Why WNBA Players Are Over (Not Under) Paid
Of course, TV ratings themselves are less important to this topic than dollars attached to their television contracts, and to the WNBA’s credit ESPN doubled the value of their contract with the league to $25 million a year in 2016. This has led David Berri of Forbes to argue that because WNBA salaries make up less than a quarter of league revenue, as opposed to the NBA’s 50% split, the WNBA is clearly exploiting their players. Undermining Berri's position is the simple observation that revenue is not the same as profit — another measure by which the WNBA has consistently struggled. As the New York Times reported in 2016, only half of WNBA teams have managed to become profitable 20 years after the league's founding.
A case can actually be made that WNBA players are actually overpaid relative to what consumers actually want. After all, the WNBA is subsidized by the NBA in a variety of ways including direct financial support, free publicity, and the fact that many WNBA franchises are owned by the city’s NBA owner. In fact, the WNBA’s big television contract was itself a byproduct of the channel reworking its agreement with their male counterpart.2 So instead of grumbling about the salaries male basketball players enjoy, perhaps A’ja Wilson should be thankful that the men's product helps bolster her own paycheck.
At the end of the day, just about any article focusing on how athletes are either under- (or over-) paid stems from the fallacious view that their compensation is an inherent product of their labor, rather than the subjective values of consumers.
The financial success of professional athletes has almost nothing to do with their talent and everything to do with the entertainment the public receives from it. LeBron James is one of the greatest athletes in human history, but if his sport of choice generated the public interest the WNBA has, he would not be signing a $154 million dollar contract. This also helps explains why e-sports players are making more money than the best in the WNBA. No pain can still result in financial gain.
Of course consumer preferences can change. Perhaps the American public will come to appreciate the strong fundamentals of the WNBA and, as a result, salaries will improve. Until then, women basketball players should perhaps look for markets that place greater value on their skill. Like Russia.