Meet Anthony and Natasha.
If you follow basketball (and maybe even if you don’t), you’ve probably heard of him: Anthony Davis is a superstar. He was a first overall pick in the NBA draft in 2012. He’s a seven-time All-Star. And as of 2020, he’s got a ring.
You probably haven’t heard of her, but Natasha Howard is also a superstar. She was 2019’s WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. She was second in the league in blocks. She too played (and dominated) in the 2019 WNBA all-star game. And as of 2020, she’s got a second ring.
In fact, stat for stat, Natasha Howard plays — and dominates her respective league — in an eerily similar way to Anthony Davis. And actually, there are a number of statistical doppelgängers between the two leagues (I generated 30,000 player comparisons; check out the data or read the full analysis). The Kawhi Leonard of the WNBA might well be DeWanna Bonner. The Kristi Toliver of the NBA? You could make a strong case for Lebron James. Donovan Mitchell and Arike Ogunbowale play the game nearly identically. The list goes on.
Despite dominating in similar ways, they receive astronomically dissimilar compensation. This isn’t likely to surprise most readers. What is surprising is the size of the gap.
In America, on average, a woman makes 89% of what a man makes, despite having the same amount of experience and holding the same position.
The average salary of an NBA player is $7.7M. In the WNBA, it’s closer to $75,000, so the female athletes are making about 1% of the salaries of their male counterparts. Anthony Davis makes $27M a year; one of his closest comparators statistically and in terms of dominance — Natasha Howard — makes $117,000 a year. In the case of Davis and Howard, she’s making 0.43% of what he makes.
But this, of course, is just the surface and far from the whole story.
What constitutes “appropriate” compensation?
Are WNBA players paid appropriately considering the size and commercial success of the game? Can we compare them to the MLS, NHL, MLB — or even a professional eSports league — to see if there is a wage gap based on gender alone? Is the size and financial prowess of a league proportional to the amount it pays its players?
To begin to answer these questions, we can compare the WNBA with other professional sports leagues and factor in things like total revenue, aggregate players, average salary and number of teams. We can start by charting how much each league is paying their players relative to the amount of money they make.
You’ll notice that as a league makes more revenue (dark blue), it can pay its players more money (light blue). But it’s not linear — it’s exponential. Every league listed above falls on this curve.
According to this data set, WNBA players make just as much as you would expect athletes to make based on total league revenue; in essence, this data point has been used to argue that their wages are “fair.” Other female athletes have seen this explanation used to justify their unequal pay: when the US Women’s National Soccer Team (ranked number 1 in the world) filed a class action lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation alleging that they’re paid and supported unfairly, the federation blamed economics:
The soccer federation denied the claims in the women’s lawsuit, arguing in a May court filing that the pay differential between the men and women players is “based on differences in aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex” and that the two teams are “physically and functionally separate organizations.”
Yes, revenue matters, but it’s also starting to become clear that how we perceive and consume women’s sports contributes to the size of the overall pie, and thereby the size of the pay gap.
Professional basketball and professional chess have more in common than you think.
Is it really true that there’s just less interest? Are male basketball players just more entertaining? Do they simply possess more talent that draws larger crowds with deeper pockets? After all, professional female and male basketball players are both playing basketball (albeit, with different approaches). So how much does gender factor into the gaps in revenue and respect?
Fans of Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit might appreciate this next bit.
In the world of professional chess, there exists a bias that male players are far superior. China’s Hou Yifan is ranked 83rd globally. She is the highest ranked female among all professional chess players. The highest ranked male (number one in the world) is Norway’s Magnus Carlsen. Like in professional basketball, most fans of chess know and idolize Carlsen. They’re less likely to do the same for Yifan, considering there are 82 chess players ahead of her. All male.
But according to NYU Professor Wei Ji Ma in his piece titled, “What gender gap in chess?”:
…there is no evidence that the “achievement gap” is anything but a participation gap. Statistically, there is nothing to suggest that top female players are underperforming given the overall ratio of female to male players. In fact, taking into account the systemic injustices and biases that they had to overcome to get where they are, they are likely over-performing.
The same might be true for the WNBA, which is three times smaller than the NBA. If, hypothetically, there were the same number of women as men playing professional basketball, then the perceived differences in talent could be less apparent and the revenue disparity could shrink significantly.
However, while chess serves as a helpful introduction to participation gaps there’s one obvious caveat: women are playing men and women in chess. Women are only playing women in basketball.
Still, I believe this is worth mentioning. The key takeaway from the chess study for me was that increasing the overall talent pool for female basketball players potentially serves to lessen the perception of a massive talent disparity as well as elevating the overall level of play in the WNBA. A revenue or pay gap stems in large part from a participation gap. Men and women may not play together, but more (and more good) players correlates with more teams, more sponsorship revenue, more attention and higher salaries.
It’s worth discussing how an up-and-coming league attains prosperity. It cannot simply be explained by the volume of the talent pool, though I believe it’s a major factor.
