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Fair pay for women's sports: how the WNBA is playing the long game

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LOS ANGELES — Katie Lou Samuelson had the perfect pair of shoes to mark the anniversary of Title IX.Ahead of the Sparks’ home game against Chicago Sky on June 23, Samuelson wore a black shoebox. He opened the white tissue paper inside to reveal a pair of custom-embellished Puma sneakers.

Samuelson’s shoe says in bold white on a black background, “Pay female athletes.”

The sneakers included Title IX anniversary markings on the back of the left shoe and Britney Griner’s initials and jersey number 42 on the right.

The Phoenix Mercury Center detention and cannabis possession conviction in Russia are emblematic of the pay equity issues plaguing the WNBA. Even stars like Griner, who is a WNBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and eight-time All-Star – can travel abroad during the WNBA off-season to earn a salary that is four to five times more than what she makes at home. I am going on a trip.

Founded decades before the 26-year-old WNBA was born, the international league is an American league that spends five months in front of a crowd at home and a seven-month season in Turkey, Spain, Russia, China or Australia. It has long been an economic lifeline for players. .

Exotic locations and hefty paydays come at the expense of attending major events like weddings and birthdays, as well as spending time with loved ones, not to mention further physical wear and tear on players.

Samuelsson, who also plays in Spain, could envision a future for the WNBA when players are no longer forced to play abroad, but that’s a long way off. She’s a regular in the WNBA and her season should probably last longer than she does four or five months. The roster needs to expand from her 12 players. Salaries will have to rise.

Steps to narrowing the pay gap start with the expansion of the WNBA, a responsibility shared by leagues, players and agents.

“As women in sports, we have to play the long game,” said Allison Gaylor.The client list for her agency Disrupt the Game includes Sparks’ Chinany. They include Mike Ogu, Washington forward Elizabeth Williams, and Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwea.

Rising TV ratings and merchandising shows the WNBA’s growing popularity. It’s a recent boom, finding its origins in Bradenton, Florida, where the WNBA hosted her 2020 pandemic bubble season. Viewership for the WNBA Finals was up 15% from the previous year, when viewership numbers were down significantly in nearly every other league. Out of court, Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter, and the unapologetically defended players of voting rights have reinforced her WNBA image as a social justice leader.

Since 2020, many companies have championed diversity, equity and inclusion. This should make the WNBA and its players prime targets for endorsement deals from brands looking to connect with a digitally savvy, younger, predominantly female clientele.

“We are the league [says] Say it and give it money,” said WNBA Commissioner Kathy Engelbart.

According to an oft-repeated statistic from Women in Sport, only 0.4% of all sports sponsorships were offered to women between 2011 and 2013. That small sliver is usually dominated by athletes who are stars in their respective sports.

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams are the only female athletes to enter the Forbes Top 50 this year, with Osaka, 24, checking in as the highest-paid female athlete in the world. Her estimated gross income was $59.2 million, which ranked her 19th overall, with $58 million coming from out-of-court transactions. Of her $45.3 million, Williams earned $45 million off the court, ranking 31st.

The highest-paid female athlete has been a tennis player every year since Forbes began tracking the data in 1990, Engelbart said, reinforcing an ecosystem that underrepresents women in team sports.

“I’m going to change the broken valuation model before the job is done,” she added.

WNBA’s valuation is over $1 billion, surging with a recent $75 million capital raise. The cash from 20 investors was the largest ever for a women’s sports facility.

The funding is expected to roll out over three to five years, Engelbert said. Designated for brand promotion and marketing. Globalization of the WNBA. Innovation and growth in consumer touchpoints. Optimizing human capital and operations, according to a statement from the league announcing the deal.

Where it doesn’t go is the player’s salary.

Collective bargaining agreements in 2020 have secured some benefits, such as six-figure salaries on average, higher salaries for star players, and full paid maternity leave, but players have yet to secure an even revenue share. Hmm.

WNBA players are only guaranteed a 50-50 split of earnings if the league meets stipulated but undisclosed goals. According to Forbes, her 2018 earnings in the WNBA were an estimated $60 million. Fifty years ago her NBA made $7.4 billion that year and this year she made $10 billion.

With the twin tasks of increasing revenue and fixing the CBA through 2027, it’s unlikely that the next domino toppling in the WNBA’s pay-equity battle will lead to higher player salaries.

“Everyone wants a direct salary,” said Samuelson, a former No. 4 overall pick who played for four teams in four years in the WNBA. “But there are so many different things that need to be stepped into before that happens.”

Players point to problems such as a shortage of charter flights, apart from increased salaries. Practice facilities are scarce, especially in this compressed season where teams often play games every other day. Sparks is splitting his practice time between three venues this season. Torrance’s gym rentals, USC’s Galen Center, and Crypto He’s Com his arena where he also plays games.

Top leagues abroad meet these demands off the court. Players will not only earn high rewards, but also hone their skills while playing in elite competition. Development opportunities are especially important for the young player, who has limited playing time in his WNBA without a practice team or development league. The richest teams, including Griner’s UMMC Yekaterinburg, managed by a pair of Russian oligarchs, are known to set players up with their own apartments, private car services and luxury travel accommodations.

But the opportunities to play abroad are dwindling, Gaylor said. She said that given the arrest of Griner, the war in Ukraine, the suspension of Russia’s top team by the Euroleague, UMMC Yekaterinburg, Dynamo, Kursk, and MBA Moscow, there is no agent to send American players to Russia. thinking. COVID-19 has also hit overseas markets.

With WNBA salaries stagnating, “the emphasis is on sponsorships and brand partnerships,” Sparks’ Neka Ogwumike said.

Recreating the blueprint for WNBA player sponsorship requires effort and deliberate brand-building efforts by individual player agents and leagues. From her first day as commissioner in 2019, Engelbart said her WNBA had “marketing issues.” To solve that, she tried to encourage players to stay in the United States during the offseason in exchange for the league’s marketing contracts, which offered rewards for participating in advertising campaigns with WNBA partners.

The hope is to make players such as the league’s Most Valuable Player Jonkel Jones and WNBA Finals MVP Kalia Copper a household name. But these stars played abroad last year, with Jones playing for the same club as Griner, Russia’s UMMC and Yekaterinburg. Copper was named Spain’s top her league and Euroleague MVP.

The marketing costs provided by the WNBA are still unable to make up for the difference in international contracts that pay $10,000 to $15,000 a month.

“Is it better for the players to be here for marketability purposes? Of course,” Gaylor said. “But staying here doesn’t necessarily make the pot bigger for every player.”

Engelbart said he never intends to close overseas opportunities for players, but he wants them to prioritize the WNBA and make it financially worthwhile for the league to do so. Standing behind the podium during All-Star weekend, Engelbart celebrated his progress in the latter.

At a press conference at the league’s marquee midseason event in Chicago, the commissioner announced an additional $1.5 million to players from the league’s marketing contract pool. The WNBA Finals charter flight has arrived. The playoff bonus pool has increased by approximately 50% to $500,000.

“We’re just trying to shave it off bit by bit,” she said at the event.

Engelbart repeated the phrase when describing the WNBA’s journey to pay equity. No one can easily solve a problem with a drastic declaration, but recent advances have commissioners, players and agents looking ahead to a brighter future.

Nneka Ogwumike said she was hopeful that it would not take long for the minimum wage to reach six figures.

Engelbert is already looking for cities for an expansion team that could launch in 2024 or 2025.

“We’re just going up from here,” Gaylor said. “We just build it.”

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