Caitlin Clark will earn 2% of the median NBA salary. Is that as ridiculous as it sounds?

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Caitlin Clark;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Caitlin Clark</a> (middle) will earn millions more in sponsorship than she will through salary. </span><span>Photograph: Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports</span>

The surest sign of a sports league on the rise is the arrival of a story about one player’s salary. And ever since it was reported that the biggest star in women’s college basketball, Caitlin Clark, will earn $338,000 over the next four years after turning professional in the WNBA, the foul cries have been coming from all corners.

“When I saw the numbers – $76,000 in the first year, $78,000 in the second year, $85,000 in the third year – for somebody who is now the face of women’s basketball, it seemed kind of ridiculous,” Today show host Hoda Kotb said. Even Dave Portnoy, majordomo of the proudly misogynistic Barstool Sports, seemed offended: he offered Clark $10m to play for his company’s hoops team. The incredulity went all the way to the top: Joe Biden posted on X that “it’s time that we give our daughters the same opportunities as our sons and ensure women are paid what they deserve.”

Clark’s salary isn’t just tiny compared with the $55m the NBA’s top rookie, Victor Wembanyama, will earn from his first contract, it’s half the amount she’d get working in the WNBA’s events department. WNBA players’ median (rather than mean) salary of $78,000 is just 2% of their NBA counterparts. The median may increase slightly when WNBA rookies are cut as the season starts but it’s still a Grand Canyon-sized pay divide compared to other skilled professions, where women can count on making (a still not ideal) two-thirds as much as men. At this same point in the NBA’s evolution – 28 years after its founding – the average player salary was around $90,000, or about $633,000 in today’s money. Perhaps worse, Clark – who broke pretty much every scoring record worth mentioning in college – will make slightly more in four years than the average male dentist makes in one.


That full-court chasm in basketball pay is why so many women play overseas during the WNBA offseason – a proposition made riskier since Brittney Griner was jailed in Russia and Israel went to war. And yet: for some of us who have followed the women’s game long enough to remember when Diana Taurasi, arguably the best pro of the past 20 years, made $40,000 her first year with the Phoenix Mercury (or about $66,000 in today’s money) and sat out the 2015 seasons to play in Russia for $1.5m, it’s hard not to see Clark’s lot as progress.

It’s also worth remembering that the NBA pulls in a lot more revenue than the WNBA, which has a trickle down effect for its players, because it had a 50-year head start on its sister league, the kind of age gap you only see at birthday parties among the De Niros and the Pacinos. All told, the NBA brings in more than $10bn a year, while the WNBA has a reported $200m in annual revenue, about four times as much as LeBron James alone made this past season with the Los Angeles Lakers – paying the likes of Clark anywhere near the amounts top NBA players earn would bankrupt the league quicker than a Las Vegas Aces fast break. Part of the disparity in revenue is down to the fact that the WNBA makes considerably less off its broadcast rights ($65m this year) than the NBA despite being among the most prized women’s TV sports properties for most of its history; their deal is effectively an afterthought within the NBA’s total broadcast package. Ticket revenues are also much less – average WNBA attendance last season was 6,615 compared with 18,324 in 2023-24 for the NBA, which also has more teams and games.

The WNBA divvies its money up differently than male-dominated US sports leagues. In the NBA, players receive a 50% cut of revenue; in the WNBA, players are only entitled to half of incremental revenue (read: the money the league makes that exceeds its growth targets) as well as half the revenue from sales of jerseys of specific players but, again, only after beating set sales targets. Disappointingly, WNBA players – unlike their NBA counterparts – don’t make additional income when franchises are sold or the league solicits outside investment for itself. “I don’t think I should get paid the same as LeBron,” Las Vegas Aces star Kelsey Plum said in a 2022 podcast interview. “But … for example: they sell my jersey in [Las Vegas hotel] Mandalay Bay, I don’t get a dime.” In a sense, Clark, whose No 22 Fever tunic is already the top-earning jersey ever for a draft pick, is already carrying in bags in ways the vets poised to browbeat her would have scarcely imagined.

