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The controversy of Caitlin Clark's rookie salary overlooks some crucial details

Please stop saying that the league's No. 1 draft pick is “taking a pay cut” to join the WNBA.

Caitlin Clark is officially the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick, and she’s set to make $76,535 (in base salary, which is not her total compensation) in her rookie year. Fans, it’s fair to say, are upset.

And to be fair, that’s significantly less than the nearly $12.2 million the NBA’s most recent No. 1 pick, San Antonio Spurs breakout star Victor Wembanyama, made in his first year in the NBA. Clark is an athlete who’s already broken scoring and viewership records, signed big sponsorship deals and pushed ticket sales through the roof. So the wage gap between her and her male peers has sparked understandable outrage. But those who support the legitimacy and financial viability of women’s basketball — and those who denigrate it — are overlooking important nuances in this conversation. 

The wage gap between her and her male peers has sparked understandable outrage.

WNBA salaries are set under the current union collective bargaining agreement, which marked major progress for players in 2020: Max salaries doubled, total cash compensation went up to a half a million dollars, and the agreement also included provisions for basic hotel accommodations, women’s health care and maternity benefits. It was a step forward, at least in ink and in kind. As Kate Fagan put it in a 2021 piece reflecting on the W’s 25 years: “They know that only a few players can achieve [those salaries], but that wasn’t the point at all. The headline was the point. The point was to break free of the flawed narrative that WNBA players don’t make money. You know what doesn’t sell tickets? The belief that female players make less money than schoolteachers.”

To be sure, WNBA players are not looking to make the same kind of money as their NBA counterparts (at least not right now), and they’ve said so repeatedly. WNBA players are aware that their revenue (around $200 million in 2023) does not compare to the NBA’s (around $10 billion in 2022). But the players also understand that their revenue is in part based on an undervaluing of their game by media rights partners, and that their collective bargaining agreement treats revenue sharing differently than the NBA’s.

This is where it gets wonky, but the details matter. The WNBA currently has media rights deals across broadcast, cable and streaming platforms worth a total about $60 million per year. Those deals with ESPN, Prime Video and ION are all set to expire in 2025. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters on Monday that she expects the value of the league’s rights deals to “at least double” in renegotiation. For reference, women’s March Madness was recently estimated at $65 million annually — 10 times its previous valuation. Given the enormous growth in national interest, with 2023 viewership up 21% and the highest attendance since 2018, it’s not unrealistic to expect WNBA media rights to garner upward of $100 million in 2025. (Note: The NBA and WNBA negotiate their media rights deals together.)

Both the WNBA and NBA’s labor agreements feature revenue sharing, though the major difference is in their implementation. NBA players receive 51% of all revenue (as defined as “basketball-related income”). Under their current CBA, which is set to expire in 2027 with an opt-out clause in 2025, WNBA players receive 50% of incremental revenue — that is, revenue that exceeds certain league-defined targets. Those targets grow by 20% each year. What does that mean for the players? According to Bloomberg, salaries as a total share of revenue were just 9.3% in 2022. 

Both Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would tell you that the WNBA needs to prioritize growth targets for the league’s long-term sustainability. Remember that Engelbert was previously the CEO of Deloitte, and her strengths — publicly embraced by the players' union at the time of her hiring — are not in contract negotiations, but in partnerships and brand-building.

Given those priorities, the players and their union seem poised to exercise their opt-out in 2025 to renegotiate, among other things, salary floors and ceilings, as well as revenue sharing, with a new influx of interest and cash and exposure in the league. The previous CBA was negotiated after the players opted out following a new TV rights deal, and the same could happen next year. WNBA players are in the strongest negotiating position they’ve ever been in. 

Not to mention the additional income of endorsement deals, which are not tied to the collective bargaining agreement. Clark’s deals have been estimated at around $3 million to start.

It’s a good sign that people are talking about pay disparity, but remember that the NBA has had a nearly 50-year head start.

It’s a good sign that people are talking about pay disparity, but remember that the NBA has had a nearly 50-year head start, and saw similar growing pains in the ‘80s when playoff games were being broadcast on tape delay. And then Magic and Bird and Michael and, yes, Stern came along and changed the course of history. But it wasn’t pretty and it certainly wasn’t a straight line to Wemby.

And it hasn’t been a straight line to Caitlin Clark. So while we recognize that the incredible growth of women’s basketball is still accompanied by the relative undervaluing of the sport, let’s call for progress without undervaluing the strides made by the players, coaches and executives in years past. Let’s recognize that investment in women’s sports doesn’t just mean suddenly noticing disparities when they happen to a generational star. Let’s please stop saying that Caitlin Clark is “taking a pay cut” to join the WNBA. She’s looking at the long game, and you should be, too. To paraphrase a former president: Don’t boo. Watch. Attend. Cheer. Stay.