SELECT CONTRACTS AND THE WNBA
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
This article was originally published on February 27th, 2019.
In October, the NBA G League announced their newest endeavor, the Select Contract.
The Select Contract offers top high school prospects a $125,000 contract in what former G League President Malcolm Turner described as an "alternative to the one-and-done route."
Beginning in the 2019-20 season, players who have turned 18 by September 15 of the year in question and qualify for this elite contract will have the option to sign with the G League. This would be instead of using their gap year between high school and the NBA to go to college or play in an international league.
Since the announcement was made it has started to aggravate those involved within the WNBA.
Gender Wage Gap
Over the latest WNBA season, player salaries became a surprisingly inflammatory talking point that reached far beyond the usually intimate world of women’s basketball media.
Luckily the WNBA is stacked with athletes unafraid to speak their minds. The players have used their voices on social media and through the media to bolster their claim for a better share of the league’s revenue.
Dallas Wings' center Liz Cambage (@ecambage), would go on to highlight the issue through Twitter.
"Today I learnt NBA refs make more than a WNBA player and the 12th man on a NBA makes more than a WHOLE WNBA team," Cambage tweeted.
"Not sure if I want a sex change or a career change right now."
"It's [quite] frustrating going to bed most nights knowing that if I was born with a penis I would be entitled to so much more in life. But ... I love being a woman I will never stop fighting for my sisters."
For Cambage, the price and physical toll of a WNBA season is potentially not worth the return.
"I've said this many times: [The WNBA] doesn't pay my bills ... playing here doesn't pay my bills," Cambage said in an interview. "We make more money overseas. I'm ready to have next summer off and focus on getting a European contract where its 10 seasons here worth the pay."
"It sucks because I love to be here, I love to put the game out there, I love what comes with playing here. But at the end of the day, for my longevity, I worry about my body, my mind and my soul. I really don't get paid enough to be beaten up every game. I'm not a WWE wrestler and that's how it feels sometimes out on the court."
For players who have been in the WNBA for six years, their maximum salary is only $115,000 compared to the average salary that’s estimated to be around $79,000.
Like Cambage mentioned this is less than NBA referees' salaries. Entry-level NBA referees start out at $150,000.
Therefore, when the NBA announced a program that would pay top-tier high school recruits $125,000 to play in the G League for one year instead of going one-and-done in college, the response from WNBA players was predictable. 2018 first overall draft pick by the Las Vegas Aces A'ja Wilson's (@_ajawilson22), whose rookie season salary was $52,564, responded on her Twitter account.
These Select Contracts, as they’ve been coined, place the devaluation of WNBA talent in stark relief. Similar to the NBA, the WNBA is home to the world’s best basketball players in its category.
However, unlike their male counterparts in the NBA, WNBA players make so little that they’re compelled to play year-round, taking contracts overseas during the seven-month WNBA offseason that can reach 15 times what they make in the US.
According to Forbes, the NBA’s 30 teams hit $8 billion in revenue for the 2017-18 season. NBA players made about half of that amount. With billions of dollars involved, it isn’t surprising to see the average NBA player is making millions of dollars.
In comparison, the 12 teams of the WNBA's revenue is around $60 million. An exact figure is not exact as the league does not publicize all the details of their various deals. It does however include the $25 million broadcasting deal with ESPN and $26.5 million in ticket sales.
Despite all of this the WNBA salary cap is under $1 million. Since there are 12 WNBA teams, that’s a little less than $12 million, which is only 20 percent of revenue.
2017 number 1 WNBA draft pick, Kelsey Plum (@Kelseyplum10) shared her thoughts.
“I’m tired of people thinking that us players are asking for the same type of money as NBA players. We are asking for the same percentage of revenue shared within our CBA. NBA players receive around 50 percent of shared revenue within their league, whereas we receive around 20 percent.”
