A Breakdown Of The Gender Pay Gap In The WNBA And NBA

We can’t talk about Brittney Griner without talking about the gender pay gap in sports.

The Russian detainment of ​​WNBA Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner has made national headlines since she was taken into custody back in February. The WNBA superstar and 2x Olympic gold medalist was detained in Russia after customs allegedly found vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. If convicted, the basketball star could face up to 10 years in prison.

Griner’s plight has taken many turns over the course of a few months, with the latest developments surrounding her guilty plea and President Joe Biden assuring her return. There has been an outpouring of support for Griner from fans and fellow athletes all hoping the WNBA star makes it back home soon and in good health. But what many may be wondering is what would ​​compel an openly gay, Black American woman to go to a country that is known for not being especially tolerant of those identities. The answer: she was traveling there because she plays for a Russian team during the U.S. off-season, which many WNBA players do to supplement their incomes.

As such, the gender pay gap in sports cannot be denied.

“The reality is, she’s over there because of a gender issue — pay inequity,” said Nneka Ogwumike, the head of the WNBA players union, in an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America.

“We go over there to supplement our incomes, and quite frankly, we go over there to maintain our game,” she said.

Karen Attiah, a columnist for The Washington Post, tweeted that Griner has played in Russia for the last seven years, “earning over $1 million per season — more than quadruple her WNBA salary.”

While public perception of professional basketball players is that they’re well-off multi-millionaires, the reality is that for the women’s professional league the pay is significantly modest. Griner’s ordeal has started to reopen the conversation around the gross pay disparity in women’s basketball.

Here’s a breakdown of the WNBA-NBA gender pay gap.

The pay disparity between WNBA players and NBA players is glaring.

The average NBA player earns $5.3 million a year, according to 2021-2022 data from Basketball Reference. By comparison, WNBA players earn an average of $130,000 a year. This means the average NBA player makes 41 times what the average WNBA player makes.

Top players earn vastly more, such as Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook, who make $48 million and $47 million a year, respectively. But in stark contrast the highest-paid WNBA players in 2022—Diana Taurasi, Jewell Loyd, and Breanna Stewart—each earned $228,094, according to Spotrac.

Differences in media coverage and sponsorship fuel the pay divide.

There are still significant differences in the media coverage of women’s and men’s sports. A 2021 USC/Purdue University study found that most sports news or highlights shows are made up entirely of men’s sports stories. The study published details “that 95% of total television coverage as well as the ESPN highlights show SportsCenter focused on men’s sports in 2019.” In addition, other research has found that the media tends to perpetuate gender stereotypes in their coverage of women’s sports.

The lack of authentic coverage that women receive in sports might be affecting the number of endorsements and corporate sponsorships they receive—which are primary sources of revenue for most leagues. According to the LA Times: “For every dollar that corporate America spends on sports sponsorship, less than a penny goes to women’s professional sports. The WNBA gets a fraction of that fraction.”

In an interview with comedian Adam Ray Seattle Storm point guard and four-time WNBA champion, Sue Bird explained that calls for equality between men’s and women’s professional basketball are more about equal investment and exposure for the WNBA. “Could I get the same media coverage, and the corporate sponsor looks, and things like that?'” Bird said. “So we can build the business, and then when it’s really good — like the NBA is — then we can get that money.”

WNBA players often go overseas during the off-season to make more money.

Like Griner, many WNBA players head overseas during the WNBA’s off-season to make more money. Top players in the WNBA regularly spend the off-season playing in other leagues, particularly in Turkey, China, and Russia. Griner has spent her winters, since 2014, playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League. Other WNBA stars such as Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, and Breanna Stewart have all played in Russian leagues for better pay.

While life overseas can be rough and lonely at times, WNBA players often make the sacrifice so that they can be compensated for what they feel they’re worth. While a player’s time overseas is thought of as their off-season, for many WNBA players the salaries they earn abroad are actually more reflective of a true season’s earnings.

In an interview with ESPN, Australian professional basketball player for the Los Angeles Sparks, Liz Cambage, explained that she makes 5 to 8 times more overseas than she does in the WNBA. “It’s hard when you have the best league in the world, but we’re not treated like the best athletes in the world,” Cambage said.

There have been attempts made to narrow the WNBA-NBA pay gap.

The WNBA has made some strides to increase the compensation of WNBA players. Most notably, players’ salaries were raised by 53% after a new community bargaining agreement was drafted in 2020. The newfound agreement not only increased a WNBA player’s salary potential but it also allowed for paid maternity leave. For the first time in WNBA history, the average cash compensation for players now exceeds six figures, averaging nearly $130,000 with additional bonuses and incentives. 

The league also announced in February 2022 that it had raised $75 million from investors in an effort to improve its business model, saying the money would go towards “brand elevation and marketing” and “an overall effort to address some of the league’s obstacles to growth and generating new revenue.”

While this shows a dramatic improvement, there are still considerable disparities compared to male leagues that will need to be addressed in order for the WNBA to truly grow and support its players.