The last time the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team lost a game was Nov. 17, 2014. With a winning streak of 104 games (and counting), the team has cemented their place in history, earning an NCAA record for the feat. This is the same storied basketball program that has produced the likes of Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, a two-time WNBA champion and three-time Olympic gold medal winner, as well as nine-time WNBA all-star Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird and 2012 WNBA MVP and New York Liberty center Tina Charles. Yet, despite the accomplishments, women’s basketball at both the collegiate and professional levels faces drastic funding and pay disparities that starkly contrast that of their male counterparts in the NCAA and NBA, an offshoot of the gender pay gap that should not still persist in 2017.
Perhaps the problem in the WNBA begins in the NCAA — that’s at least what the Women’s Sports Foundation argues, and it begins with the amount of money invested into NCAA Division I women’s teams. As of the NCAA’s most recent gender equity report, women’s sports team only received 40 percent of operating funds for college sports and 36 percent of college recruitment spending money. When it comes to scholarship money, 55 percent of NCAA college athletic scholarships went to male athletes while 45 percent went to females, according to their 2014 report.
These figures, however, represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the inequities present in the microcosm of NCAA college basketball. Take, for instance, the UConn women’s basketball team’s NCAA tournament success. While women’s tournament appearances merit zero monetary rewards, each game a men’s team plays (excluding championship appearances) “earns the team’s conference roughly $260,000 this year plus $260,000 each of the five following years,” according to the New York Times, “so the total value of a victory in the men’s tournament is approximately $1.56 million.”
The root of such thinking lies in the commercialization of the sport at the college level: if men’s teams bring in more money via television ratings and ticket sales, says the New York Times, the natural thought is to allow the men to reap the rewards monetarily. However, women’s teams do just the same, selling out games and playing live on ESPN, yet they earn nothing for their efforts. And this privileged treatment for men’s basketball teams doesn’t end in the NCAA.
In television broadcasting rights alone, the NBA rakes in $2.6 billion in revenue from ESPN and Turner Sports, reports Newsweek, while the WNBA gets $12 million annually to have their games shown on ESPN — a fee that amounts to less than half of 1 percent of the NBA’s deal. And the disparity only grows more dismal when it comes to player salaries. According to the 2014 WNBA collective bargaining agreement, the 2017 base salary was $40,439, while the maximum veteran’s salary was $113,500. When compared with their male counterparts in the NBA, however, it was a tale of two salaries: the minimum salary for the 2016-2017 season was $543,471, yet the highest surpassed $30 million and the team salary cap hit $94.143 million.
But before NBA and WNBA salaries are justified as a function of the league’s unequal earnings, it may be that WNBA players aren’t getting their due payment after all. VICE Sports estimates that, between ticket sales and broadcasting deals alone, the WNBA’s revenue sits at least $35 million. With 154 players active in 2014 season and the average league salary resting at $75,000 in 2015, VICE Sports estimates that “the WNBA would have paid its players $11,550,000,” a mere 33 percent of the league’s total revenue that starkly contrasts the 50 percent of league revenue imparted to NBA players. “Yet whatever the exact number,” VICE Sports contends, “it appears a significant gender wage gap exists in basketball, with WNBA players only getting — at most — about 0.67 of what NBA players receive, even after adjusting for much higher NBA revenues.”
This reality is not isolated to basketball, either. In tennis, a sport touted as more equitable, quietly serves up a similar story: Roger Federer earned $731,000 for his U.S. Open win in 2015, while Serena Williams earned just $495,000 for achieving the same feat, reports the New York Times. Wimbledon only began paying their male and female victors the same in 2007, after Venus Williams pushed for equal pay in the early-mid 2000s. Yet, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team hit the same pay wall, earning only $2 million for winning the 2015 World Cup, while the men’s team earned $9 million without moving past round 16 in their 2014 World Cup endeavor.
It is clear that the money invested in and paid to female players in the NCAA and WNBA pales in comparison to that which is poured into men’s teams and leagues. Putting all television deals and ticket sales aside, what pay and funding should be based on boils down to the age-old argument that has dominated professional industries since the moment women entered the workplace: equal pay for equal work.
Female basketball players work just as hard as their male counterparts — take UConn, for example. Their current 104-win streak bests the previously-held men’s record (from the UCLA 1970-1974 team) by 16 games. Overall, the women’s program has had 11 national championship-winning teams, while the UConn men’s program has only had four total championship teams in its history.
On a professional scale, female players continue to surpass male basketball players. Stepping beyond the national basketball leagues and onto the world stage, the U.S. Women’s basketball team maintains a 49-game Olympic win streak and eight gold medals in Olympic competition since their 1976 debut in the Games, while the men earned 15 gold medals since their 1936 entrance into the Olympics and extended a 25-game winning streak during the 2016 summer event.
The talent exists in female basketball players, but the investment in them does not. If women’s teams and leagues were taken as seriously as men’s in their moneymaking abilities, perhaps we’d see greater pay parity. But until that day, we’ll have to be content watching women give men a run for their money — literally.