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‘Where the hell have you been?’ ask WNBA followers over the outrage at Caitlin Clark’s salary | CBC News

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She’s the NCAA Division I all-time leading scorer in both men’s and women’s basketball. She helped attract record-breaking March Madness TV audiences.

Now, 22-year-old Caitlin Clark is the No. 1 draft pick with the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), heading to the Indiana Fever.

And her starting salary? $76,535 US, or just over $105,000 Cdn — less than what some NBA mascots reportedly earn.

Last year, the NBA’s top pick, Victor Wembanyama, had a base salary of more than $12 million US.

People have flocked to social media to express their outrage ever since online sport contract tracker Spotrac reported Clark’s salary Tuesday. Even U.S. President Joe Biden chimed in, posting on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “women are not paid their fair share.”

But others point out that while the massive gender gap in professional sports salaries might be getting attention right now, it’s been a long-standing problem.

“America, we have been talking about this for 20 years. Finally, you guys are woke,” pro basketball player and two-time Olympic gold medallist Angel McCoughtry told CNN Wednesday.

The WNBA is a young league, with its first season in 1997, and doesn’t have decades of contract negotiations behind it like the NBA does. It also has a history of under-investment, and with less sway and worse outcomes in media rights deals.

On top of that, WNBA players get a much smaller share of the league’s overall revenue than their NBA counterparts. Now, Clark’s salary has become a symbol for all this inequity, firing people up online.

“My question is, ‘Where the hell have you been?'” Allison Venditti, a human resources expert in Toronto and the founder of advocacy group Moms at Work, told CBC News.

WATCH | Caitlin Clark 1st pick in draft: 

Caitlin Clark selected 1st overall in WNBA Draft by Indiana Fever

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark is chosen by the Indiana Fever as the first pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft.

Not as simple as more revenue

Part of the current outcry over Clark’s salary is because it’s a stark contrast to her visibility and name recognition, explained Michele Donnelly, an assistant professor in sport management at Brock University.

Clark has helped bring millions of fans: She was a big reason why a record 18.9 million viewers tuned in to the national championship game, which Iowa lost to unbeaten South Carolina.

But the challenge of talking about the salary gap is that so many people will just argue that women get paid less because their sports don’t generate as much revenue, Donnelly said. 

A basketball player raises a fist in the air while dribbling with her other hand.
Clark, seen above earlier in April, was chosen first overall by the Indiana Fever in Monday’s WNBA draft. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

However, the argument is simplistic, she said, as women’s sports haven’t been given the same opportunity as men’s to earn that revenue.  

“It totally ignores the fact that in the early years of most of our current major professional leagues, they lost money. They had to invest in those years at a loss to get where we are now.”

The two leagues have a big difference in earnings, driven in part by media deals and viewership.

The NBA’s revenues topped $10 billion US for the first time in 2022. It also has two nine-year television deals worth a combined $24 billion US. Its next one, set to kick in around 2025, is expected to be worth significantly more.

The WNBA makes about $60 million US a year in broadcast deals, and its season is also half as long as the NBA’s. And, though it does not publicly release its revenue numbers, Bloomberg has reported it was projected to earn about $200 million US in 2023.

“We kind of hold women’s sport to expect it to meet where men’s professional sport is now. And have not allowed it that growth period,” Donnelly said.

Meanwhile, WNBA players make around 9.3 per cent of the league’s revenue, compared to NBA players’ 50 per cent, due to a collective bargaining agreement made in 2020, according to Bloomberg. Though there’s reason for that to change — the union has the option to opt out of the agreement for at the end of the 2025 season, which Bloomberg notes it’s expected to do. 

Women in sports traditionally underpaid

While the average person might be outraged to learn what Clark is earning, it’s not shocking for those who have followed the WNBA and other women’s sports, as women have traditionally been underpaid, Donnelly said.

“Any of the professional leagues are certainly much lower salaries on the women’s side than on the men’s side,” she told CBC News.

According to Spotrac, the average WNBA four-year salary for its top 2024 draft picks was $327,119 US, a fraction of the $36.5-million US average for the NBA.

The salaries are so low that many players supplement their incomes playing overseas during the off-season, an issue recently highlighted when WNBA player Brittney Griner was detained in Russia on drug-related charges that ended with a prisoner swap.

“As much as I would love to pay my light bill for the love of the game, I can’t,” she said last year in a press conference where she explained why she was playing in Russia in the first place.

Last year, women’s World Cup soccer players made about one-quarter of what the men’s players made. And though both Canadian teams were knocked out early, the men’s team received $9 million compared to $1.56 million for the women.

WATCH | Why women earned less at the FIFA World Cup: 

Why women earn less than men at the FIFA World Cup

Women soccer players at the FIFA World Cup will on average earn one fourth of what the men made in Qatar last year, according to numbers released by the organization. What’s behind this pay gap?

And the new Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) salary range is $35,000 to $80,000. The average player salary in its inaugural season that started in January was $55,000 US. The starting NHL salary is $750,000 US, according to Sports Business Journal.

Yet, fans can’t get enough of women’s sports. This year, the NCAA women’s March Madness tournament broke viewership records. The PWHL’s first game drew in 2.9 million viewers. And more than four million people watched the Canadian women’s soccer team defeat Sweden for Olympic gold in 2021.

“Women’s sports have been viewed as ‘the other’ and ‘secondary’ for a long time. That is definitely changing,” LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan recently told Sportsnet

Why do people care now?

The gender gap in sports salaries might be especially under the microscope right now, but Venditti points out it’s true for most industries — and is worse for racialized women.

Along those lines, some social media users have accused the public of only now caring about WNBA salaries because Clark is white, in a league that’s about 70 per cent Black. Others have pointed out that last year’s No. 1 draft pick, Aliyah Boston, had a lower starting salary: $74,305 US, according to Spotrac.

A close-up of a women's basketball player.
Indiana Fever forward Aliyah Boston was last year’s No. 1 draft pick. (Abbie Parr/AP Photo/File)

But Boston’s salary didn’t get the same public reaction.

“Why do white women have to be the face of the gender pay gap for people to care?” speaker and activist Ola Ojewumi wrote on X. “We never address the pay gap between Black women and white women.” 

Some have also pointed out that Clark is rumoured to be getting an eight-figure endorsement deal with Nike, including a signature shoe.

Venditti says the good news is Clark’s salary really has people making noise about the gender wage gap in the WNBA, but that it can’t just be noise — there needs to be action.

“Here’s a woman who’s making headway, we have so many amazing WNBA players, in some cases better than the men,” she said.

“What is it going to take to pay them?”

A woman walks past a mural
A pedestrian walks past a mural by Kwazar Martin featuring Clark on the near west side of Indianapolis on Tuesday. (Michael Conroy/The Associated Press)

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