Jul 15, 2023; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Team Stewart guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) celebrates after scoring a four-point shot against Team Wilson during the first half in the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game at Michelob Ultra Arena. Mandatory Credit: Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018, David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University, penned an article for Forbes that criticized revenue sharing practices in the WNBA. According to Berri, female professional basketball players receive roughly 25% of revenue from the league while NBA players receive 50%. Although Forbes didn’t investigate league financials, Berri noted in his piece that “a ‘conservative figure’ for WNBA league revenue is $60 million” when factoring in multiple revenue streams like merchandise, ticket sales, and brand partnerships. 

“I knew what the television deal was,” Berri told Awful Announcing last week. “I knew what minimum ticket prices were. And so I threw out a figure. I said, 50 million, 60 million for league revenue.”

Considering that in 2018, the average salary for WNBA players was $77,878 Berri’s critique made a lot of sense. Some of the best basketball players not only in the country, but in the world, compete in the WNBA for a comfortable middle class salary. However, Berri recently learned that the low wages for WNBA players were far more egregious than he previously estimated.

“A Bloomberg reporter reached out to me about 4 months ago and said that my figure is way off.” Berri said. “In 2019 WNBA revenue was 100 million. And today it’s closer to 200.”

Growth in Women’s Sports Across the Board

Increasing revenue trends in the WNBA mirror broader trends in women’s athletics across sports and leagues. The 2023 Women’s World Cup is estimated to generate $500 million in July and August. The Women’s College World Series experiences viewership growth every year in spite of minimal marketing and its small in-person venue. This past season’s women’s March Madness final on ABC shattered previous viewership records, averaging nearly 10 million viewers and peaking at 12.6 million while star college players secured six figure NIL deals. And this year’s WNBA All-Star Game garnered 16% more viewers than last year in its first-ever primetime slot on ABC.

Women’s sports fans, like Berri, aren’t particularly surprised by these numbers. “It’s growing tremendously,” he said of the WNBA, “and you can see that in the television numbers, social media numbers, but also just the revenue numbers. And that’s exactly what you’d expect given that [the WNBA is] in its 27th year.”

While 27 years might seem like a long time for a business to grow, sports business operates on a different timeline than most businesses. But Berri believes that the best is yet to come.

“This would be the NBA around 1973-74,” Berri explained of the current state of the WNBA. “And the NBA really takes off like 10 years later.”

Compared to men’s leagues like Major League Baseball and the National Football League, the NBA had a late start in the professional sports landscape with its inaugural season tipping off in 1946, decades before the shot clock and three-point line were even implemented in the game. The new league also faced plenty of competition from established leagues and had trouble getting off the ground–so much so that 4 of the 11 inaugural franchises folded after a single season. In 1948, the NBA had to cut its 60-game season down to 48 games to save money.

Berri notes that budding professional sports leagues, like the early NBA and current WNBA, face unique challenges that simply don’t exist at other levels. “It usually takes two to three decades for a [professional] league to gain an audience,” Berri explained. “Because unlike college sports or national teams, there is no such thing as a Washington Mystic. So you’re asking someone to develop an emotional attachment to something imaginary.”

For women’s leagues, these challenges are amplified by the inherent sexism in the American sports industry, which is dominated by white men, not only in coaching and executive roles, but in the investor space. “The primary investors in sports are going to be men because in order to invest in sports you typically have to be phenomenally wealthy,” Berri explained. “If you go through the list of Fortune 500 or the Forbes richest 500 people they’re almost all white males. There’s not very many non-white males who are fabulously wealthy–and it turns out white males like to invest in men’s sports.” 

This is one of the reasons why Berri believes leagues like Major League Soccer receive so much monetary investment in spite of lackluster television ratings. MLS just announced a new $205 million per year deal with Apple TV,  even though over half the teams lose money every year

MIAMI, FL – FEBRUARY 05: Commissioner Don Garber, David Beckham and Mayor Carlos Gimenez attends a press conference to announce their plans to launch a new Major League Soccer franchise at PAMM Art Museum on February 5, 2014 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Aaron Davidson/Getty Images)

“That’s what they like,” Berri explained, “and so they’ll put up 300 million dollars for a Major League Soccer team that’s going nowhere.” 

Because sports comprise so much of fan identity, men’s sport’s leagues also carry the advantage of representation in a male-dominated industry. According to Berri, the main appeal of wealthy men investing in sports teams is the hands-on experience that only exorbitant amounts of money can buy. 

“They identify with the male athlete,” Berri said. “So when Jerry Jones is sitting up there watching his Cowboys play, to him, he’s the same as every other fan. He’s living his life in the Cowboys. When those same men buy, you know, the Washington Mystics… well, it’s just an investment. They’re not making the same emotional connection to the athlete so therefore they don’t put up the same money and they don’t care as much.”

Historically, money and patience are of the essence when it comes to investing in sports franchises. Although the NFL is a powerhouse league today, it nearly folded in the 1930s when upwards of 90% of teams went out of business due to financial constraints and the Great Depression. Over the league’s history, 49 franchises have closed down and teams as iconic as the Packers lost money through the 1950s. In spite of the NFL being a multibillion dollar business today, it was an investment that seemed foolish in the beginning. 

“Despite that, Art Rooney steps forward in the middle of the Great Depression and says ‘I want a team in Pittsburgh,’ which has 40% unemployment,” Berri said. “And it’s like ‘why would you do that?’ So, the first initial investment is stupid. But he deeply loves football and he wants to have his own team. So he does this. He just keeps pumping his money into the Steelers year after year after year.”

