Caitlin Clark earns 2% of the average NBA salary. Is that as ridiculous as it sounds?

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The clearest sign that a sports league is on the rise is the emergence of a story about one player’s salary. And ever since it was announced that women’s basketball’s biggest star, Caitlin Clark, will make $338,000 over the next four years after turning pro in the WNBA, the foul cries have been coming from all corners.

“When I saw the numbers — $76,000 the first year, $78,000 the second year, $85,000 the third year — for someone who is now the face of women’s basketball, it seemed kind of ridiculous,” Today host Hoda Kotb said. Even Dave Portnoy, majordomo of the proudly misogynistic Barstool Sports, seemed offended: He offered Clark $10 million to play for his company’s hoops team. The disbelief reached all the way to the top: Joe Biden posted on X that “it’s time we give our daughters the same opportunities as our sons and ensure that women get what they deserve.”

Not only is Clark’s salary small compared to the $55 million the NBA’s top rookie, Victor Wembanyama, will make on his first contract, it’s half the amount she’d get if she were in the events department of the WNBA was going to work. The median (rather than median) WNBA player salary of $78,000 is just 2% of that of their NBA counterparts. The median could rise slightly if fewer WNBA rookies are fired at the start of the season, but it’s still a Grand Canyon-sized pay gap compared to other skilled trades, where women can count on it (which still isn’t ideal) to earn two-thirds as much as men. At the same point in the NBA’s evolution – 28 years after its founding – the average player salary was about $90,000, or about $633,000 in today’s terms. Perhaps even worse is that Clark – who broke virtually every notable scoring record in college – will earn slightly more in four years than the average male dentist does in one year.


This gap in basketball pay is why so many women play abroad during the WNBA season — a proposition that has become riskier since Brittney Griner was jailed in Russia and Israel went to war. And yet, for some of us who have followed the women’s game long enough to remember, Diana Taurasi, perhaps the best pro of the past two decades, made $40,000 (or about $66,000 in today’s terms) in her first year with the Phoenix Mercury ) and If he plays the 2015 seasons for $1.5 million in Russia, it’s hard not to see Clark’s fate as progress.

It’s also worth remembering that the NBA brings in a lot more revenue than the WNBA, which has a trickle-down effect for its players because the NBA had a 50-year head start on its sister league, the kind of age difference you only see at birthday parties among the De Niros and the Pacinos. All told, the NBA brings in more than $10 billion a year, while the WNBA reportedly has $200 million in annual revenue, about four times what LeBron James earned last season alone with the Los Angeles Lakers – beating the likes of Clark paid. anywhere near the amounts that top NBA players make would put the league out of business faster than a quick break in the Las Vegas Aces. Some of the revenue disparity is due to the fact that the WNBA makes significantly less from its broadcast rights ($65 million this year) than the NBA, despite being among the highest-rated women’s sports events on television for most of its history ; their deal is essentially an afterthought within the NBA’s overall broadcast package. Ticket revenues are also much lower: Average WNBA attendance last season was 6,615, compared to 18,324 in 2023-2024 for the NBA, which also has more teams and games.

The WNBA distributes its money differently than the male-dominated American sports leagues. In the NBA, players take a 50% cut in revenue; in the WNBA, players are only entitled to half of increasing revenue (read: the money the league makes that exceeds growth goals) and half of the revenue from the sale of specific players’ jerseys, but again, only after meeting stated sales goals. Disappointingly, WNBA players – unlike their NBA counterparts – do not generate additional revenue when franchises are sold or when the league seeks outside investment for itself. “I don’t think I should get paid the same as LeBron,” Las Vegas Aces star Kelsey Plum said in a 2022 podcast interview. “But… for example, they’re selling my jersey in [Las Vegas hotel] Mandalay Bay, I don’t get a cent.” In a sense, Clark, whose tunic No. 22 Fever is already the highest-grossing jersey ever for a draft pick, is already carrying bags in a way that the vets about to take her on could hardly have imagined to suggest.