If the WNBA followed the same approach as the NBA, the ten most productive players in the WNBA would be paid the following salaries:
Sylvia Fowles (@SylviaFowles) / Minnesota Lynx: $991,669
Courtney Vandersloot (@Sloot22) / Chicago Sky: $795,928
Breanna Stewart (@breannastewart) / Seattle Storm: $766,885
Diana Taurasi (@DianaTaurasi) / Phoenix Mercury: $758,072
Elena Delle Donne (@De11eDonne) / Washington Mystics: $746,130
Candace Parker (@Candace_Parker) / Los Angeles Sparks: $709,677
Liz Cambage (@ecambage) / Dallas Wings: $708,133
Sue Bird (@S10Bird) / Seattle Storm: $665,661
DeWanna Bonner / Phoenix Mercury: $572,351
Chelsea Gray (@cgray209) / Los Angeles Sparks: $542,459
The biggest issue with the introduction of the “select contracts,” though, isn’t the $10,000 or so disparity between the yearly salaries of an 18-year-old man with no professional experience and Diana Taurasi arguably the greatest women’s player of all time.
The issue is that the NBA sees the G League, a minor league of the men’s game, with minimal opportunity for a direct return, as more worthy of investment than the women’s game as a whole.
The $125,000 Select Contract is not related to the G League’s profit margins; it’s designed to get the best talent available in-house and to compete directly with the NCAA.
High school players already had the option to play in the G League. The only thing that’s changed is now they can potentially make four times more than the league’s $35,000 base salary.
On some level, quadrupling the league’s average salary for top-level young talent at the snap of a finger is a smart move for the NBA. They’re attempting to grow their monopoly on the world basketball market’s highest tier, and this approach paves the way for the eventual elimination of its minimum age restriction altogether.
In contrast, the league’s commitment to the WNBA consistently appears to be no more than the bare minimum. The first game of the 2018 WNBA Finals was on the nearly-impossible-to-watch ESPNNews, and the league’s biggest stars consistently lament its poor marketing and media coverage.
Profitability and sustainability are obviously vital to any business, but not investing now in the WNBA for a bigger long-term payoff is remarkably short-sighted.
“If you’re not putting your dollars behind it and your marketing behind it, then it’s just lip service,” said Delle Donne (@De11eDonne), small forward for the Washington Mystics. “So, I’m waiting for the dollars to actually get behind female athletes.”
“Look at this thing here,” explains Cambage picking up a teammate’s jersey. She pointed to the front of the uniform, which is dotted with the sponsor’s labels.
“Who wants to buy this with a massive American Fidelity sign?” she asked rhetorically.
“Where does it even say Dallas Wings on it? How are you meant to market this? Who wants to buy this?”
The jersey she pointed to is the only one that’s customizable on her team’s website for fans to purchase. It looks like this:
“And if you want people to buy this, they’re wearing it for people’s names on the back. Nobody wants to rep this,” Cambage said.
“It’s little things like that. Having the right symbols on the jersey, people want to rep their city. They want to see Dallas Wings. They want their favorite players’ names on the back.”
The WNBA completed its 22nd season last year. It has only taken a decade for the league to stabilize its finances, and its fan base has been on par with any professional sports league starting up.
If we look at the NBA during this same time frame, around the late 60's early seventies. The Seattle Supersonics in 1968-69 season, reported that they earned $992,000 in revenue. Average salaries for that season were not available, but if we look at the average salary for 1970-71 it was $45,000.
With 14 players on the team that season, the Sonics paid out $630,000 in salaries. If we assume revenue in 1970-71 was similar to revenue just two years earlier, then the Sonics in 1970-71 were paying 63.5 percent of their revenue in player salaries.
That year, the NBA was in its 25th season, about as old as the WNBA is today. Still, the Sonics appear to have paid a much higher percentage of its revenue to its players than the WNBA is currently paying theirs, when their average attendance that season was only 7,648.
The women’s game has much more room to grow than the G League. Viewership and interest grew this year despite the league’s built-in disadvantages, few national broadcasts, the challenge of selling players who work abroad for most of the year and play just 34 regular-season games, so imagine what difference even a G League-level investment might make.
Not only could the NBA effectively double its basketball talent pool, it can substantially grow its overall viewership with the continued promotion of another best-in-the-world basketball product to fans who never actually need to choose between following the NBA and the WNBA.
When more WNBA players, scattered across the world with the international teams they’re obliged to play with thanks to the design of the WNBA and its contracts, vocalize their frustration that G League players can now make more than they do, they’ll be completely justified.