Pay inequity forces WNBA players to hoop year-round, overseas

New CBA, which includes salary increase, travel accommodations, is step in the right direction for women of the WNBA

For the women of the WNBA, the final buzzer never sounds. During the offseason, a majority of the athletes grind to try and reach the pay level of their male counterparts

Take professional hooper Alexis Peterson. Peterson, who was drafted in 2017 by the Seattle Storm, is now on the Force 10 Sports Management’s three-on-three roster. In the offseason, Peterson will play with Israeli team Maccabi Bnot Ashdod before returning to compete in the domestic scene. She commits to this year-round schedule and the isolation from family and friends it imposes for one reason — to earn as much as her male counterparts.

Pay gaps between men and women’s sports have earned much attention recently thanks to the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) lawsuit against U.S. Soccer over pay equality. While the soccer team’s lawsuit hit a major roadblock, things look good in the latest iteration of the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA). With the new CBA negotiations that WNBA athletes underwent with the league earlier this year, several players who engage in that year-round grind believe there was some bleed-over from the public’s general support of the equal pay lawsuit. 

Peterson is one of those people. “I think they raised awareness, and obviously the conversation has been going on for some time,” Peterson said. “But I think by them taking that immediate action and standing for what they believe in, especially after such a great run and getting a championship, they can use that to be powerful and influential for all women in sports, not just their sport. I think the stand that they’re making not only for women’s soccer but women’s tennis and women’s basketball, any sport that is professional for women, I think they’re speaking for the collective.” 

While men’s basketball rookies average salary was $838,464 for the 2018-2019 season, WNBA players averaged just $79,000 in 2019. This may not shock some  considering the significant gap in revenue generated by both leagues. However, NBA players are paid roughly 50 percent of the league’s revenue, while WNBA players got less than 25 percent, according to David Berri at Forbes.

Under the newest CBA, WNBA players will earn significantly more than last season. “Core players” will earn nearly $100,000 more, and the minimum contract will jump from $41,965 to $57,000, according to an article by SBNation’s Matt Ellentuck. As far as revenue sharing, the players can earn up to a 50-50 split if the league exceeds a “Cumulative Revenue Target” in 2021. It’s a real step in the right direction, but a majority of players are still playing overseas for financial benefit, but sometimes to physical detriment.

It’s well known that WNBA players go abroad to get compensated. LA Sparks star Candace Parker said in an interview with Steve Harvey on “STEVE on Watch” that the “[WNBA] is my summer job” and “…I feed my daughter overseas.”

But during the renegotiations of the CBA, the focus extended beyond pay discrepancy. After opting out of the old CBA this past year, the WNBA players sought more professional treatment and compensation for their efforts and earned some improvements. Ultimately, the newest CBA brought better treatment: upgraded from coach to economy-plus or comfort-plus in regular season games, players going to the All Star Game get first class, a 53% pay raise, and players getting their own hotel rooms and maternity benefits.

A grueling year-round schedule comes with a much higher risk of injury to these WNBA stars. Players have had to turn to alternative methods of recuperation to stay healthy. Old Dominion women’s head basketball coach and WNBA veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones explored various options, regardless of cost, to avoid financially ruinous injuries. “I was going out and my husband would research it and I would buy it,” Milton-Jones said. “So much so that I went to this one company that takes your bloodwork, and they tell you exactly what foods you should and shouldn’t eat. Eat according to your blood type. That was a game changer for me.”

Despite that, there was no way for Milton-Jones to stay totally injury free. She suffered an ACL injury in 2004 and in 2014 she ruptured her right Achilles tendon.

Playing abroad can be dangerous for career longevity. Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon while playing in Russia before the 2019 WNBA season. The injury came on the heels of Stewart’s best season to date, where she claimed WNBA MVP and EuroLeague MVP awards in the same season. Financially, Stewart made $56,793 in base salary last season with the Storm, earning bonuses of $15,000 for being MVP, $11,025 for winning the WNBA title, $10,000 for being All-WNBA first team and $2,500 for being in the All-Star Game, according to ESPNW’s Mechelle Voepel.

Contrast that with reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokoumnpo. The “Greek Freak” is about to wrap up a four-year $100 million deal with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Ultimately, the WNBA has a long way to go before it earns the recognition and equal treatment it deserves. But the goal, at least for Peterson, is NBA resemblance: 32 teams, hundreds of players, and professional treatment and compensation. After all, it wasn’t until 23 years ago that the WNBA was an option for women who loved the game. “I want the league to expand to where, not only myself, but up and coming talent, great players that I’ve played against, have the opportunity to fulfill their dream of playing in the WNBA,” Peterson said. “It’s a dream of almost every female basketball player growing up. It’s my hope and prayer that it will come true for many more people than it is right now.” 

Milton-Jones, now retired as a player since 2016, wants that same WNBA expansion but knows it won’t be easy. “When we were in the WNBA, the old heads, the veterans, and it was time for us to renegotiate our CBA, we were basically told, ‘Choose wisely,’” Milton-Jones said. “I think they still send out that same warning shot to this day, but I think the culture for women is different, the environment is different. The platform for the WNBA is one that the women of the WNBA are using. They’re speaking their minds, using their voices, and using it to their advantage. The success that comes with that is something that’s probably liberated the WNBA players.”

The future of the women’s game is promising, according to Milton-Jones.

“Another thing that adds to it is the men of the NBA recognize the talent of the WNBA,” Milton-Jones added. “They want change for them, they support the women too. Why not? Why not now? Why not this group of young women?”

Interviews conducted in August 2019. Photo courtesy of Alexis Peterson.