Player Spending In The WNBA — Like The G-League — Is An Investment
By:
Gradelo Staff
4 weeks ago
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Liz Cambage of Australia, left, drives to the basket as Brittney Griner of the United States tries to block her during the Women’s basketball World Cup final match this past September. Both Cambage and Griner played in the WNBA this past season. Investing in these stars would keep each focused on the WNBA for the entire year.  (AP Photo/Andres Gutierrez)(AP Photo/Andres Gutierrez)

The NBA’s minor league — the G-League — made the following announcement last week:

“The NBA G League today announced a Select Contract as part of a comprehensive professional path that will be available, beginning with the 2019-20 season, to elite prospects who are eligible to play in the NBA G League but not yet eligible for the NBA. The contracts, which will include robust programmatic opportunities for development, are for elite players who are at least 18 years old and will pay $125,000 for the five-month season.”

The G-League plan is an attempt to give one-and-done players an alternative to spending a few months in college before going to the NBA. Instead of working for the cost of attendance at a place like the University of Kentucky, an elite prospect with a Select Contract can play for a G-League team and be paid $125,000.

For those unfamiliar with the G-League, in 2018 there were 26 teams who competed in a 50-game schedule. This means that there were 650 regular season games this past season. According to the G-League, those games attracted 1.62 million fans. This works out to only 2,487 fans per game.

To put that number in perspective, last year WNBA teams attracted 6,721 fans per game. So, the G-League is not nearly the draw of the WNBA. Despite this difference, though, an 18-year old with a Select Contract would be paid more than the top players in the WNBA. According to High-Post Hoops, the highest paid players in the WNBA in 2018 were Chiney Ogwumike and Jewell Loyd. Each of these players was paid $117,500. The Michael Jordan of the WNBA — Diana Taurasi — was paid $115,233. And the league MVP — Breanna Stewart — was only paid $56,793.

Yes, an 18-year old with a Select Contract will be paid more than twice what the WNBA league MVP was paid last year.

Not surprisingly, this announcement led to some reaction from WNBA players. Brittney Griner — a WNBA All-Star who was paid $113,500 last yearargued in a lengthy statement that WNBA players do not see the G-League Select Contract money coming out of college and tend not to see money like this until they play overseas.

Diamond DeShields — a rookie with the Chicago Sky who was paid $52,564 in 2018 — tweeted out this statement:

“No knock to those guys but if its truly about revenue, then there is no scenario in which a G-League player get paid more than a WNBA player.”

Given the disparity in attendance, it appears DeShields is correct. Top prospects in the G-League will not be paid more than WNBA players because the G-League has had more financial success. According to NBA spokesman Mike Bass:

“This is a targeted investment to provide elite prospects who may not want to spend the year leading up to the NBA Draft in college with a fair and attractive option and to better develop talent for the NBA and increase the popularity of the G League.”

The key word in that statement is “investment”. The Select Contract represents an investment in the future of the G-League and NBA. It does not appear to be justified by current revenues and costs.

Of course, that should make sense. The G-League began as the National Basketball Development League in 2001. Given the age of this league, it’s not surprising attendance is quite low. Furthermore, if the NBA wants this league to develop further, it is going to require some additional investment.

WNBA observers, though, wonder why we don’t see a similar approach with respect to player pay in the WNBA. As Natalie Weiner observed,

“The biggest issue with the introduction of the “select contracts,” though, isn’t the $10,000 or so disparity between the yearly salaries of an 18-year-old man with no professional experience and arguably the greatest women’s player of all time (Diana Taurasi). It’s that the NBA sees the G League—a minor league of the men’s game, with minimal opportunity for a direct return—as more worthy of investment than the women’s game as a whole.”

The WNBA just completed its 22nd season. The NBA and Major League Baseball was not immensely successful after just 22 years. This is quite clear when we look at the attendance data of each league. Attendance in both leagues after two decades was quite comparable to WNBA attendance today.

But as time went by, both the NBA and Major League Baseball became the multi-billion dollar success stories we see today. The key for each league was owner investment of both money and time. Despite low attendance – and relatively low revenues — the owners of each league continued to invest in the league. Over time, the fan bases for each league grew and eventually — after decades of time – each league was immensely successful.

Given the lessons learned from the history of leagues like the NBA and Major League Baseball, no one should expect the WNBA to generate large profits today. But if the owners of this league are patient and keep investing, the future can be very different. To help bring that future faster, the WNBA and its NBA partner should consider making the same investment in players the G-League is making today.

Such an investment would address the issue raised by Griner. Right now WNBA players are spending their off-season earning much more money in other leagues. This means that WNBA players are not in the United States promoting the league in the off-season. And they are risking injury playing in other markets.  In other words, relatively low pay in the WNBA is risking the biggest assets of the league.

Of course, a recent call for higher pay by Jessica Luther of the Huffington Post led to this response from the WNBA.

“A WNBA spokesperson reached out to HuffPost after this op-ed was published, however, and said the WNBA has lost significant money every year…”

When you respond to a call for higher pay by discussing short-run profits, it’s clear that you are primarily seeing player pay as a cost. That is clearly not the approach taken with respect to the G-League. And it shouldn’t be the approach taken with respect to the WNBA.

Yes, if the players’ salaries are increased faster than revenue can grow it’s possible the WNBA’s short-run profit position will worsen (assuming there is no way to change other costs). But again, higher pay — as was noted about the G-League Select Contract — is really an investment. In other words, the WNBA and its NBA partner might want to shift their focus from short-run to long-run profits. An investment in players today might make the short-run picture look worse. But an investment in WNBA players today might make the long-run prospects of the league look much better.

All of this is consistent with what Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne recently argued in an episode of Uninterrupted. As Delle Donne noted:

“Women aren’t valued the same way that men are in the workforce.”

She went on to add:

“If you’re not putting your dollars behind it and your marketing behind it, then it’s just lip service. So, I’m waiting for the dollars to actually get behind female athletes.”

The number of dollars needed to “get behind female athletes” in the WNBA would seem trivial to the NBA. Revenues in the NBA have reportedly surpassed the $9 billion mark while WNBA revenues are less than 1% of this amount. As noted a few weeks ago, WNBA players appear to be paid about $12 million. And as noted a few weeks ago, increasing pay in the WNBA by $18 million more might be enough to convince the WNBA stars to avoid playing elsewhere. In other words, an investment equal to about what Joakim Noah was paid last year to play 40 minutes (this was for the entire season) could do much to solve the pay issue with the WNBA.

Would that cause the WNBA’s short-run profit picture to worsen?  That could be the outcome if no other costs can change. But if the NBA takes the same approach to the WNBA as it is taking with respect to the G-League, short-run profits stop being the primary focus. Instead, a new focus develops where the WNBA invests in its players to ensure that the WNBA of the future is very much like the NBA we see today.

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