Altogether, the WNBA is not unlike a middle class person who grew up poor but still pinches pennies to make sure they don’t end up back at square one. And the league has good reason to be cautious after a string of failures among its predecessors. Before then NBA commissioner David Stern willed “the W” into existence in 1996, a women’s pro league was perhaps the toughest sell in American sports. The Ladies Professional Basketball Association tipped off in 1980 with six teams and folded after a month. The Women’s American Basketball Association, another six-team league, expired after the 1984 season – which began with the Dallas Diamonds announcing a three-year contract with Nancy Lieberman, the Caitlin Clark of her day, worth $250,000.

The National Women’s Basketball Association, which came two years after, was one and done, too. The Women’s Basketball Association was the exception that lasted three full seasons, perhaps because it played during the summer when the NBA is on hiatus. After a Dream Team of USA women romped to gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Stern took his shot. “We are giving life to a concept that has been much discussed, much attempted, but that we feel is now ready to bloom,” he said. “It’s about time.”

The top players in the inaugural WNBA draft were much like this year’s crop, immensely popular and intensely followed: UConn’s Rebecca Lobo, USC’s Lisa Leslie and Texas Tech’s Sheryl Swoopes, a one-time Clark critic who was also the first ever women’s basketball player to land a shoe deal with Nike. The WNBA launched with eight teams and grew to 12, none validating the proof of concept quite like Swoopes’s Houston Comets – winners of the league’s first four championships. When the Comets were dissolved a decade later after the NBA’s Houston Rockets failed to spin off their sister franchise, it upended the WNBA’s patronage-based structure. The Seattle Storm were the outlier team that was independently operated and woman-owned, but even they would struggle for success despite playing in a fiercely loyal sports city that was desperate for basketball after the departure of its NBA team.

That said: it’s unlikely that the current college stars who enter the league after Clark – South Carolina’s MiLaysia Fulwiley, USC’s JuJu Watkins – will experience the same situation. The WNBA players’ union is expected to opt out of its current agreement with the league at the end of 2025, when the TV rights expire. And given the sharp uptick in ratings for the WNBA and college basketball, and the $240m the National Women’s Soccer League recently secured for its domestic TV rights, the WNBA is well positioned to name its own price for a standalone deal, separate from the NBA. That, plus the expansion franchises the league has planned for San Francisco and Toronto over the next two years, will surely help the players’ push for a true 50-50 split in revenue – at which point million-dollar salaries could become a league norm. Those numbers could swell even further if sports betting – whatever its ills – becomes a fixture of league revenues, too.

Even so, it’s not as if this year’s rookie class will be spearheading charity drives to help make ends meet. Last week WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert green lit charter flights for all teams, a persistent sticking point for (often very tall) veterans who have been crammed into commercial planes and nearly forfeited games because of delays. Last month the Storm became the second WNBA team to open its own practice facility – a $64m shrine to its workforce. What’s more, the Storm are the standard bearers for a league where seven out teams are independently run and all owners, not least the Aces’ Mark Davis, are deeply invested in the sport’s growth. Sponsorship is also becoming a lucrative area for the league’s biggest stars. Clark will earn $3m this year off the court; her Nike deal, worth a reported $28m, would trail only James and Kevin Durant’s in value. Less than a week after Clark followed in Swoopes’s footsteps, twice-reigning league champion and MVP A’ja Wilson announced her own Nike deal.

Yes, Clark’s lot looks grim in the context of gender equity in sport and US labor relations writ large. Given her play, personality and undeniable box office impact, there’s no question she deserves way more money. So too for that matter does her college rival Angel Reese, the LSU star turned Met Gala darling who helped Clark create this historic demand for women’s basketball, and the many dynamic veterans who continue to make the league a premier attraction.

Women’s basketball is changing, and at a good pace. If the present trajectory continues, it won’t be much longer before WNBA salaries mean that, at last, when stars get their teeth fixed they will be earning far more than the men who might treat them.