For most female athletes, their work extends far beyond fighting for rebounds or scoring goals. Women in professional sports are using their voices more than ever in a battle to close the wage gap, gain more visibility and coverage, and ultimately achieve true equality in sports.
“Most [WNBA] players are speaking out,” said Nneka Ogwumike, an all-star forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and the president of the players union. “It may have something to do with the social political climate of the world right now. A lot of women advocating for equality, especially for women in the workplace, and I think that’s what you see happening with our league, too.“
The Globe talked to Ogwumike, her sister and fellow all-star Chiney Ogwumike, Olympic gold medalist Hilary Knight, and a few experts about the state of those fights, and what comes next.
The wage issue
As president and vice president of the union, the Ogwumikes, both Stanford alumnae, will spearhead the battle for the WNBA players in their collective bargaining agreement negotiations. The current CBA expires in October 2021, but the league and the union can opt out after next season. However, that decision must be made by the end of next month.
Chiney: “We have three core areas that we want to focus on. The first area is your pay equity because salaries, obviously everyone is talking about the discrepancy between the WNBA and the NBA. [Forbes last year estimated that WNBA players get about 22 percent of the revenue share, compared with the 50-50 split of the NBA.] That’s No. 1.
“No. 2 is player experience, and I think people understand that players fly coach and they stay in decent hotels, but we travel pretty modestly and we just want to enhance little things that can help players experience in the WNBA. [The Las Vegas Aces endured 26 hours of travel delays earlier this season en route to face the Washington Mystics. The Aces wound up not playing the game out of concern for their safety; the league later ruled it a forfeit.] And the last thing is player safety. How do we treat players that have been pregnant, had kids and then come back? How do we treat teams when there are four games in seven days?”
Nneka: “Wages are a dynamic and complex issue. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, give us more money,’ and they give you more money. There obviously have been a lot of conversations and input from the media documenting and analyzing anything that has to do with revenue shares. Even that aspect of the amount of money coming into the league and in increasing that percent is more than saying ‘Hey, give us a [higher] percentage.’ I think that’s something we’re trying to understand right now. [We’re] educating ourselves on the history of the system and making things better as far as getting paid more. That has a lot to do with revenue shares, visibility, value of partnerships, and a lot more aspects that can contribute to us making more money. In the long run, nothing is going to happen overnight, but we need to see some type of gradual or small exponential growth in those things.”
Chiney: “We didn’t push boundaries for so long because for so long we have been told that we should be grateful to be in the WNBA. You know, ‘It’s OK to fly coach and you play back-to-back [games] sometimes, you’re pushed to your limit because you’re fortunate to be a professional [and] you’re fortunate to be in this league.’ But now I think players want a seat at the table. Players want to be invested. If we’re going to give our mind, body, and soul to the week, we want to have that same energy reciprocated.”
The visibility issue
Knight, who was a part of the US national women’s hockey team that threatened to boycott the world championships last year in order to receive better compensation, benefits, and support from the United States Olympic Committee, explained the visibility problem that plagues women’s sports and why accessibility is so crucial.
Knight: “For women’s ice hockey, you have the visibility issue [that’s] just rampant in women’s sports in general. We need more platforms. Players from the other countries have the same issues. They don’t have the resources or the funding. It comes down to visibility.
“We have a lot of people that come up to us and say, ‘Before I went to your game I thought women weren’t as fast and as physical and I wouldn’t enjoy the game,’ and once they’ve gone to a game, they realize they were wrong and are pleasantly surprised. Part of that is just opening up people’s eyes and making us more accessible to someone just flipping through channels. We’re trying to change the culture.”
The coverage issue
Mary Jo Kane, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girl’s and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, explained how media coverage plays a role in visibility, accessibility, and, ultimately, the bottom line.
Kane: “What we know is that 40 percent of all sports participants in this country are female and we also know that 43 percent of scholarship athletes are females. But at the same time, women only receive about 2 to 4 percent of overall sports media coverage, so there is a clear disconnect between how much women are interested in sports and how fully engaged they are versus the amount of coverage they receive.
“When female athletes are covered compared to male athletes, they’re much more likely to be portrayed off the court, out of uniform and in highly sexualized poses. Things have certainly gotten better over the last two decades where female athletes are often presented as serious, competent athletes. There is still way too much coverage of females as pretty, feminine, and sexy rather than focus on their competence and mental toughness.
“[The hope] is that the media and society in general will see women as human beings and not just sex objects. And that they be given the respect that they deserve or that they’ve earned.”
Shea Serrano, a sportswriter for The Ringer and author of “Basketball (and Other Things),” explained how writing the book led him to write more about the WNBA this season.
Serrano: “Everyone knew the league existed. I just never watched it. That’s one thing I didn’t think of when I was putting the book together . . . I used the word basketball and in my head basketball meant men playing basketball. [SB Nation writer] Natalie Weiner pointed out basketball means everyone playing basketball. She was 100 percent right, I just never thought about it or paid attention to it. After that I reached out to who was writing about the WNBA and college basketball that was good. I starting following them to try to learn about it. I wanted to try to write about it and be as respectful as I could to those already doing it.
“I’m sure there are a bunch of reasons why women’s sports don’t get a lot of coverage. It sort of all gets rolled up into one. If a website thinks writing an article won’t get a lot of clicks, then why waste resources on that. I think probably a bigger part of it is an implicit bias against women’s sports because most of the sports media is male and that’s not what we see ourselves in.
“The WNBA has the best women’s basketball players in the world. There’s no question about that. They should be paid more. Aja [Wilson] got flack [for her tweet] as though she was saying, ‘I want to be paid $150 million,’ but she wasn’t. She was trying to point out that the NBA gets 50 percent of their revenue shares, and the WNBA get closer to 25 percent. That’s what they were saying: ‘We don’t need to be paid as much as them because we understand the league doesn’t make that much money, but we should be paid an equal percentage.’ Which makes a great deal of sense.”
The future steps
David Berri, a sports economics professor at Southern Utah and a writer for Forbes, explained that the WNBA is growing and that the league needs to invest in its players in order to strengthen the brand and expand the fan base.
Berri: “I think the [WNBA] has grown. I think it’s doing much better. Now players can reorient their deal to make sure they’re being taken care of. I think going forward if the WNBA wants to be the preeminent women’s basketball league in the world, then it has to do things differently and take care of its players.
“You got to make the investment and you got to understand that the reason why people watch women play in the Olympics and women playing college is because the brand identity has already been established. They already have fans. And so you’ve got to establish the same brand identity with the WNBA.’’