On LeBron James’ HBO Show The Shop, the Los Angeles Lakers star discusses pop culture and politics with other entertainers and influencers. Recently, one of his visitors was WNBA all-star Elena Delle Donne. Delle Donne has become a major advocate for pay equality for WNBA players.
She has voiced her disappointment with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s comments that the WNBA simply doesn’t currently attract enough young fans to become profitable and that increasing media coverage is not the answer to WNBA’s financial struggles. While WNBA players such as Candace Parker and Delle Donne are excited to have a voice on LeBron’s show, recognition from NBA players is far from the solution.
NBA players live like rock stars. Cameras and recorders follow them the moment they walk off their bus at the arena. A multitude of Instagram accounts are dedicated to their pre-game outfits, handshakes, and highlights of their games. The internet is flooded with comments about Lebron’s music choices, Russell Westbrook’s extravagant outfits, and Kawhi Leonard’s ridiculous laugh. Everything they do gets attention. We glamourize them for social outreach endeavours, big stat lines, and broken records. In the end, the exorbitant revenue made by the NBA allows its players to reach such incredible levels of stardom.
Diana Taurasi, star of the Phoenix Mercury, has expressed frustration with being covered in makeup before an interview. In the past years, WNBA marketing has encouraged female athletes to fit an inauthentic image and added unneeded pressure to WNBA players.
Silver explains that the new goal should be to market the players as themselves. “They’re certainly the best female basketball players in the world… but once that’s established, you have to build out their character… so people have ways that they can connect with them, beyond basketball on the court.” There appears to be a consensus that changing the WNBA’s marketing strategy will eventually get WNBA players the higher salaries that they deserve.
While NBA players connect with fans by sharing inspiring messages, buying their mother a house, or owning several sports cars, WNBA players do not have this luxury. The ability to solely focus on winning, living a healthy lifestyle, and simply staying in the United States during the offseason, is a privilege held by NBA players. For women playing in a league that has existed for 22 years and has yet to earn a profit, they continually have to prove their value as a “product” worth investing in.
To accurately portray the WNBA’s image, however, is to make the public aware that WNBA players do not live glamorous lives, or even lives fitting for professional athletes.
WNBA players live regular middle-class lives. Mirin Fader’s article in B/R Mag opens with the daily struggles of the Connecticut Sun’s Layshia Clarendon as a professional athlete. Clarendon had difficulty affording a proper diet or finding a nice gym to practise in. Her WNBA salary only affords her a $30 USD a month LA Fitness membership, where she shoots jump shots off a slippery, injury-inducing floor hit the ceiling.
Kayla McBride was the third overall pick in 2014 and averaged 13 points per game as a rookie. She earned $48,000 USD that year with the San Antonio Stars. In the offseason, she played in Hungary and broke her foot. She rushed back to the WNBA shortly after surgery because she felt pressure to play well and sign another generous overseas contract. When she returned to WNBA basketball, she broke her foot again. This year, she is off to Russia to play for a contract that is six times her WNBA salary.
This year’s third overall pick in the NBA draft will earn $5,467,200 USD and $6,402,800 USD in their second year. This is more money than most young adults know what to do with. It is enough to give back to their families and communities, buy a luxury home, and pay a personal chef.
This past season, Sylvia Fowles was named the WNBA MVP and earned $109,000 USD. Meanwhile, Phoenix Suns’ Leandro Barbosa will earn $500,000 USD, although he was waived in July. He will earn half a million dollars without setting foot on the court.
While NBA organizations worry about players living too lavishly and getting into trouble off the court, WNBA organizations worry about players maintaining their diet, having access to good gyms, and hurting themselves overseas.
This year, the NBA is expected to generate over $9 billion USD in revenue, while the WNBA will earn around $60 million USD, less than one per cent of the NBA’s total revenue. WNBA players earn about 22 per cent of the leagues revenue, while NBA players receive about 50 per cent. In 2018, ESPN will air up to 33 WNBA games, including 13 regular-season games. ESPN will host 84 NBA regular-season games, and up to 44 NBA playoff games along with ABC.
Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve believes that the WNBA plays under a “media blackout.” Players are concerned that if people cannot watch games from their home, then they won’t be encouraged to buy tickets. Silver responded to this concern with, “I’m a little bit frustrated.”
He believes that ESPN has been generous enough, and that the WNBA needs to focus on social media to attract a younger fan base. Fader accurately describes this as a chicken-or-egg debate. Once it becomes more popular through increased national telecasts, social media presence comes naturally.
Although a marketing strategy change will allow players to represent their authentic selves, the ‘authentic’ WNBA player today is a woman who needs to leave the country to make a living each year and who waits in line to use weights at a local gym.
For men, becoming a professional athlete is the ultimate victory. It doesn’t just represent winning, doing what you love, and becoming the hero of a city; it represents luxury and access to many other things that they could want.
For women, the dream is not equal. It may take them the same amount of time and effort to become professional athletes in the United States, but the payoff is bleak and incomparable. There is ample work to be done until female basketball players can live the life that is expected for professional athletes. Ultimately, increasing salaries will keep younger women inspired to pursue sport.