Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart is expected to miss the entire upcoming 2019 WNBA season due to injuring her right Achilles tendon during the EuroLeague Final Four championship game in Sopron, Hungary on April 14th. The 2018 WNBA MVP’s devastating injury highlights the great lengths WNBA athletes go to supplement their income.
Stewart, who was playing for Russia’s Dynamo Kursk, is among many WNBA players who opt to play overseas in the offseason because of the opportunity to make more than ten times their WNBA salary. The pay gap between NBA and WNBA players has been a long-standing issue since the creation of the women’s league in 1996.
The disparity in the salary structure between the NBA and WNBA is indicative of the sexism that runs rampant in female sports. In the NBA, players are paid 50% of the league’s revenue while WNBA players receive under 25% of revenue. During the 2018-2019 season, the highest paid male basketball player Stephen Curry made $37,457,154 while the maximum WNBA salary capped at $115,000.
All season long, WNBA athletes spoke out advocating for better pay. When it was announced last year, that Lebron James signed a 4-year, $154 million contract with the Lakers, No.1 pick in the 2018 WNBA draft A’ja Wilson took to Twitter to express her thoughts on the ongoing pay disparities. “154M ........... must. be. nice. We over here looking for a M but Lord, let me get back in my lane,” Wilson tweeted. Despite being a top player, Wilson made just $52,500 during the 2018 season.
The frustrations surrounding the WNBA wage gap came to a boil in November 2018 when it was announced the WNBA’s Players Association voted to opt out of its current collective bargaining agreement with the WNBA in an effort to achieve better pay, improved travel conditions, and more marketing and branding opportunities.
In an open letter regarding the decision to opt out, president of the Women's National Basketball Players Association and Los Angeles Sparks player Nneka Ogwumike said, “We don’t want any handouts. If you believe that we do, then you must have never watched a minute of our league. We just want what we’re worth. We just want what’s right. We just want to leave this game a little better than we found it for the next generation.”
While negotiations are ongoing, one thing that is for sure is that players like Stewart should be compensated fairly for the work they do for the WNBA. Her injury should serve as a wakeup call to the league that they need to do a better job of compensating their players, so they don’t have to take their talents out the country to make the amount of money their male counterparts make.
As WNBA players fight to achieve a more fair share of the league’s revenue, it is also evident how necessary it is for spectators to rally behind the league now more than ever. When the 2019 season kicks off, make it a point to go to the games and purchase merchandise, purchase a league pass to watch the games at home, and continue the dialogue online and offline about equal pay in women’s sports.
The WNBA salary structure is years behind where it should be, but through the advocacy work of players and the support of fans, fairer compensation can become a reality sooner rather than later. For the WNBA’s sake, they need to listen to the demands of the women who give their all on the court all season long.