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Everyone Watches Women’s Basketball

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It’s been a historic winter for women’s basketball. The NCAA Women’s National Championship basketball game between South Carolina and Iowa was viewed by over 20 million people. This not only eclipsed the 2024 Men’s National Championship game, which had nearly 15 million viewers, but had the highest view-count of any professional or college basketball game since 2019. The final followed a record breaking week with multiple women’s Final Four games viewed by more than 10 million people, including 14.2 million people watching the semi-final game between Iowa and Connecticut. Networks promoted the semi-final as a match-up between star players Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers. Caitlin Clark’s profile especially has been used to boost viewership. 

These massive numbers have to do with the media’s role in making basketball a game of personalities, with Caitlin Clark taking center stage. Clark became a household name in women’s basketball a few years ago, but especially since last year’s Championship game between LSU and Iowa. Clark’s game is electrifying to watch. In a matchup against Penn State in March, she sunk a 3-pointer from the logo – officially breaking Steph Curry’s Division I record for most 3-pointers in a single season. 

Racist Tropes Loom Over LSU Game

Star players Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, who led their respective teams, were at the center of a huge media backlash after some in-game interactions. Despite the fact that both of them have repeatedly told the media they like and respect each other, and that their competitive, trash-talking behavior stays on the court, the media’s double standard for Black and white athletes showed its ugly face in the coverge of the rivalry. For several seasons Angel Reese has been subjected to a barrage of racially-coded and outright racist attacks on social media. 

The racist tropes about LSU, and Black women athletes more generally, carried over into this year. This was vicioulsy demonstrated in the LA Times opinion piece by Ben Bolch, “America’s sweethearts vs it’s basketball villains.” He has since apologized for this content. In many ways, Bolch is saying the quiet part out-loud when he describes how the media has divided star basketball players into the mostly-white “heroes,” like Clark and Bueckers, and mostly-black “villains” like Angel Reese and her LSU teammates. In a line that’s since been deleted from that article, Bolch wrote: “Do you prefer America’s sweethearts or its dirty debutantes? Milk and cookies or Louisiana hot sauce?” While this line left many of us with our jaws on the floor, for players like Angel Reese or Black female coaches like Dawn Staley of South Carolina, it’s no surprise at all.

It’s been important that Caitlin Clark and other athletes from all racial backgrounds have come to Reese’s defense, but the enduring disdain being thrown in the direction of these young Black women is a shameful indication of how deep the problem is.

While these racist assaults were front of mind for basketball fans, this year was also a year of tremendous accomplishments for Black women in the NCAA. Dawn Staley became the first Black coach to lead a Division I basketball team to an undefeated season. She also became the first Black coach to win three Division I titles. Staley is unique in more ways than one. She has openly supported trans athletes in a time when such solidarity is crucially needed and extremely rare. 

Everyone Watches Women’s Sports

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, women have had the right to equal opportunity in college sports participation, but the media attention has always been focused on mens’ sports. These (albeit limited) protections don’t exist in professional sports, which has meant a slow grind by women’s professional sports to gain equitable access to the market and they still have a long way to go. For example, viewership of the WNBA 2023 final was the highest in 21 years, and yet estimates range from 500-750k. And it took until this year for a Professional Women’s Hockey League to exist, despite decades of history at the college level. Title IX protections show that if women are given opportunities to play sports, they will. It’s not about a lack of interest or talent. But will people watch women’s sports if they’re covered by major networks? The answer is clearly yes.

The prominence of star players like Clark, Reese, and Bueckers was one factor in the record-breaking numbers this year, but the trend is clear: given equal resources and airtime, women’s sports are equally as popular as men’s sports, and they can bring in just as many viewers. This year has proven without a shadow of a doubt that the limitations on women’s sports were based on narrow coverage and lack of investment, not a lack of public interest or player talent. 

