Is Clark taking a pay cut? Diving into the WNBA salary debate

With Caitlin Clark entering the WNBA, there has been a huge uproar over her salary, but Clark is in fact getting a pay raise.

Pull up a chair, grab a cup of piping hot tea, and prepare to step down from your soap box. The WNBA salary issue isn’t actually as bad as you think it is.

Hold up. I know that sounds awful. Are these WNBA athletes grossly underpaid in comparison to other leagues, and men’s athletes? YES. Yet, the idea that their WNBA salary makes up 100% of their income and they are scrounging their dimes together is also false.

Let’s dive into WHY the WNBA salary is what it is, why leaving college does NOT mean a pay cut, and where the league goes from here.

The Old Model: Year-round hoops

The WNBA has always been an extremely exclusive league to make it into. With 12 teams, and 12 roster spots per team, there are currently only 144 players in the league at most. Only the best of the best women’s basketball players are in this league, yet the WNBA was their “summer gig.”

10 years ago, when the 2014 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the WNBPA (the players’ union) and the league was signed, the max salary a WNBA player could make was $107,500 USD. In 2024, the three highest paid players in the WNBA (Jewell Loyd, Arike Ogunbowale, and Kahleah Copper) make $241,984 per season.

It’s still not a lot in comparison the NBA, but people forget that even 10 years ago, the WNBA was not the sole source of income for these players.

Women’s basketball players often don’t get any time off from when they step on the court for their senior season in college, to years into their career. From college, they get drafted into the WNBA weeks later, and go right into training camp. The WNBA season stretches through the summer, and by the fall a lot of players are already taking off to Europe, Asia, or Australia to play the winter season. The cycle repeats when they return to the WNBA the following summer

For decades, these players have played year-round for a multitude of reasons. The first is money – these international basketball leagues pay VERY well. Another reason is the access to playing time, as many young players in the WNBA won’t get many minutes and spend the offseason honing their skills internationally. Also, if you stay in the US for the offseason, you are responsible for paying the people who train you – if you’re on another team through the winter, not only are they paying you, but you get access to the facilities, treatment, and equipment all year round.

It’s still the method of many WNBA players to this day. The current WNBA rookie salary is $76,535 – an increase from the $38,150 they got 10 years ago, but still not big cash. If you’re new, need more minutes before you’re a guaranteed WNBA talent, or just want to, those international leagues are great.

Yet, the players have started to shift into the new method – staying in the US during the offseason to train, work other jobs, or just take time off.

A New Era: Staying Stateside

The reason WNBA players are able to stay in the United States (or Canada) during the offseason is because of increased opportunities for them to make money here. Some of them take offseason jobs ad broadcast analysts for NBA teams – Kia Nurse of the LA Sparks for example, works the Toronto Raptors broadcast.

Others take jobs in college programs as assistant coaches or development managers for college athletes, and some of them work on NBA coaching staffs. The majority of players staying in the United States are still working during the offseason, just not playing basketball. This allows them to train, rest their bodies, and still make a steady income.

Then, there is another small group of WNBA players – the ones who make all their offseason money through endorsement deals and media appearances. The league started an initiative a few years ago to allocate money towards players who stayed stateside in the offseason to pay them for media opportunities. There are also the big name players – the Breanna Stewarts, Sabrina Ionescus, and now the Caitlin Clarks – who make so much money through their endorsements that they just don’t need to think about playing in the offseason.

Caitlin Clark isn’t taking a pay cut

See, the argument that Caitlin Clark is taking a pay cut by entering the WNBA instead of staying in college is dead wrong. As a college student, Clark got a full ride scholarship to the University of Iowa, where she got a degree in marketing, but she did NOT get paid a salary to play there.

It was only a few years ago that the NCAA starting allowing college players, who again, were making NO money for playing at that level, to make money on their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). From there, players started making money through these deals with companies like Nike, Under Armour, or even local companies in their communities.

So yes, Caitlin Clark made a lot of money in college as the face of Nike, Gatorade, State Farm and everywhere else, but she never made a base salary. Now in the WNBA, those companies that endorsed her in college are only going to start paying her MORE money (like Nike signing her to an eight-figure deal with a signature shoe thrown in there), other companies will endorse her, AND she will make her base WNBA salary.

Sure, in comparison to the millions of dollars Nike is throwing her, the measly $70K of her salary doesn’t mean that much, but the point here is that she’s making a lot of money. More than she made in college.

Not every WNBA player has the luxury of these big endorsement deals, but they are getting more and more common. Players are able to take a break more now because they have other avenues of money coming in to support them, and their training, in the offseason.

Giving the WNBA room to grow

As the popularity of the WNBA grows, companies start investing more money into the league. Media/television deals start getting bigger, ticket sales increase, merchandise sales increase. Through all of this, the WNBA salary will eventually begin to increase as well.

People need to realize that you can’t just decide one day that WNBA players will get a pay raise. A Collective Bargaining Agreement is a tricky thing that takes months to negotiate, with so many points of contention to argue over. It’s the reason chartered flights aren’t a part of the WNBA yet, because it’s not in the CBA.

The current CBA, while not being all that great in terms of overall salary or flights, has a lot of great parts. For example, WNBA players get 100% of their salary if they sit out a season due to pregnancy. They also negotiated a yearly percentage increase of the team’s overall salary cap.

The good news is that the CBA can be re-negotiated as soon as this coming offseason. With the exponential growth of the WNBA in the time since the last agreement was signed, there will be a ton for the players to bring to the table this time around. Salary and flights are just the beginning.

While it’s great people are getting riled up about these issues in the WNBA and women’s sports, they need to realize that growth takes time. The NBA took decades to become what it is today. The WNBA is less than 30 years old, and the growing popularity of women’s sports is a mere few years old.

Keep showing up, and the numbers will grow.

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