Foul Trouble

The immensely talented WNBA is in trouble, but it’s not too late.


"09 WNBA Liberty vs Sun" by jasonlam is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ethically, the players in the WNBA deserve the same privileges as their counterparts in the NBA. Economically, however, it’s a far different picture.

Nolan Collery, Staff Writer

After a long game, NBA Superstar Lebron James gets ready to board his flight. Standing a a daunting 6’9″, James appreciates the extra room and luxury of the private plane that the Los Angeles Lakers splurged on for him. When he touches down in LA, he is informed that flying in anything beyond economy class is against the bylaws of the NBA, and that the Lakers will have to pay the largest fine in the history of the league. 

If this sounds absolutely absurd, that’s because it is.

It didn’t happen to Lebron James, but it did just happen in the world’s largest and most popular women’s basketball league, The WNBA.

Founded on April 22, 1996, the Women’s National Basketball League has been home to the most talented women in basketball for two and a half decades. Some of the stars of the league have even become recognizable names for the average sports fan, such as Sue Bird, Liz Cambridge, or Elena Della Donne. 

Last season, The WNBA fined New York Liberty owner Joseph C. Tsai $500,000 for secretly defying WNBA bylaws and chartering the players on his roster flights for the second half of the WNBA regular season. This fine is the largest in league history — more than double that of the League Supermax, a contract only available to the few most elite players in the league. 

This fine should confuse you. Why is there a rule punishing owners for treating their players better?

According to the WNBA bylaws, charter flights are banned in order to maintain competitive balance for all players. Yes, the WNBA needs everyone to be uncomfortable to make the game fair. 

The issue stems from a central problem in the league: money. Whether it’s lack of funding, lack of high salary, lack of revenue, or even lack of investments into players, money is always seemingly short for women’s basketball. 

In professional basketball, there is one very clear and obvious truth — though it hardly seems far from an an ethical standpoint, basic economic principles quickly lead to the conclusion that NBA players are paid far more than WNBA players, and that will not change anytime soon. 

In its last full season (2019-2020), the NBA dragged in 8.3 billion dollars in revenue. The WNBA makes an estimated 60 million dollars in revenue every full season.

If this difference isn’t clearly drastic enough, it gets worse. That 60 million dollars is just in earned revenue, not profit. As of today, being a WNBA franchise owner means you are likely losing millions of dollars every year from the investment.

This extreme drop in revenue is possibly better demonstrated by average player salary. The average NBA player in 2021 brought in an average of 7.90 million dollars annually. The average WNBA player in 2021 brought in only 120,648 dollars

Unfortunately, there is no sensible economic argument that can allow WNBA players to be paid the same amount of money that the men earn. But what about the ratio of total revenue to player salary? Can that be brought to the same level as the NBA?

Unless every WNBA player wants to become unemployed, the answer is unfortunately no. 

Simply put, the WNBA loses about 10 million dollars a year. Increase the salary to share the wealth at the same ratio as the NBA, and that number grows to 30 million dollars. Within two seasons of play, all of the revenue earned over an entire season would be spent to cover expenses.

This is a hard problem to fix, and it cannot be fixed today, tomorrow, or anytime relatively soon. Yet the WNBA is neither a lost cause nor an unfixable problem. In order to succeed, the WNBA needs to develop an identity. 

To build an identity, the WNBA needs to build itself around marketable stars, and create monetarily expansionary policies. While it’s perhaps unlikely that the WNBA will ever create cultural icons such as Michael Jordan or LeBron James, that doesn’t mean branding should be off the table.

Take the NHL. The largest hockey league in the world does an abysmal job at marketing their star players compared to the NFL or the NBA, but practically every sports fan has heard of Sydney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, or Connor McDavid. The WNBA must identify its marketable stars and turn them into cultural icons. 

A national standout in high school, Paige Bueckers, now at UConn, may represent a massive opportunity for the WNBA.

The game doesn’t lack this potential.  Current legends such as Candace Parker, Breanna Stuart, and Elena Delle Donne have the star-power to be marketable to young athletes all over the world. I can confidently say that young star point guard Sabrina Ionescu of the New York Liberty is one of the most talented pure PG’s I have ever seen. During her time at Oregon, I was baffled at her ability to score from all three levels, her court vision, and her surprising rebounding ability.

Want to pair her with a future rival? Look no further than UConn guard Paige Bueckers. Widely heralded as the best female guard in the world, Bueckers couples her talent with savvy marketability. Her presence on social media is massive, and she could easily become the most popular female basketball player of all time.

Russel vs. Chamberlain. Magic vs. Bird. LeBron vs. Durant. In basketball, rivalries are undeniably marketable and profitable. The WNBA should press the rivalry between Ionescu and Bueckers, as the two building against each other could be the spark that the league needs so desperately. 

The WNBA cannot be fixed today. The road to profit is long and treacherous. However, wise investments and marketing can lead to the WNBA becoming recognized as a premier league — and to these women finally receiving the recognition they deserve for their talent on the court.