The landmark contract tentatively reached by the WNBA owners and its players association represents a new frontier for professional athletics. If approved by league governors and players, it should be modeled by sports leagues everywhere as a baseline for equity.
Veteran Seattle Storm star Sue Bird labeled the deal “historic” for the league created in 1996. For the first time, players would be given a compensation level and other considerations that better reflect the demands of the job. The new contract nearly doubles the WNBA’s maximum salary to $215,000, provides fully paid maternity leave and establishes a 50-50 revenue-sharing arrangement if the league hits growth targets.
The deal wouldn’t bring the league’s players near the multimillion-dollar salaries their male counterparts in the NBA enjoy. The NBA, after all, brings in far more money. But the changes signify league officials’ recognition that players’ needs must be accommodated to build a stronger league.
Under the new deal, top WNBA earners could bring home $500,000 or more with performance bonuses and money from a marketing deal. This higher earning ceiling, and a new mandatory reporting deadline for training camp, is intended to keep top-flight players from having to play overseas to earn supplemental pay during the October-to-April off season. That practice wears on players’ bodies and inhibits the league’s ability to develop and market its best players. For evidence, see the season-ending injury Storm star and WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart suffered just weeks before the 2019 WNBA tipoff, while playing overseas for Russia’s Dynamo Kursk.
Other aspects of the deal reflect the realities of the physically demanding, travel-intensive job. Unlike their NBA peers’ charter flights, WNBA players fly commercially. The new contract, for the first time, would guarantee roomier economy-plus seats to the players, who average around 6 feet tall. Players with children would also receive extra money for childcare, and the contract includes reimbursements for family-planning expenses including fertility treatments and surrogacy.
Female athletes have waited decades for equitable treatment. A lawsuit over equal pay for the soccer U.S. Women’s National Team, in which Reign FC Captain Megan Rapinoe is a lead plaintiff, is set for a May trial, which could bring an extensive public airing of how male players routinely receive better rewards.
It’s about time a pro sports league adopted fairer principles. Female professional athletes devote years to becoming elite performers, just as men do. The WNBA players’ union and league governors should approve the contract and show the athletics world what progress on the path to gender equity looks like.