Putting the participation gap aside, if a female league and a male league had similar inaugural seasons — that is, both leagues exist roughly the same number of years — would one perform better than the other? Would one make more money or produce more fans?
Is viewership to blame for the revenue disparity?
Consider this: the WNBA’s inaugural season was in 1997. There are leagues in the above datasets that have been around for about as long, or are even newer, that already make exponentially more, despite very little difference in viewership (I understand viewership is not representative of all revenue — lest we forget ticket and merchandise sales, licensing, broadcasting deals, etc — but it’s a good gauge for interest, and serves as a good directional indicator especially when there’s a disproportionate difference between interest and revenue).
Consider the MLS, which has been around only 4 more years than the WNBA. Despite nominal differences in television viewership, salaries and payment are — like nearly all professional sports leagues — disproportionally favoring men’s bottom lines.
And one of eSports’ most notable properties, Overwatch League, was started in 2016. The average pro Overwatch gamer makes $39,000 more per year than the average WNBA player. In 2020, each match entertained an average audience of only 65,000.
Viewership is only growing in the WNBA. They have two decades on Overwatch, who is seeing declines in viewership over the last three years. So if the realities of viewership don’t fully explain the gap, perhaps we need to follow the money.
Is it a coincidence that the only major female sports team is dead last in revenue?
For most teams and leagues, sponsors are a critical—if not the primary—source of revenue. Are sponsors biased in who they invest in? After all, the WNBA and MLS have nearly identical cable viewership numbers.
The number of viewers any given league captures helps to gauge audience interest. Corporate sponsorships help to gauge financial interest. According to the LA Times:
For every dollar that corporate America spends on sports sponsorship, less than a penny goes to women’s professional sports. The WNBA in particular gets a fraction of that fraction.
Perhaps the MLS has more because sponsors give more. While the NBA makes nearly 100 times what the WNBA makes in sponsorship revenue, differences in cable viewership and in-game attendance (used as representatives of audience interest) are slightly slimmer.
Corporations broker deals with each team. These sponsorship, licensing, and broadcast deals then go through each team’s front office, and as with many things in basketball, those front offices and executive suites are made up mostly of men.
Basketball is a game designed by and for men.
Now, that’s a transition which certainly appears to implicate gender bias as the reason for the “fraction of a fraction” corporate America gives to the WNBA. This may not tell the entire story, but here are a few things we do know:
- Over 99% of corporate sponsorship dollars go toward male leagues.
- Women occupy only 10% of top management positions in S&P 1500 companies.
- Of the 12 WNBA teams, only three are owned by women — the Atlanta Dream (👋 Kelly Loeffler), the Seattle Storm and (half of) the Chicago Sky.
It’s interesting to see the rapid growth, sponsorship, and financial success of male leagues owned by males, especially in their earlier years, as with the MLS and Overwatch. The same is not true of the one female league owned almost entirely by males.
Intrinsic gender bias at the leadership level is important to be aware of. Systemic gender bias — baked into the rules and regulations themselves — is arguably more important.
While men and women have different physical builds, there is evidence that perceived differences in athleticism are due to systemic differences. For example, a WNBA basketball rim is 10ft off the ground, which is the same as in the NBA. Men can throw windmills and alley oops all game long on a 10ft basket. Women can’t because the WNBA was fundamentally designed around a men’s game (something that goes ignored by dozens of YouTube videos mocking the Candace Parker and Brittney Griner dunks). Some of the best female basketball players in the world are trying to change this.
It’s almost never explicitly verbalized, but sports fans (largely male, myself included) will secretly think, “it’s less entertaining” or “men are just better athletes.” They perceive a difference in talent, but what they’re really seeing is a participation gap and a game designed around male physicality. There’s plenty of literature (just one example here) that proves this theme goes well beyond basketball.
For these reasons, WNBA teams found different ways to win. And their approach—as I’ll argue—is fundamentally different from the NBA’s (and worth paying attention to).
The same game played with an entirely different strategy: equitable ball distribution.
If you took every player in each league and lined them up in order from least points per game to most, the player in the middle of both lines would be scoring about 10 points per game.
But the players to the left and right of that middle player differ. That is, in the NBA line up, there are a number of players who score slightly less (about 8 points per game). That’s likely due to the disproportional number of players who score way more — between 23 and 30 points per game. These are the James Harden’s, LeBron James’, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s of the world.
The WNBA, by contrast, is more evenly distributed. In other words, the majority of players are within 5 points of the median (5–15 points per game), creating a more real middle class of players.
This goes well beyond simply points per game, and bleeds into all offensive and defensive stats. In most statistical categories, there is a higher volume of players who are at or above league average as compared to the NBA. For example, in the NBA, 36% of players are above the average number of assists per game (AST). In contrast, 41% of WNBA players are above league average. More players in the WNBA are sharing shot opportunities.
You can catch a glimpse of this in action just by watching the Lakers and the Storm in their respective championships in 2020.
You’ll notice that fewer names (namely LeBron James and Anthony Davis) are color commentated during big plays. The ball is largely possessed by one or two players and plays take slightly longer to develop.
