Same Sport, Different Treatment: WNBA vs. NBA

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By David Goldman, Sports Editor

It is no secret that the NBA receives more attention from fans and corporate sponsors than its female counterpart, the WNBA. But why? What are the factors that lead to this gap in exposure and what leads to the difference in treatment between players of the two professional associations? Let’s take a closer look.

The NBA was founded back in 1946 in New York City as the Basketball Association of America (BAA) before changing its name in 1949 after a merge with the National Basketball League (NBL). About 50 years later, the WNBA was approved to begin play in June of 1997. Since then, the leagues have expanded into what they are today, with the NBA full of 30 teams across the US and Canada and the WNBA with 12 teams.

This is one of the factors that accounts for the gap in viewership between the leagues. With the NBA consisting of more teams from more cities, there is a greater chance of building fan bases across the country. For example, people in the northeast have the opportunity to support the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers from the NBA. On the other hand, a fan of women’s basketball in the same region is only able to support the New York Liberty and Connecticut Sun from the WNBA. This certainly affects viewership, and in fact, in 2023, the NBA Finals had an average viewership of 11.6 million, whereas the WNBA Finals averaged 728,000 viewers.

There have been talks of expansion for the WNBA though, with Toronto appearing as one of the major contenders. However, the decision to expand really comes down to one deciding factor: money. The decision to expand depends on if WNBA teams are increasing their revenue as the season goes on, and in recent years, teams have been, which is a positive sign.

It is also common knowledge that there is a major pay gap in salary between the NBA and WNBA. In 2023, the NBA’s highest paid player was Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors with an annual salary of $51.9 million. For the WNBA, the highest paid player in 2023 was Erica Wheeler of the Indiana Fever at $242,000 a year. Part of the reason for this gap is that the WNBA has a strict salary gap that does not grow with league revenue. While the WNBA does not have nearly the same league revenue as the NBA, if the league’s salary cap grew with the revenue, players would be making more money. To put this in perspective, NBA players earn about 50% of revenue, and WNBA players are sitting at around 20%.

Another glaring factor that plays a role in the pay gap is gender discrimination. Although both leagues consist of professionals who are very skilled at their craft, women athletes tend to be paid less. This is an issue in many other professional sports leagues, such as soccer. It was found that at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, players earned 25 cents for every dollar earned by men at their World Cup a year prior. This was an improvement from 2019, but still goes to show the unfair treatment of professional female athletes.

Despite the differences between the WNBA and NBA, there is definitely a brighter future ahead. With the increase in attention that NCAA women’s basketball has been getting (in part due to Caitlin Clark’s story), all eyes are on women’s basketball. This attention is bound to increase viewership for the WNBA when it starts its season on May 14. Hopefully, it will also be a step in the right direction towards equalizing the WNBA and NBA.

This article originally appeared on page 11 of the No. 2 April 2024 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.

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Author: David Goldman

David Goldman ’24 is an economics major with a business and data science double minor. He has served as a sports writer for The Gettysburgian since freshman year. On campus, he is a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity and works for the athletic communications office.

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