Not only that, but the Steelers weren’t even remotely successful for much of Rooney’s tenure. But he persisted in his investment in the team in spite of losing $100,000 (or over $2,000,000 today) in his first seven years as owner and eventually saw success on the field in 1972 when the Steelers won their first playoff game against the Raiders. In 2022, the Steelers were valued at $3.975 billion. 

According to Berri, persistence is the key to success in sports investment. “You have to have that level of emotional commitment where you’re like, ‘I’m not winning and I don’t even probably know how to make a winner but I’m gonna keep throwing money at this anyways, cause I love this.’ And that’s what’s missing [in the WNBA] is that you don’t see that consistently.”

The same could be said across the board in women’s professional sports. National Pro Fastpitch, a professional softball league, lasted from 2004 to 2021, just shy of Berri’s two-decade mark for sports investments. More recently, the Premier Hockey Federation, the women’s equivalent of the National Hockey League, ceased operations this past June after only eight years in operation. Although new leagues in both sports are launching, rebranding puts them behind.

“It’s gonna be another 30 years for this to take off because nobody has any emotional attachment to these teams,” Berri said. “And they gave up on National Pro Fastpitch after all those years. You’re gonna do those years again.”

The same happened in women’s professional basketball just before the WNBA took off. In 1978, the Women’s Professional Basketball League began operations, launching on the heels of Title IX increasing popularity in women’s college basketball. However, the league was short-lived, lasting only three seasons before shutting down in 1981. The WNBA launched 19 years after the WPBL did and it’s impossible not to wonder what women’s professional basketball would look like today had the industry persisted with nearly two additional decades of marketing and history behind it. 

For Berri, this is one of the reasons that female basketball players like Caitlin Clark are so often compared to their male counterparts like Steph Curry: casual women’s basketball fans lack the history that is necessary to draw adequate comparisons in the same league. 

“If the Women’s Professional Basketball League would have kept going, that league would now be 45 years old,” Berri said. “It would be huge. And everybody today would look at Arike [Ogunbowale] and look at [WPBL leading scorer] Molly Bolin, and go ‘same player’ because Molly Bolin is exactly like Arike.”

How the W Can Ensure Growth

WNBA All-Star Game
Mandatory Credit: Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

That the WNBA is persisting amid the annoying (and false) cries of “nobody cares about women’s sports” is a good start to securing the success of the league in future decades, even if there is more the league could do to ensure growth. League expansion is high on the list, but some players believe otherwise for legitimate reasons–another challenge for growing leagues. Earlier in July, Aces All-Star and WNBPA first vice president Kelsey Plum voiced her concerns about other areas of the league. 

“If you were to poll the players right now, and ask if they’d rather have expansion or charter [flights], I think it’s a pretty clear consensus across the board,”  Plum said during the All-Star Game’s news conference, implying that the players are more concerned with taking care of the athletes already in the league rather than taking on new ones.

It’s not that Plum is against expanding the league–she acknowledged its importance earlier in the press conference–but her concerns over player safety and its prioritization are valid. However, for Berri, chartering WNBA players would also contribute to the growth of the league. “Having weekly stories about you stranding players in airports doesn’t look good for you,” he said. “So you’re losing lots of money doing that. That’s a bad thing to do.”

Player safety in the WNBA has been in the news for all the wrong reasons for some time now. Mercury center Brittney Griner has made headlines since 2021 over these kinds of concerns for her safety, from her wrongful detainment in Russia to recently being harassed at an airport on her way to play in Dallas. According to Berri, adequately paying and funding players would not only ensure their safety and lessen the pressure to play abroad, but it would be good for the league overall–and these athletes shouldn’t have to choose. 

“They have money for all of those things,” Berri said of the WNBA, “so they could do charter flights, they could pay the players, they could solve all those problems. The problem is the WNBA is a partner with the NBA. The NBA owns half of the league.”

While this might sound like a dream of a partnership, it comes with its share of drawbacks as well, as the NBA exerts extensive control over the WNBA’s operations. “If the 12 WNBA owners say they want to do something and the NBA says no,” Atlanta Dream CEO Suzanne Abair told Global Sport Matters in June, “the answer is no.”

According to Berri, this level of control extends to many areas, including revenue-sharing. “The NBA completely controls the league,” he explained, “and the NBA has this weird thing where there are like ‘all the player salaries have to come out of localized team revenue like gate revenue, not the national broadcasting deal.’ Like, okay, that’s totally arbitrary. That there’s that nobody else does that way. The NFL doesn’t pay its players just out of gate revenue.”

Plum and other WNBA athletes have criticized this model as well as corrected misconceptions that they’re asking for multimillion dollar salaries. ““I don’t think I should get paid the same as LeBron,” Plum told The Residency Podcast last November. “But the percentage of revenue — like for example: they sell my jersey in Mandalay Bay, I don’t get a dime. So that’s the stuff we’re talking about.”

For Berri, correcting the WNBA’s operating logistics could not only enhance player safety and experience, it could launch the league to the level of prestige it deserves. 

For the WNBA to take the next step, the league must adopt the same vision [David] Stern had for the NBA,” Berri wrote in June. “The WNBA should aim to be the preeminent league in women’s professional basketball. It should make sure players from all over the world are paid enough to focus solely on the WNBA. It should also seek to expand across North America and make sure its players are known around the world.”

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.