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WNBA stars are working to secure their financial futures now

The gender gap in retirement income starts with the pay disparity among current athletes.

AT&T WNBA All-Star Game 2021 Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

Last August, on an episode of the Tea with A & Phee podcast, Arike Ogunbowale and Napheesa Collier lamented that the new WNBA collective bargaining agreement had yet to affect them. As members of the 2019 draft class, Ogunbowale and Collier — the 2021 All-Star MVP and a Tokyo Olympian, respectively — were two of the lowest-paid players in the league at $58,710.

Collier’s co-host on A & Phee, A’ja Wilson, was also still on her rookie contract in 2021, making $70,040. The 2020 WNBA MVP has since signed a two-year deal to remain with the Las Vegas Aces at $196,267 in 2022 and $202,154 in 2023. Wilson is one of the best players in the world and is now deservedly making the league maximum salary. But even Wilson and superstars like her are unable to earn generational wealth for their talents, like their male counterparts.

It’s that type of compensation that forces Ogunbowale, Collier, and players of their caliber to play overseas, even as the WNBA attempts to prioritize athletes staying stateside. But even that route isn’t a guaranteed paycheck — Ogunbowale had to return to the United States from Dynamo Kursk recently because of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine and is missing out on the most lucrative portion of the European season.

That’s why Ogunbowale and Wilson are using their platform to #RetireInequality with TIAA. Both players spoke to Swish Appeal about their partnership and how have to think about their finances after basketball in a way that NBA stars don’t.

“Playing in the WNBA, that’s what we talk about a lot, we use our platform to talk about women’s rights and inequalities and things like that,” Ogunbowale sad. “As a young young girl and young adults, I don’t think you really think about retirement a lot. You think, okay, that’s when you’re 60-70, that’s in a long time. But it’s definitely things that you need to start preparing for now in your 20s, as early as you can really to set yourself up because it comes quick. It comes slow, but it comes quick. And, as a woman, there’s a lot of obstacles, more obstacles than men that we have to go through to get there.... It doesn’t have to be a lot, but just setting things up so that they’re more comfortable whenever that time comes.

In other forms of entertainment, we see women making millions of dollars like men. 2021’s highest paid female movie role was Thena in “The Eternals,” played by Angelina Jolie, who made $35.5 million. The top male role, Dwayne Johnson’s portrayal of Frank Wolff in “Jungle Cruise,” earned $42 million. So Jolie made 84.5 percent of what Johnson made, compared to a WNBA supermax player’s 0.5 percent of Curry’s income.

Music is not as equal as the silver screen — top female artist Taylor Swift ($80 million) made 13.6 percent of what top male artist Bruce Springsteen ($590 million) made in 2021 — but it is still far more equal than basketball.

In the WNBA, players, perhaps most notably WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike, have asked that they get paid a fare share of what the WNBA makes that is comparable to the percentage the men’s players take from the NBA’s total earnings. The new CBA passed in 2020 showed improvement in this area, but Swish Appeal asked Wilson how much of the issue is also about increasing the amount of money the WNBA brings in in the first place.

“That’s my piece that I really enjoy because yes we can talk about the revenue share and everything else and wanting to get paid more, but for me I think the popularity and the respect side of it is way greater,” Wilson said. “Because you get that, you get people in the seats, you get people constantly seeing us and wanting to buy our jerseys and wanting to come out to Vegas and seeing it in airports. That’s where you grow that, that’s where it all starts. So for me I think that is where we need to really hit and pinpoint on and as players we can do it.”

Nevertheless, as Ogunbowale and many others note, one sign of respect is money. And in order to ensure women have money in retirement, they need more of it now; fortunately, in recent weeks, the WNBA has seen an influx of people pouring money into the league — or at least attempting to.

Mark Davis, the owner of the Las Vegas Aces, decided to pay his new head coach Becky Hammon $1 million per year, making her the highest-paid coach in the WNBA (female or male). 2022 will be Hammon’s first year as a WNBA coach, but she is a big-name hire because of her time spent working under the legendary Gregg Popovich as an assistant for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.

Upon hearing the news of Hammon’s contract, former Ace and current Los Angeles Spark Liz Cambage made a complaint about the players not getting paid as much as the coaches. Davis responded by saying that his intent in paying Hammon such a large amount was for it to trickle down to the players, like his MVP A’ja Wilson.

“When you have someone like Mark as an owner that’s making sure that we get whatever we need on and off the court, it makes you want to play better, it makes you want to be seen more, because you’re fighting for something that’s bigger than yourself,” Wilson said. “When you’re getting rewarded by someone like Mark Davis, that means that you’re being seen, you’re not being swept underneath the rug. And he’s putting a lot of people on notice as to like ‘yes I’m fully capable of paying Becky Hammon this amount and she deserves it and our players deserve more as well.’ So he keeps pushing that envelope.

“And I think it even helps even more that he is a white man because he gets that voice at the table, he gets that foot in the door before anyone else. And he’s totally qualified to do it because he’s been at the seat at the table on the NFL side. So I think when you’re thinking about what’s gonna push it, you gotta be real with yourself and say ‘the white man has the voice.’ And I’m just honored that Mark can use it in a way that’s gonna help us later on down the road.”

The WNBA also secured a $75 million capital raise, part of a “strategy designed to generate new revenue through increased investment in priority areas as part of the league’s long-term business transformation”, per a statement from the league. Neither Ogunbowale nor Wilson were entirely sure of how the funding would affect their lives as players, but both see investment into the league is a sign of progress.

“I think that means more people are valuing it and paying attention to us as players in the WNBA,” Ogunbowale said. “We’re playing well and making it exciting for people to want to invest and see it grow. And we want to see it grow, we talk about it a lot but now people are riding the wave and seeing like, Okay, I think it’s time to invest in this, this is a great league.... So I’m glad people are catching on to that and hopefully more do.”

“I haven’t even been locked into that side of it as a whole to even make a comment on it,” Wilson said, “but when it comes to just growing our game and our league and our wallets and our bank accounts, I’m always behind it 100 percent. But I just hope that it’s done the right way.”

Interestingly, Wilson made that statement before it was revealed that the WNBA fined the New York Liberty for providing chartered flights for their players. As Wilson and other stars search for external recognition and respect, they’re still battling with their own league to be treated like the best of the best.

A battle on multiple fronts is nothing new for female athletes, especially players like Wilson and Ogunbowale. They persevered playing youth sports while other girls dropped out. They made it through college without NIL, unable to capitalize on the popularity of their national-title runs in 2017 and 2018, respectively. They joined the WNBA before the league had a modern collective bargaining agreement.

That’s why planning for the retirement is so important for these WNBA stars. Wilson and Ogunbowale can see a groundswell of support for female athletes — the capital raise, the US Soccer lawsuit settlement, NIL, or the words and actions of owners like Mark Davis — but women are already behind financially, and there’s only so much time to catch up.

“At the end of the day you just really want everyone to have just a secure financial future,” she said. “And it’s something that (women) shouldn’t have to worry about, especially when it comes to 30 percent (less retirement income than men), that is still just so mind-blowing to me. So yes it’s making me more urgent to put that foot forward and say ‘hey, we need to raise this bar, we need to get up in here and make something work.’ Because we’re working just as hard, we’re putting in all the work that we need to do to make means for our families and yet we still get the short end of the stick.”

The WNBA is 25 years old. Title IX is turning 50. It’s time for gender equality to reach a milestone, too.