LOS ANGELES – Katie Lou Samuelson had the right sneakers to mark the anniversary of Title IX. Earlier than the Sparks’ residence sport in opposition to the Chicago Sky on June 23, Samuelson unwrapped the white paper on a black shoe field to disclose her pair of custom-embellished Puma sneakers.
“Pay for ladies’s sneakers,” Samuelson’s sneakers proclaimed in daring white font on a black background.
The sneakers included a Title IX anniversary signal on the again of the left shoe and Brittney Griner’s initials and jersey no. 42 on the appropriate.
The Phoenix Mercury middle’s ban and conviction in Russia for possession of hashish has grow to be an emblem of the wage cap difficulty plaguing the WNBA, the place stars like Griner — a WNBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and eight-time All-Star — journey abroad throughout their WNBA offseason for salaries price greater than 4 or 5 instances what they earn at residence.
The worldwide leagues, created a long time earlier than the 26-year-old WNBA, have lengthy been monetary avenues for American gamers who spend 5 months in entrance of their residence crowds after which fly for seven-month seasons in Turkey, Spain, Russia, China or Australia. .
Unique places and large paydays come on the expense of attending massive occasions like weddings and birthdays or spending time with family members, to not point out the additional put on and tear on a participant’s physique.
Samuelson, who additionally performs in Spain, can envision a future for the WNBA when gamers aren’t so compelled to play abroad, but it surely’s a great distance off. The WNBA common season will in all probability need to be longer than 4 or 5 months. Rosters needs to be expanded by 12 gamers. Wages must rise.
Steps to scale back the wage hole start with elevating the WNBA, a shared accountability by the league, gamers and brokers.
“As girls in sports activities, we’ve got to play the lengthy sport,” stated Allison Galer, whose shopper record at her company Disrupt the Recreation consists of Sparks’ Chiney Ogwumike, Washington ahead Elizabeth Williams and reigning Rookie of the Yr Michaela Onyenwere.
Rising tv rankings and merchandise gross sales point out that the WNBA is rising in recognition. It is a latest increase, discovering its origins in Bradenton, Fla., the place the WNBA held its pandemic bubble season in 2020. The disastrous yr had an edge for the WNBA. Viewership for the WNBA Finals was up 15% from final yr, when nearly all different leagues had been experiencing a big drop in viewership. Off the courtroom, the gamers’ unapologetic advocacy for Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter and voting rights strengthened the WNBA’s picture as a frontrunner in social justice.
Many corporations are championing variety, equality and inclusion within the run-up to 2020, which ought to make the WNBA and its gamers prime targets for endorsement offers from manufacturers trying to join with youthful, digitally savvy and principally females.
“We’re a league that [says] put your cash the place your mouth is,” stated WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
A generally repeated statistic from Ladies in Sport states that solely 0.4% of whole sports activities sponsorship between 2011 and 2013 went to girls. This small portion is normally dominated by athletes who play in particular person sports activities.
Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams had been the one feminine athletes in Forbes’ prime 50 this yr with 24-year-old Osaka ranked because the world’s highest-paid feminine athlete. Her estimated whole earnings of $59.2 million ranked nineteenth total, and $58 million got here from out-of-court settlements. Williams earned $45 million of her $45.3 million off the sector and ranked thirty first.
The very best-paid feminine athlete has been a tennis participant yearly since Forbes started monitoring the info in 1990, reinforcing an ecosystem that undervalues girls in workforce sports activities, Engelbert stated.
“Earlier than I am accomplished,” she added, “we will change the damaged evaluation mannequin.”
The WNBA is valued at greater than $1 billion, a rise because of a latest $75 million capital elevate. The cash from two dozen buyers was the most important capital elevate for a girls’s sports activities property.
The cash can be unfold over three to 5 years, Engelbert stated. It’s supposed for branding and advertising; the globalization of the WNBA; innovation and elevated buyer touchpoints; and human capital and operational optimization, in accordance with a press release from the league saying the transaction.
The place it will not go is on participant wages.
