This WNBA offseason, the Las Vegas Aces and owner Mark Davis first made headlines by hiring Becky Hammon, luring the WNBA legend back to the league after her assistant coaching stint with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.
Then, it was revealed that the Aces and Davis would be paying Hammon more than one million dollars per season, a record salary for a WNBA head coach.
Surely, such a development was cause only for celebration. The Aces and Davis were paying a head coach her worth, a material statement of the immense value that she, as a former player and intelligent basketball mind, would bring to Vegas.
Yet, Hammon’s record payday instead raised important questions about pay equity.
Becky Hammon got paid, but what about everyone else?
First, Hammon’s salary vastly exceeds the salaries of other former WNBA players who recently have become first-time head coaches in the league, most of whom are women of color. Why does Hammon deserve so much more than the likes of the Seattle Storm’s Noelle Quinn or the Atlanta Dream’s Tanisha Wright? Is it simply her NBA pedigree and the endorsement of Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich? This is an issue that deserves further consideration at a later date.
For now, the conservation has focused on how Hammon’s salary eclipses the maximum salary possible for WNBA players.
ahhh yes the WNBA, where a head coach can get paid 4X the highest paid players super max contract. lmao and y’all think ima spend another season upgrading my seat on a flight to get to games out of my own pocket.
ahhh yes the @WNBA, where a head coach can get paid 4X the highest paid players super max contract. lmao and y’all think imma spend another season upgrading my seat on a flight to get to games out of my own pocket.— Elizabeth Cambage (@ecambage) February 1, 2022
For the 2022 season, the maximum allowable player salary is $228,094. The salary cap, encompassing the salaries for an 11 or 12-player roster, is $1,379,200. Franchises also are permitted to provide only coach-class seats on flights.
Yes, these numbers and policies were agreed upon as part of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, an effort to establish a level financial playing field among owners with pocketbooks of varied depths. The CBA does not stipulate maximum salaries for coaches or executives. As Skylar Diggins-Smith put it on Twitter, “No salary cap for coaches.” Shelling out a million bucks a year for Hammon is an effort by Mark Davis to give his squad a legal competitive advantage.
But this doesn’t mean the pay disparity between Hammon and WNBA players should be immune from the criticism levied by Cambage.
In all professional leagues, owners are permitted to pay head coaches and executives as much as they wish. But only in the WNBA is this a reality.
Yet, the man who made this a reality — Aces owner Mark Davis — suggests it is not the reality he ultimately wants to see in the W.
Mark Davis is ready to pay coaches...and players
In a conference call announcing a new contract for 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, Davis rather deftly responded to Cambage’s criticism, insisting that he agreed “100 percent” with Cambage.
We have to be paying these women commensurate to what their abilities are and what they’re doing. On the front office side and the coaching side, there is no salary cap. Becky Hammon didn’t want to be a million-dollar coach. But I wanted her to be a million-dollar coach.
Underscoring his belief that a high salary for Hammon would communicate the legitimacy of the WNBA as a professional sports league, Davis further asserted, “I felt that giving Becky Hammon the million-dollar contract ... would then show everybody that there is value here.”
Directly addressing Cambage’s words, he continued:
Liz Cambage kind of came out with a statement, and I agree 100 percent with what she says. That the players do deserve more money. That they don’t need to be flying on commercial flights. ... I agree with all of those things and those are things that the Las Vegas Aces are going to be champions of, and that we’re going to grow for the good of everybody in this league.”
His presser earned applause from the franchise’s most important player in Wilson, who shared the following tweet.
Listennnnnn Mark was talkin that TALK in the press conference pic.twitter.com/xFXTshWHn6— A'ja Wilson (@_ajawilson22) February 3, 2022
Can Mark Davis kickstart a positive change in WNBA player pay?
Davis, who did not yet own the Aces when the 2020 CBA was agreed upon, convincingly argued that he is willing and ready to accelerate the professionalization of the WNBA, presenting himself as more than happy to provide the financial investment necessary to both prove and propel the value of this league and the women who make it possible.
Are other owners likewise ready and willing?
On the same day of the Davis press conference, the prospects began to look more promising, as the WNBA announced a $75 million capital raise, with funds, according to the WNBA’s news release:
....expected to be used for brand elevation and marketing; globalization of the WNBA; innovation, digital, and growth of consumer touchpoints; and human capital and operational optimization as part of an overall effort to address some of the league’s obstacles to growth and generating new revenue.
Initial investors included current WNBA owners, executives and investors: Bill Cameron (Dallas Wings), Ginny Gilder (Seattle Storm), Brad Hilsabeck (Dallas Wings), Mark Walter (Los Angles Sparks), Ted Leonsis (Washington Mystics), Herb and Steve Simon (Indiana Fever) and Joe and Clara Tsai (New York Liberty). Hopefully, such a willingness to substantiate the league’s symbolic significance with significant investment becomes contagious among the owner cohort.
Whether it really was his intention or not, Mark Davis’ decision to pay Becky Hammon more than a million dollars per season productively has expanded the purview of the ever-needed conversation about WNBA pay. Let’s continue to push it further!