All in all, the WNBA looks like a middle class person who grew up poor but is still pinching pennies to make sure they don’t end up in first place again. And the league has good reason to be cautious after a series of failures under its predecessors. Before NBA Commissioner David Stern created “the W” in 1996, a women’s professional league was perhaps the toughest sell in American sports. The Ladies Professional Basketball Association tipped off with six teams in 1980 and folded after a month. The Women’s American Basketball Association, another six-team league, expired after the 1984 season, which began when the Dallas Diamonds announced a three-year, $250,000 contract with Nancy Lieberman, the Caitlin Clark of her era.

The National Women’s Basketball Association, which formed two years later, was also one and done. The Women’s Basketball Association was the exception that lasted three full seasons, perhaps because it played in the summer when the NBA was on hiatus. After a Dream Team of American women romped to gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Stern took a chance. “We are giving life to a concept that has been much discussed and much tried, but which we believe is now ready to flourish,” he said. “It’s about time.”

The top players in the inaugural WNBA draft looked a lot like this year’s crop, immensely popular and intensely followed: UConn’s Rebecca Lobo, USC’s Lisa Leslie and Texas Tech’s Sheryl Swoopes, a former Clark critic who also became the first women’s basketball player he once made a shoe deal with Nike. The WNBA launched with eight teams and grew to 12, with none validating the proof of concept as much as the Swoopes’ Houston Comets – winners of the league’s first four championships. When the Comets were disbanded a decade later after the NBA’s Houston Rockets failed to spin off their sister franchise, the WNBA’s patronage-based structure was turned upside down. The Seattle Storm were the outlier team that was independently controlled and owned by women, but even they would struggle for success despite playing in a fiercely loyal sports town desperate for basketball after the departure of the NBA team.

That said, it’s unlikely that the current college stars coming into the league after Clark — South Carolina’s MiLaysia Fulwiley, USC’s JuJu Watkins — will experience the same situation. The WNBA players’ union is expected to abandon its current agreement with the league at the end of 2025, when TV rights expire. And given the sharp increase in ratings for the WNBA and college basketball, and the $240 million the National Women’s Soccer League recently secured for its domestic TV rights, the WNBA is well positioned to name its own price for an on standalone deal, separate from the NBA. . That, plus the expansion franchises the league has planned for San Francisco and Toronto over the next two years, will certainly help the players’ push for a true 50-50 revenue split — at which point multimillion-dollar salaries would become a league standard could be. . These figures could rise even further if sports betting – whatever its ills – also becomes a regular part of league revenues.

Still, it’s not like this year’s rookie class will be spearheading charitable efforts to make ends meet. Last week, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert gave the green light to charter flights for all teams, a persistent sticking point for (often very tall) veterans who have been crammed into commercial planes and nearly lost games due to delays. Last month, the Storm became the second WNBA team to open its own practice facility — a $64 million endowment for its staff. Furthermore, the Storm are the standard bearers for a league where seven teams are independently run and all owners, not least Aces’ Mark Davis, are deeply invested in the growth of the sport. Sponsorship is also becoming a lucrative area for the league’s biggest stars. Clark will make $3 million off the field this year; her Nike deal, reportedly worth $28 million, would surpass only James and Kevin Durant’s in value. Less than a week after Clark followed in Swoopes’ footsteps, two-time reigning national champion and MVP A’ja Wilson announced her own Nike deal.

Yes, Clark’s fate looks grim in the context of gender equality in sports and labor relations in the US. Considering her acting, personality, and undeniable impact on the box office, there’s no doubt that she makes a lot more money. That includes her college rival Angel Reese, the LSU star turned Met Gala darling who helped Clark create this historic demand for women’s basketball, and the many dynamic veterans who continue to make the league a premier attraction.

Women’s basketball is changing, and at a good pace. If the current trajectory continues, it won’t be much longer before WNBA salaries mean that stars, when they finally get their teeth fixed, will be making far more than the men who could treat them.

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