Compare that to the Seattle Storm. In the first couple minutes of the video below, you hear Lloyd, Stewart, Russell, Bird, and Howard all have their names called. The ball feels like it’s constantly in motion.
In the last 30 years, the NBA has adopted a “heliocentric” style of play coinciding with the rise of singularly dominant playmakers like LeBron James and James Harden. As shown above, this is evident by the disproportional number of players who dominate the ball or get significantly more playing time.
Of course, there are counter-examples on both sides in the NBA and WNBA. The 2013 San Antonio Spurs and prime Steph Curry-era Warriors were exemplars of ball movement, and we showed at the opening tip that the WNBA is not devoid of dominant players who can take over entire games.
Is the WNBA’s divergent approach a function of their environment or is it a chosen strategy, drawn up by coaches and a history of proven success?
It actually doesn’t matter which is true because it’s not really the point. The point is this: the NBA (who owns the WNBA) and the arbiters of the WNBA’s success should pay more attention to the growing interest in the sport, and the thing that makes it great: their unique approach to the game.
Don’t get me wrong. The NBA is incredible. I’m a diehard Wizards fan (😔). Watching Brad Beal highlights is a pastime. I’m not trying to say they’re the same sport, or that one is inherently better than the other, I’m saying they are fundamentally different approaches to the same sport with inherently different qualities.
Of course, this is not to paint either league in black and white strokes, but rather to offer up some evidence as to the different styles embraced by the NBA and WNBA in order to best fit their players. Both leagues have dominant superstars, but each league also approaches the game in fundamentally different ways, a difference that I believe is worth celebrating.
Our metrics for what constitutes good entertainment — dunks, 50-point performances, “hero ball” plays— have been crafted over time by mostly male fans, coaches, commentators and players. It’s incredible to watch, but we should try changing our perspective. Perhaps there are alternative ways to watch and appreciate the game. It’s cool to be nerdy now. Cigarettes used to be good for you. No one knew or appreciated Samuel L. Jackson until he performed in Pulp Fiction at the ripe age of 46. Perspectives change.
In my opinion, we should be celebrating and advertising the WNBA’s style of basketball. While they win as a collective, the NBA feels like a couple heroic protagonists with a cast of unremarkable supporting characters. In other words, the Storm play like the Avengers. The Lakers play like two Batmans and a dozen Alfreds.
In conclusion: get involved.
As of January 2020, the WNBA is making some very significant changes. Most notably, players will receive a 53 percent increase in total cash compensation. While this shows a dramatic improvement, and it does lock players into these figures for years to come; there are still considerable disparities compared to male leagues beyond the NBA.
Ultimately, the growth of any sport comes down to viewership and interest. And while there is disproportionate growth between female and male leagues, and there are numerous systemic factors at play, popularity is growing. Agreements are being made. Things are trending upward.
As for you, add a WNBA team to your ESPN notification list. Buy the merch. Mark your calendars for the end of May when the season starts. Check out this master spreadsheet (of my own design) comparing NBA and WNBA players, find your favorite NBA player, find their “stat match” equivalent, and learn about her. Hell, ask me to find your favorite player’s stat match comparator for you. It’d be an honor.
Watch the game. Notice the nuances in style. See the differences. It’s like watching your favorite game, but from a parallel universe.
In a New York Times opinion piece titled, “Why the W.N.B.A. Loved Kobe Bryant,” the author highlights something he once said:
“There’s no better way to learn than to watch the pros do it,” Kobe said after he took his daughter’s club basketball team to watch the Los Angeles Sparks play the Las Vegas Aces in May. “The W.N.B.A. is a beautiful game to watch.”
The WNBA is a beautiful game to watch. You should try it out. Because there’s more at stake here than entertainment.
- Emily Linton 👩🏫 — Brilliant educator and editor; my sister who I admire entirely too much; it’s eclectic, not electric, stupid… also, it’s latter, not ladder, stupid.
- Edward Linton 👨⚕️ — Ophthalmologist; math/science/data generalist; best brother in law ever; future owner and proprietor of large marge’s party barge.
- Eliot Goldfarb ⛹️♂️ — Chicago Bulls analyst; self-diagnosed sports addict; best friend since day one; put a towel down, will ya?
- Scott Donaldson 🐕🦺 — Founder of Open Set; digital wizard and mentor; aka Scottly!
- Colin Kelly 🥃 — Director at Bully Pulpit; dynamite friend; I’ll hang up and listen.
- Max Hedgepeth — 🏟 marketing at Capital One; a friendship forged at a terrible conference; flossy Wiz floors seats only.
- Maggie Gaudaen 😜 & Zach Goodwin 🎷 — creative mentors; DC-based CDs at January Third; creators of the Lyft Luck Machine, the Air Canada Poutinerie and the brand pizza.
- Mark Goldfarb 🐈 & Beth Levine ⛷ —ski senseis; creators of Jock Doc and Jock Talk (go read it); the reason this essay isn’t 12,000 words.
- Senthil Natarajan 👨💻 —my Nightingale in shining armor; killer editor; nicest person I’ve never met.