The WNBA and its union — the WNBPA — finalized terms for a tentative eight-year collective bargaining agreement that signals change is possible in women’s sports.
The new deal, which runs from 2020 to 2027, marks the first time in league history that average cash compensation for all WNBA players will exceed six figures. Under the deal, every player’s salary will increase, with top players standing to earn cash compensation in excess of $500,000 — a 300 percent increase in the maximum compensation available under the last collective bargaining agreement.
To reach the deal, which includes a 53 percent increase in total cash compensation, the parties exercised creativity in identifying income sources for players’ salaries. The resulting structure is one where players have access to different pools of income through a total cash compensation model, consisting of base salary, additional performance bonuses, prize pools for forthcoming in-season competitions, and league and team marketing deals.
The new agreement comes after WNBA players opted out of the most recent agreement in 2018, citing concerns over player compensation, health and well-being, and travel accommodations. In opting out of their deal, WNBA players were the first of several groups of American female professional team sports athletes to challenge their leagues or governing bodies for fair compensation in the last 24 months.
In March 2019, the U.S. women’s national soccer sued U.S. Soccer alleging causes of action for gender-based pay discrimination. Despite vastly outperforming their male counterparts over the last 15 years in both the World Cup and Olympic Games, USWNT members allege U.S. Soccer paid them less than half of what their male counterparts earned during the same period.
U.S. Soccer has reportedly defended against these claims through lobbyists asserting that in 2018, USWNT players were paid more in cash compensation than USMNT members. In a July 2019 open letter, U.S. Soccer president, Carlos Cordeiro, iterated that any disparity between U.S. Soccer compensation to USWNT and USMNT members was, “because each team chose to negotiate a different compensation package with U.S. Soccer.”
In the meantime, the WNBA and WNBPA have presented a master class in how negotiation can be used as a tool to effectuate fair compensation for women’s team sports athletes.
In the current WNBA and WNBPA negotiation, both sides recognized that concessions were necessary. Yet, the negotiation was driven less by each side engaging in individualistic behavior to minimize the impact of their concessions, but by collaboration focused on how working together could expand the size of the pie for all parties.
“I’m so proud of the players of this league,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said on Tuesday. “They unified. They brought attention to so many important topics during this conversation. They drove and will continue to drive the narrative of what it means to be a female professional athlete.”
Coming to the bargaining table, Engelbert said the two sides recognized they shared mutual goals.
“We all wanted the same thing out of this negotiation: a WNBA that is sustainable and thriving and that we are setting up the next generation of athletes,” she said.
How did the WNBA and WNBPA create significant increases in compensation for the league’s players? They utilized a tool men’s sports leagues in America have turned to for decades — sponsorship — but repackaged it in a creative manner.
Along with announcing the new agreement, the WNBA also announced the launch of WNBA Changemakers, a collective of businesses organized to advance women and sports. The partners in the inaugural collective are AT&T, Deloitte and Nike. Through the collective these companies, “will directly support the WNBA in its transformation across marketing, branding, and player and fan experience,” according to the WNBA.
What message does the agreement send to other female team professional sports athletes, teams and leagues? The deal — and the major corporations that came alongside it — shows the time for brands to align themselves with women’s sports is better than ever.
Yet, despite increased fan interest and viewership numbers, media and sponsorship opportunities have not bullishly embraced the women’s sports space. A recent study found that less than 1 percent of all sports sponsorships are invested in women’s sports, while only 4 percent of all media coverage is given to women’s sports. These disparities exist in a marketplace where women are not only the majority of the population, but are estimated to account for 70 to 80 percent of all purchasing decisions.
The lack of media coverage and sponsorship of women’s sports impacts female professional athletes’ salaries, because the greatest drivers of revenue in the American professional sports landscape are media contracts and league sponsorship deals. Under traditional league revenue sharing plans — like those in the four major U.S. male professional sports leagues — the bulk of the salary cap valuation is driven by revenue generated under multibillion dollar television deals and eight-figure sponsorship agreements.
For years, leaders of American women’s professional sports leagues have refused to move the needle on athlete pay, rationalizing that upticks in viewership were necessary to drive the valuation of television deals and in turn generate greater sponsorship interest and valuation. That only 1 percent of sports sponsorships are invested in women’s sports signals that the leaders in this space historically have not recognized the value-potential in women’s sports to drive growth and interest in the market, which is only perpetuating a cycle of limited access to compensation for female athletes.
On Tuesday, two female leaders — Engelbert and WNBPA Executive Director Terri Jackson — accomplished what critics thought would never happen. They secured fair and sustainable pay for a group of 144 female professional athletes. And they did it in large part by doing what many leaders in women’s sports before them have not: finding creative ways to engage corporate sponsors.