Why WNBA Players Are Over (Not Under) Paid

Authored by Tho Bishop via The Mises Institute,

It is a credit to the economics profession that the labor theory of value has largely fallen out of style. There is, however, one sector of the economy in which it continues to be taken seriously: sports.

The latest example of this economic fallacy emerged when A’ja Wilson of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces took to Twitter to poke LeBron James’s new contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“154M. must.be. nice,” wrote Wilson.

“We over here looking for a [million] but Lord, let me get back in my lane.”

When she received push back on comparing her value to one of the greatest players of all time, she responded

“Ohh, it’s about skill set? [B]ecause I heard a bench player gets paid more than … nvm.”

In her defense, Wilson is a 21-year-old athlete who probably hasn’t thought a great deal about economics. It’s understandable for someone in her position to be envious of the paychecks earned in major professional sports leagues. Unfortunately Wilson’s thoughts reflect a growing trend of sports commentary looking at the plight of the “underpaid” WNBA player. Lisa Borders, president of the WNBA, has even directly pointed to sexism as a driving reason for the discrepancies between the earnings of male and female players.

Of course, the real issue has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with the fact that the WNBA simply isn’t very popular with Americans. 

For example, last month the WNBA averaged 250,000 viewers per game with a high of 378,000. Relative to the history of the league, this was an extraordinary success, up 39% from last year. By comparison, last year’s Professional Bowling League averaged 650,000 viewers for ESPN. So even relative to other non-major professional leagues, the WNBA struggles for relevance. 

Is it possible, however, that this simply shows an inherent sexist bias by consumers against women’s basketball?

Unfortunately the “blame the patriarchy” narrative doesn’t hold up when you compare the WNBA to the college game. This year’s Women’s NCAA Championship managed 3.5 million viewers on ESPN this year — down 9% from 2017. Meanwhile last year’s WNBA championship series averaged 487,000 viewers, with a high of 597,000 for Game 1. These numbers were promoted by the league as the highest since 2003.

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