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Caitlin Clark’s pro salary exposes an undeniable economic reality separating the WNBA and NBA

It will take some time for the Caitlin Clark effect to be felt across the WNBA.

Clark enters the league as a budding superstar who is already widely recognized as having been the biggest figure in a sea change for women’s basketball. Shortly after she helped the NCAA women’s Final Four set broadcasting records, she went first overall in the WNBA draft, helping the event draw a bigger TV viewership than the most recent MLB and NHL drafts. Tickets for the Indiana Fever, who drafted Clark last weekend, are the hottest in the sport. Clark’s jersey has already sold out — though Dick’s Sporting Goods intends to sell her jerseys in all 724 of its locations once they’re back in stock, according to a report from the sports business analysts Sportico. Last year, it sold WNBA merch in only a fraction of its stores.

But even as women’s basketball surges broadly, Clark comes into a league that has faced steep financial shortcomings, leaving its players well short of being compensated at the levels of their male counterparts.

“It’s not good enough,” Nancy Lieberman, a Hall of Fame basketball player, Olympic gold medalist and NCAA champion, said in an interview. “It has to get better.”

It could take several years for all the crucial deals among players, the league, broadcast partners and other business interests to renegotiate the way money flows.

Right now, WNBA players remain locked into the collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, they signed in 2020, which dictates their overall pay terms.

Since the deal was signed, the revenue generated by the WNBA has grown — yet it still pales in comparison to those generated by the NBA.

Last year, a Bloomberg News report found the WNBA was projected to make $180 million to $200 million for the 2023 season.

A WNBA spokesperson declined to comment on the report, which NBC News hasn’t verified. The spokesperson also declined to discuss league financials.

The WNBA’s revenue compares with about $10 billion for the NBA in the season ending in 2022, the most recent year for which data is available.

The WNBA’s lower revenue is a key reason for the pay disparity between the leagues that has now drawn national headlines, and it is why rookies, including Clark, will earn a base salary of just $76,000 this season.

Of course, Clark will earn much more than that through outside sponsorship deals. And she is eligible for a suite of performance-based bonuses and marketing arrangements with her team, the Fever, and the league itself that are worth at least $500,000.

But that would still most likely be less than the NBA’s current league minimum of about $1 million. Technically, NBA rookies make slightly more than that. Players in the NBA’s lower-level G League are the exception; they typically earn a season salary of about $40,000.

The gap between male and female basketball players isn’t only about the level of pay.

NBA players enjoy about a 50-50 split of so-called basketball-related revenues — like broadcast money and jersey sales — with owners.

The CBA that WNBA players signed allowed for revenue sharing only if certain revenue thresholds were met. And so far, they’ve fallen short, a WNBA spokesperson confirmed.

WNBA players can opt out of their CBA after this season — and it’s likely that they will, given the enormous growth the women’s game had been experiencing even before Clark captured America’s attention.

The hope is that with Clark and other young stars entering the league, there will soon be more money and better terms for its players.

In particular, the WNBA is poised to negotiate a new set of broadcasting rights that will increase the value of the league — enough to the point that the revenue sharing threshold would become moot, assuming the thresholds even remain.

Ironically, the fate of the WNBA remains in the hands of the NBA, which controls more than 40% of the women’s league.

That’s why Terri Carmichael Jackson, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association executive director, has called on the NBA to put the WNBA front and center.

‘It’s time the NBA recognizes the indispensable role of WNBA players in shaping the league’s future success,’ Carmichael Jackson said in a statement to NBC News.

She continued: “They must acknowledge that valuing WNBA players and paying million-dollar salaries requires a stronger broadcast deal, one that absolutely necessitates players at the negotiating table to strengthen the business case and drive home their value.’

Asked for comment, an NBA spokesperson referred NBC News to the WNBA.

In a statement, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said: “We continue to find ways to return some of the growth we have been experiencing to the players beyond what the CBA requires,’ referring to the collective bargaining agreement.

We’re “increasing playoff bonuses by over 50% and providing a $4 million budgeted charter [flight] program for full playoffs, all back-to-backs requiring air travel, and the Commissioner Cup Championship Game,” Engelbert added.

WNBA players aren’t necessarily asking to be paid at the same levels as their NBA counterparts. Rather, as Las Vegas Aces star Kelsey Plum said on an episode of the Vegas-centric “The Residency Podcast,” “We’re asking to get paid the same percentage of revenue shared.”Lieberman, the Hall of Famer, said there has been unwillingness to make the kinds of investments necessary to put the game front and center, on TV or elsewhere.

‘Being the first, it can be very lonely,’ she said, adding that, in many cases, her success had come from decision-makers — mostly men — who had ‘taken a leap of faith.’

Lieberman’s comments echoed those of University of Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma, who was much more explicit in his criticism of the WNBA’s growth efforts.

“The WNBA is going to have to do a great job of marketing these guys,” he said at a news conference this month, referring to players like Clark and Huskies star Paige Bueckers. “And the WNBA I don’t think has done a great job of marketing their individual stars.”

This post appeared first on NBC NEWS

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