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Sue Bird: ‘Like, you have to pay the top players’

On the most recent episode of the podcast “People I (Mostly) Admire,” Sue Bird chats with economist Steven Levitt about the economics of women’s basketball. Here’s what Bird said about NBA-WNBA pay disparities, max salaries for WNBA stars, choosing to be open about freezing her eggs, UConn’s dominance and more.

WNBA Finals - Game Two
Sue Bird chats with economist Steven Levitt on the most recent episode of the podcast “People I (Mostly) Admire.”
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Economist Steven Levitt interviewed Sue Bird recently on People I (Mostly) Admire, his new podcast on the Freakanomics Radio Network.

In his introduction to the episode, Levitt expresses some trepidation about interviewing an athlete for a podcast that, in his estimation, “works best when my guests are highly reflective and willing and able to self-analyze.” Levitt elaborates, “And in my limited personal experience with professional athletes, those are not very common traits.”

However, women’s hoops fans will absolutely agree with his addendum about Bird: “People who know her say she’s smart, thoughtful, generous, and open.”

It seems Bird immediately proved herself to be more than sufficiently reflective and self-analytical.

She and Levitt began their conversation with discussion of the emotional, intellectual, spatial and structural aspects of basketball — the positives and perils of overconfidence, smarter training methods, what “feel for the game” really means, the effect of court lines and sight lines on shooting, free-throw shooting under pressure, the sneaky difficulties of shooting a women’s ball and if the rim should be lowered in the women’s game.

Levitt and Bird then transitioned to the economics of women’s basketball, albeit not before delighting in the winning ways of UConn women’s basketball and the USA Basketball Women’s National Team.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

On UConn’s dominance

Asked by Levitt to explain UConn’s unprecedented dominance during the first two decades of the 21st century, Bird emphasized the talent of Huskies’ teams. Then, asked why many of the most-talented players choose to attend UConn, Bird shared her recruiting experience:

And Coach Auriemma — there — there were no bells and whistles. He’s kind of just like, ‘What’s up? This is who I am. This is who we are. We think you’d fit. Hope you like it here.’ And that’s how he was with me. It wasn’t, like, take it or leave it, but it was just very matter of fact. And I was drawn in by that. Like, I loved that.

Bird also insisted that, at least at the time, dominance was not boring:

The minute you step on that campus, you’re just drinking the UConn Kool-Aid. Now, I look at it, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, how do they not get bored? They’re winning by 30.’ But when you’re there, you don’t feel that way because you’re just expected to play at a certain level. And in order to play at that level, you can’t have a day off.

NCAA Photos Archive
Sue Bird at UConn.
Getty Images

On Team USA’s excellence

Like the Huskies, the USA Basketball Women’s National Team often dominates, frequently thrashing overmatched international opponents. Bird explained to Levitt the importance of 40-plus-point wins for Team USA:

So, even though we’re more talented, we’re not quite a team. So, in those two weeks, yes, we’re beating teams by 40, but those games are all like stepping stones and practices for us to hopefully be peaking at the end. Because when you get to the medal rounds, those games are no joke. You can lose those games easy. So, we’re so on it and so focused in the early parts of the Olympics that it’s never boring. Because the score doesn’t really matter to us. We’re not playing for the score. We’re playing so we’re peaking at the right time.

On the pay disparity between NBA and WNBA players

Asked by Levitt if she is frustrated by the pay gap between NBA and WNBA players, Bird answered in the affirmative. More importantly, she emphasized some of the deep-seated, structural attitudes that lead to such pay-related frustrations:

I mean, male athletes, female athletes — we all put in the same amount of work, I don’t care what anybody says, we’re all putting in the same amount of work. So, is it a hard pill to swallow, knowing that somebody else’s work is being rewarded? At times. But I live in reality. I understand business and economics. We’re looked at in one of two ways. Some people look at us as like charity. Like, ‘Oh, we’ll help them out,’ in a charitable sense, not in, like, this business investment way. And if they do look at us as an investment, immediately, it’s talked about how we don’t make money... I think people look at men’s sports and immediately see potential, even if it doesn’t exist. But they’re willing to invest in the potential, whereas we are never — we haven’t been invested in our potential.

2020 NBA All-Star - Practice and Media Availability presented by AT&T
WNBPA executive committee member Sue Bird chats with NBPA president Chris Paul at 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend.
Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

On maximum salaries for WNBA superstars

“If economics were allowed to really work, you would be paid five times as much as you are,” Levitt insisted.

He further suggested “that economic forces are being muted by union bargaining, which is leading your wage to be way below your market wage.” Levitt also noted that Bird was paid much more in Russia because “the market was allowed to work,” and she did not disagree. However, she highlighted how the WNBA’s new CBA ensures that superstars get paid their worth:

So, it’s very interesting you bring this up, because I keep bringing up this new CBA. And I’m on the executive committee. And my whole argument was you have to pay the superstars. Like, you have to pay the top players.

She then explained how, under the previous CBA:

[T]he salary cap was increasing at a faster rate than the max salary was. So the salary cap was going up, but the max salary wasn’t at the same rate. So there would be extra money, so to speak, because you can only pay your best player so much. It was, like, if you were a top player, no matter what you did, you were just going to make this one sum of money.

The new CBA addresses this issue. According to Bird:

So, I thought that it needed to be like a merit for those max salaries. And it worked because the max salary went from $117,000 to $215,000. And now, it’ll only be like maybe one max player a team or maybe two if you want to pay other people less or have more rookie-scale contracts or whatever the case. And if you go and look at other leagues, LeBron James makes 25 percent of his team’s cap. But we were at 10, 11 percent. And so, luckily, we revamped it. So, we bumped that up to, like, 15 or 16 now.

“By increasing salaries, I think WNBA players will start to take a little bit more ownership of this league,” Bird further noted. “And when you have that, when you have player buy-in, good things generally happen.”

On choosing to be open about freezing her eggs

The economic concerns of WNBA players extend beyond their salaries and sponsorships. Family planning also has economic ramifications, as one’s prime earning years as an athlete overlap with one’s prime reproductive years. By publicly discussing freezing her eggs, Bird hopes to make these concerns more navigable for women athletes, as well as women more broadly. She shared:

For me, my body is my career. So, that does make it a little unique. But I think, any woman who has a career, having a family is a stressor. You know, married or not, just knowing that your ovaries are on this clock, can be a huge stress in your life. I wanted to help be a part of the conversation that was going to normalize it, maybe it would be weird if you didn’t freeze your eggs in 20 years.

WNBA Finals - Game Three
Sue Bird celebrates winning the 2020 WNBA title with now-fiancée Megan Rapinoe.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Check out the rest of Levitt’s conversation with Bird to also hear her discuss:

  • coming out and living authentically
  • posing for ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue
  • her experience of Megan Rapinoe’s “fight” with former president Donald Trump
  • her advice to young women