Though the 2020 collective bargaining settlement supplied some advantages resembling common six-figure salaries, increased salaries for star gamers and totally paid maternity go away, the gamers have but to safe equal income sharing.
WNBA gamers are solely assured a 50-50 break up of the income if the league meets acknowledged however undisclosed targets. The WNBA had about $60 million in income in 2018, in accordance with Forbes. The NBA, 50 years previous, earned $7.4 billion that yr and boasts $10 billion in income this yr.
The twin duties of elevating income and altering the CBA, which runs by 2027, make it unlikely that participant wage will increase would be the subsequent domino to fall within the WNBA’s wage warfare.
“All people needs to go straight to the paycheck,” stated Samuelson, a former No. 1 total choose. 4 total, who has performed for 4 groups in her 4 years within the WNBA. “However there are such a lot of various things that need to be house rocks earlier than that even occurs.”
Along with the wage improve, gamers level to points resembling an absence of constitution flights — particularly throughout this busy season that has groups usually taking part in video games each different day — or follow amenities. The Sparks have break up their follow time between three places this season: a rented fitness center in Torrance, USC’s Galen Heart and Crypto.com Enviornment, the place in addition they play video games.
The highest leagues overseas meet these off-field necessities. Not solely are the gamers nicely paid, however they play in elite competitions enhancing their expertise. The chance for improvement is very vital for youthful gamers who’ve restricted taking part in time within the WNBA, which has no follow squads or improvement leagues. Wealthier groups, together with Griner’s UMMC Yekaterinburg, which is managed by a pair of Russian oligarchs, have been identified to arrange gamers with their very own flats, personal automotive companies and luxurious journey lodging.
However alternatives to play abroad are dwindling, Galer stated. She would not suppose any agent will ship an American participant to Russia in gentle of Griner’s ban, the warfare in Ukraine and the Euroleague suspension of prime Russian groups UMMC Yekaterinburg, Dynamo Kursk and MBA Moscow. COVID-19 additionally crippled the abroad market.
With the WNBA’s payroll stagnating, “there’s much more weight on sponsorships and model partnerships,” Sparks ahead Nneka Ogwumike stated.
Reinventing the sponsorship plan for WNBA gamers requires hustle and deliberate brand-building efforts by particular person participant brokers and the league. From her first day as commissioner in 2019, Engelbert stated the WNBA had a “advertising difficulty.” To assist resolve it, it has tried to encourage gamers to remain in america through the offseason in change for league advertising offers that present compensation for participation in promoting campaigns with WNBA companions.
The hope is that gamers like reigning MVP Jonquel Jones and WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper grow to be family names. However these stars performed abroad final yr, with Jones taking part in for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, the identical membership as Griner. Copper was named MVP for one of the best Spanish league and the Euroleague.
The advertising cash supplied by the WNBA nonetheless cannot make up the distinction of an abroad contract that pays between $10,000-$15,000 a month.
“Is it higher for the gamers to be right here for marketability functions? Positive,” Galer stated. “However the pot would not essentially get greater for each participant in the event that they keep right here.”
Engelbert stated she would by no means shut off abroad alternatives for gamers, however needed them to prioritize the WNBA and for the league to make it financially viable to take action. Standing behind a podium at All-Star weekend, Engelbert celebrated the progress made on the latter.
Throughout a press convention in Chicago on the league’s midseason occasion, the commissioner introduced that a further $1.5 million could be out there to gamers from the league’s pool of promoting agreements. Constitution flights for the WNBA Finals had been on the best way. The playoff bonus pool elevated by roughly 50% to $500,000.
“We’re simply making an attempt to get away,” she stated on the occasion.
Engelbert repeated the phrase when describing the WNBA’s journey towards pay fairness. Nobody can settle the matter merely with a blanket assertion, however latest progress has the commissioner, gamers and brokers trying to a shiny future.
Nneka Ogwumike stated she hopes “it will not take for much longer to see minimal wages go into six figures.”
And Engelbert is already scouting cities for potential enlargement groups to launch in 2024 or 2025.
“We’re solely going to go up from right here,” Galer stated. “We simply need to construct it.”
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