“I just would like to see [WNBA players] get that same opportunity as [NBA players], and it is head scratching to me that it hasn’t taken place yet,” Jalen Rose says about the growing gender wage gap that exists in professional basketball.
The former NBA star speaks exclusively with EBONY.com to explain the ways he believes the WNBA can address and help correct the problem.
The Detroit native played in the league for 13 years following his landmark college career on the University of Michigan Wolverines’ history-making Fab Five team alongside Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King and Chris Webber. The players were political, brazen and self-consciously Black, which rubbed the open racial wound in American society. Rose is no stranger to overcoming struggle and the scrutiny of the public eye. Despite multiple hurdles, he continues to be a voice for those in need, including in his role as co-founder of the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy (JRLA), an open enrollment, tuition-free public charter high school in the northwest section of his hometown.
Rose understands that race, class or gender should not limit access to equality. During an August episode of Get Up, the ESPN analyst made remarks regarding WNBA players’ “second-class citizen” treatment after the Las Vegas Aces were forced to forfeit a canceled game. Several viewers took offense to the comments because the lives of professional athletes are equated to luxury. “[My comment] was in relation to the NBA and not necessarily civilian life, per se,” the former Indiana Pacer says to EBONY. “The reason why I feel that way is because I understand the business dynamics that are at play for those owners and cynics of investing in the WNBA, who use that logic that ‘right now it’s not getting an equal return.’”
— Jalen Rose (@JalenRose) August 8, 2018
According to Forbes, the NBA generated $7.4 billion in 2017 in comparison to the WNBA’s $25 million. However, the starting salary for the women’s league is $50,000, whereas the minimum wage for a professional NBA player is $582,180. Because the women’s league is a subsidiary of the men’s association, Rose believes it should follow a similar business model.
“My thought process is to build it, and they will come because it’s a terrific product [with] amazing storylines, players and so many accomplished people that are part and affiliated with the league,” Rose says to EBONY. “[The problem is WNBA players’] stories never get built out for public and national consumption. We don’t get a chance to get to know who they are away from the floor, which in most instances in sports and entertainment helps to draw [eyes] toward the product on the floor.”
He’s right. You don’t have to be an avid basketball fan to see the cultural impact of NBA superstars such as Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Chris Paul or Carmelo Anthony. Rose credits this effect to good marketing. “The NBA is the best at maximizing its digital and social media audience. [The league] allows players to not only have a face but also a voice. [Fans] get a chance to appreciate not only [players’] terrific ability to play basketball, but also who they are away from the floor.”
In contrast, the stories of WNBA All-Stars rarely make it to mainstream media. Dallas Wings player Skylar Diggins discussed the disparity in coverage in an essay for Wealthsimple, a Canadian online investment management service, in which she criticized the pay gap. She revealed that as the highest paid player on her team, she still earns significantly less for the same amount of work as an NBA player. In addition, WNBA teams travel on commercial flights. This may seem “fair” to people who believe women are not entertaining ballplayers, but Rose debunks that idea and touches on how the league can become more enticing in a simple marketing step.
“How many times have you been in the car and a song came on the radio, and you knew the words to the song? Then you said to yourself, ‘I don’t even like that record,’ because what ends up happening is it becomes a part of your consciousness,’” the 45-year-old explains. “It becomes a part of your DNA because that’s what marketing, promotion and advertising entails: having it to where you can’t ignore it.”
There was a time in Rose’s childhood when the NBA didn’t have a “stronghold on the attention of the people globally.” He can remember in the league’s 72-year history when the games were on taped delay and “didn’t have the same level of cache.” He believes that WNBA players including Minnesota Lynx‘s Maya Moore, Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi and Los Angeles Sparks’ Candace Parker have stories that could add to the appeal of the women’s franchise.
One such example of a woman expanding the public’s interest in a sport is tennis player Serena Williams, who Rose makes sure to call “not one of the best female athletes, but one of the greatest athletes of all time.” He is aware that there is a glass ceiling that women need to shatter and wants the WNBA, which is just a 21-year-old league, to give its players that opportunity to do.
Rose thinks fans will grow to enjoy the league. He feels that will not happen unless the WNBA and NBA to work together to create a fiscal influx through marketing, promotion, and advertisers. First, the organizations need to show the players “the TLC they deserve as a league.”
“As you build out the product and the fans see that you believe in it and it’s not like a flop out of your pants type of approach, I think that level of support will come,” Rose asserts.
Game 3 of the 2018 WNBA Finals featuring the Seattle Storm vs. Washington Mystics airs on ESPN News tonight at 8 p.m. EST.