The 2018 WNBA regular season is heading into the homestretch. As of Monday, no team has mathematically qualified for the playoffs. The competition and unpredictability of the standings has made this season the most competitive in quite some time, if not ever.
The WNBA has been steadily gaining popularity throughout its 22-year history. The game is also improving each year, which helps with growth. But the WNBA still lags far behind the NBA in some key areas like player salaries.
The current NBA collective bargaining agreement allows players to receive 50 percent of all basketball related income, or BRI. BRI consists of a combination of sources, such as ticket sales, merchandise, and broadcasting rights.
According to a Forbes article in February 2018, the NBA’s 30 teams made $7.4 billion in the previous season. So NBA players made about half of that amount. When there are billions of dollars involved, it isn’t surprising to see the average NBA player is making millions of dollars.
How much do WNBA players make in comparison? According to Adam Grosbard of the Dallas Morning News, the league’s 12 teams made at least $51.5 million in 2017, including a $25 million broadcasting deal with ESPN and $26.5 million in ticket sales. However, the WNBA salary cap is under $1 million. Since there are 12 WNBA teams, that’s a little less than $12 million, which is under 25 percent of revenue, and perhaps closer to 20 percent since that figure doesn’t include merchandise sales. Ultimately, the average WNBA salary is about $76,000.
Why is this percentage of revenue so low?
The WNBA collective bargaining agreement was originally signed in 2014 and has no mention of a percentage of the revenue players receive. The earliest the players or owners can opt out is in 2019.
It’s possible that the players may opt out and demand a percentage of revenue. But most teams are unprofitable or claim to be. Also, with the lack of a multi-billion dollar television deal like the NBA, WNBA team operation costs are a higher percentage of revenue. Drastically raising wages to players without the revenue to back it up will raise costs dramatically. It will put some teams deep in the red.
According to Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post. even the WNBA’s profitable franchises aren’t making big profits. So if revenues stay flat and players salaries rise, even the profitable teams stand to become unprofitable while teams that already aren’t doing well financially may even fold. After nine consecutive seasons of stability where no teams folded, the last WNBA players and fans want to see is the folding of another team.
Still, Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson has a point when she referenced Los Angeles Laker forward LeBron James’ new multi million contract in comparison to WNBA players’ salaries. No player can make a million off her team salary alone:
154M ........... must. be. nice. We over here looking for a M but Lord, let me get back in my lane pic.twitter.com/IFDZLlI53z— A'ja Wilson (@_ajawilson22) July 2, 2018
So how can the players get there?
The players and the WNBA need to work together to create more lucrative revenue opportunities so everyone wins. However, it also involves fans to engage with the league and make their voices heard with their wallets.
League wide events and marketing campaigns are one area where the WNBA can increase revenue. This year’s Watch Me Work campaign is one engaging way to introduce the players of each team as well as their unique stories.
The WNBA did a great job tweaking the All-Star Game and roster selection format this season which piques interest. Nearly 16,000 people attended the game last Saturday. Next season, the Las Vegas Aces will host the game at the 12,000 seat Mandalay Bay Events Center. But at the same time, it’s Vegas, a major market in the United States. It will be a great thing to see the WNBA sell out All-Star Games on the regular.
The WNBA has to negotiate more lucrative media rights with its partners, not just within the United States, but throughout the world.
WNBA League Pass is certainly an option to anyone across the globe. But fans of big European clubs like UMMC Ekaterinburg and Galatasaray who are across the Atlantic still won’t be able to watch games on television. Since many of the best stars on those clubs also play in the WNBA, that could be another avenue to increase the WNBA’s exposure outside of the United States.
Team merchandise sales are another way to improve revenue. Nike has made authentic jerseys available for purchase on the league’s store which is a good start. However, there still doesn’t appear to be enough warm up and practice gear available which fans can see for NBA teams. Merchandise shouldn’t just be available online or in the arena. More stores need to put WNBA gear on the shelves or at least readily available for fans who want them.
And finally, fans need to pay with their wallets. This means they need to buy the tickets, merchandise, and WNBA League Pass. Broadcasters and apparel makers are often reluctant to expand their WNBA offerings because they don’t think the public wants it. So if there is noticeable demand and sales out of the revenue making opportunities that are out there, then things will change.
WNBA players certainly deserve higher salaries and a higher percentage of the basketball related revenue they receive. However, the teams likely don’t have the total revenue to do that. Growing the league’s fanbase through sound marketing and converting them into paying customers will go a long way toward increasing revenues and getting the players the salaries they deserve sooner rather than later.