Poverty Of The WNBA

After the draft, and projections of salaries for newly drafted players like Caitlin Clark, a spotlight has been shone on the poverty of the WNBA. Many professional women’s basketball players need to play overseas during the off-season because they can’t afford to live just on their salary for a job that requires a lifetime of training and monumental level of dedication. In fact there are official salary caps in the WNBA! Salary caps for WNBA players mean that athletes can potentially make more in college than as a professional athlete. This is not the case for NBA players. 

Under the new Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) laws being passed around the country, college athletes can now cash in on their fame before signing any professional contracts. Historically, the NCAA has prevented college athletes from signing endorsement deals despite the fact that college athletes are also barred from receiving salaries. In 2023, the NCAA brought in a revenue of $1.3B, putting their valuation at around $565M – none of which went to players.

Since 2021, when the supreme court ruled on the NCAA v. Alston case that college athletes should be allowed to sign NIL deals and the NCAA revoked their ban on such deals, star players across all college sports have signed multi-million dollar contracts. The highest paid NIL athletes in college basketball are players Bronny James (son of Lakers legend Lebron James) who is estimated to earn about $5M in endorsement deals. Caitlin Clark, the biggest name in women’s college basketball today, is estimated to earn about $3.1M in endorsement deals. Although Bronny stands to earn many times that in the NBA, Caitlin Clark stands to make more than 12x the max WNBA salary cap this year through endorsement deals alone. With the lack of coverage of WNBA sports, the NIL opportunities also yield less than NCAA. Of course that could change if the media decides to increase coverage of games and promotion of star players like Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, and Jewel Lloyd. It’s possible the 2024 women’s NCAA Championship and Caitlin Clark’s profile will lead to a boost in WNBA coverage.

In 2019, under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the starting salary in the WNBA was $41,965 (for players with under three years of experience) and maximum contract of $117,500 per year. Current WNBA minimum is $62,285 and maxes out at the “SuperMax” contract of $234,936, which is only earned by 3 players in the entire league. On the other hand NBA star Steph Curry will make more than $50M this year, so he hardly needs NIL contracts. On top of the limitations on individual contracts in the WNBA, there is a team salary cap that limits the amount of money a team can spend on player salaries in a given year. In 2023, this number was $1,420,500, meaning that a single NBA player could make more than 30x the amount that an ENTIRE TEAM was paid in the WNBA in a given year. The increased attention on women’s basketball needs to lead to a concerted campaign by the Women’s National Basketball Players Association – the players’ union – for pay parity across the sport. With beloved players like Caitlin Clark, Kate Martin, Kamilla Cardoso, Angel Reese, and Cameron Brink now drafted to the WNBA, a campaign like this could have mass appeal.

This Is An Organized Labor Issue

In an inspiring example, the Dartmouth Men’s basketball team recently voted 13-2 to unionize. The entire sports industry, from college to the professional level, needs a strong union movement to fight for equitable compensation, safe working conditions, and healthcare. The recent changes to the Transfer Portal, which allows college athletes to declare intention to transfer schools and play for a different team, means that athletes have more bargaining power with colleges. But even with this increased leverage, athletes still need a union to protect themselves from bad management and coaching. Pro athletes also need strong protections. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), the union that represents WNBA players, needs to step up their negotiating efforts to increase salaries and keep women’s basketball competitive at the highest levels.

College athletes are some of the most highly exploited workers in the sports world. The whole power dynamic of college sports makes most student athletes very vulnerable workers without a union. NIL deals offer some compensation, but only for the biggest names on the largest stages. College athletes should fight for union representation in order to bargain collectively for rights and adequate compensation. The last two years of March Madness shows that women’s sports are competitive with mens sports, as far as viewing and rating numbers. Now the WNBPA needs to fight for a contract that makes their pay competitive with men’s sports and for fair media coverage at the professional level! The NBA has a role of solidarity to play here as well. If NBA players refused to play unless the WNBA receives coverage as well as pay parity, that could strong-arm the networks into ending their refusal to meaningfully promote women’s basketball. 

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