBA’s revenue, just to give you a perspective. We did the math on WNBA teams flying charter—it would cost more than every single ticket sold in the WNBA. I mean, just to give you a sense of perspective on why it’s not economically possible,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver explained in an interview with Bleacher Report’s Mirin Fader.

“It’s not close to being affordable for this league. And I think the problem is, if you said to the investors, the owners in the league, ‘You need to invest, slash lose, another $15 million next season,’ it’s hard to imagine that, even if they’re willing to lose more money or invest more money, that the first place they’d decide to put it would be on charter flights as opposed to…because, you and I know at the end of the day, charter flights are not what is going to bring more fans to the arenas or sell more sponsorships.”

Although Silver is correct in his assertion that charter flights won’t bring more fans to arenas or sell sponsorships, he forgot to mention that they would, however, ensure that WNBA teams actually make it on time for their away games—physically and mentally prepared to play in a high-stakes, professional match.

Unfortunately, last August, The Las Vegas Aces weren’t afforded this luxury.

The Las Vegas Aces who were fighting for one of the league’s final playoff spots, declined to play against the Washington Mystics, citing safety concerns after traveling for more than 25 hours,” wrote CNN’s Jill Martin.

“Given the travel issues we faced over the past two days—25+ hours spent in airports and airplanes, in cramped quarters and having not slept in a bed since Wednesday night—and after consulting with Players Association leadership and medical professionals, we concluded that playing tonight’s game would put us at too great a risk for injury,” the team said.

Players have also consistently expressed dissatisfaction and annoyance with the WNBA’s lack of effort when it comes to marketing and providing visible media coverage.

They don’t understand why the WNBA “undercuts itself with a lack of investment,” then takes it out on their paychecks.

“What we’re discussing and fighting for is a lot more intricate than simply pay us more. It’s infrastructural. 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,” Nneka Ogwumike, WNBA league MVP and Players Association president, told  Fader.

In an interview with SB Nation’s Matt Ellentuck, Liz Cambage, a center for the Dallas Wings, revealed all the ways she believes the WNBA is failing its players that have nothing to do with paychecks. According to Ellentuck, the list included “marketing around the stars, marketing the teams like teams instead of billboards, spacing out the schedule, and improved travel conditions.”

It’s not just these players who recognize this lack of effort from the WNBA.

The WNBA’s inability to fully capitalize on its early successes has been acknowledged by one of its founders, Adam Silver,” according to New York Times’ Richard Sandomir.

In 2015, Silver acknowledged that “the league had not progressed as far as it should have — and that he had not focused on it as much as possible,” Sandomir wrote.

“As much as we’ve done in lending the league our name,” Silver said, “the people who have been in the sports business for a long time, and I’m one of them, historically underestimated the marketing it takes to launch a new property.”

Ultimately, these women are asking for a lot more respect and to be given a chance to be as successful as the men’s league. They are demanding that the WNBA put in as much effort into improving the quality of the league as their players put in every night on the court. In addition, the women are asking that they be acknowledged as intelligent, complex and interesting human beings worthy of attention.

“These women are doing all this crazy travel, for less money and less visibility than they’re worth—and then they’re turning it around to give fans the best they’ve got, every single night. They’re playing some of the highest-level basketball this world has ever seen. But not only that. They’re grinding off the court, too,” Ogwumike wrote in an essay for the Players’ Tribune titled “Bet on Women.”

“It’s not all about the money,” she added. “This is about small changes the league can make that will impact the players. This is about a six-foot-nine superstar taking a red-eye cross-country and having to sit in an economy seat instead of an exit row. Often with delays … We’re looking at issues like that—those everyday, real-life player experiences.”

“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,” Fader wrote.

Even Silver agrees:

“They’re certainly the best female basketball players in the world,” he said in the interview with Bleacher Report, “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.”

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

Cheryl Reeve, coach for the four-time champion Minnesota Lynx, also spoke on this issue with Bleacher Report.

Though she praised the NBA as a “tremendous” partner, Reeve acknowledged “it could do more in finding new avenues for revenue growth for the WNBA,” Fader wrote. “She sees the NBA as a global, iconic brand that is creative, always searching for new ways to generate revenue here and abroad.”

As Ogwumike said, at the end of the day, “This is not just about business. This is deeply personal. This is about the kind of world we want to live in.

These women have spoken; they’ve done all they can to demand justice and equality.

The ball is now in the WNBA’s court. The league has to decide what kind of message it wants to send to all those little girls out there with dreams of playing professional basketball. It has to decide if it wants to continue showing the world that women in sports don’t matter, or if it wants to forge a brighter, more just future where athletes are paid their worth, no matter their gender.

 



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