The WNBA’s Glass Ceiling


Published February 27th, 2019 - 02.27.1939


Since its inception as the best women’s basketball league in the world, the WNBA has been on a mission to empower young girls and women. WNBA teams pursue this mission through specific team-wide programs, such as the Atlanta Dream’s Inspiring Women campaign. As a league, the WNBA maintains women’s empowerment initiatives, such as its “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” campaign, which donates $5 from every ticket sold to one of six organizations that assist women, and provides a free WNBA game ticket to a young girl. Further, through their game play, WNBA players demonstrate to women and girls that they can achieve professional athletic success in basketball, just as men can.

It is surprising and disheartening then, that the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement contains a provision that limits its players’ professional success. The rule restricts the salaries players can earn in the off-season from certain employers. If a player accepts an off-season job with an employer owned under the same corporate umbrella as a WNBA team, the player may earn no more than $50,000. The employer must pay the player out of a $50,000 off-season salary bucket each team can allocate among its players. As applied, the rule creates serious gender equity issues. The rule forces WNBA players to factor a genuine salary calculus into offseason opportunities that their NBA counterparts do not. It also presents a barrier to lucrative and rare professional basketball coaching careers.

The issue with this provision came to light in October 2018, when the Washington Wizards offered Washington Mystics player Kristi Toliver a prominent job as an NBA assistant coach. Toliver accepted the job, one she called the “opportunity of a lifetime”, and one that would help her achieve a dream of coaching in the NBA. The job, taken during the WNBA’s off-season, also means that Toliver can experience an actual off-season. Since joining the league in 2009, Toliver has played basketball year-round, playing overseas during the WNBA off-season.

However, the CBA provision also means Toliver is giving up a substantial salary. The Wizards and the Mystics are owned under the same corporate umbrella. Therefore, Toliver’s coaching salary must come out of the $50,000 off-season salary bucket the Mystics can allocate to its players, a portion of which had already been promised to other Mystics players. So, for her work as an assistant coach in the NBA, Toliver earns only $10,000. To put that in perspective, NBA assistant coaches regularly earn six figure salaries, and sometimes earn more than $1 million per season. Last year, Toliver made over $500,000 playing overseas during the off-season.

At first glance, a rule restricting players’ off-season salary may seem unfair. The WNBA explains the rule is necessary to maintain the league’s competitive balance. The rule prevents a team with an NBA counterpart from offering sought-after players prestigious NBA jobs in exchange for the player signing with its WNBA team. The WNBA does not want a player to join a team due to the promise of a different job the team can offer. Additionally, the rule prevents a team from offering a player a lucrative contract for a role with the NBA team in exchange for the player signing a lower paying player contract with the team. In this way, the rule also prevents teams from circumventing the salary cap.

One could read the rule as justified in light of these competitive parity and salary cap considerations. One could also read the WNBA’s rule as an admission that it does not pay its players enough money. If it did, it would not fear its players being lured by large, non-player contracts for off-season jobs. Reasonable minds may also differ as to the effectiveness of these rules. However, the rule’s application to Toliver – and perhaps to future players – is undoubtedly unjust and should raise equal opportunity and equal pay concerns.

In November 2018, in a piece titled “The Glass Sideline”, Tim Struby reported that of the 2,600 coaches in the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS, and MLB, there were just 6 female coaches. That’s right – women comprised 0.23% of coaching positions among these five leagues. The WNBA CBA tells WNBA players they must factor an additional calculus when deciding whether to pursue these already rare opportunities: should you be among the few women to secure a coaching job, and the team offering the job also happens to own your WNBA team, you must consider whether you can forego a six-figure salary playing overseas, as well as the six-figure salary routinely paid to your peer coaches, and live off of a less-than-$50,000 salary for a season’s worth of grueling work and travel. This factor imposes an additional obstacle for women pursuing coaching positions.

In addition to creating an obstacle to coaching jobs by forcing WNBA players to consider salary in a way their non-WNBA prospective coaches do not need to, the WNBA’s CBA imposes conditions absent to their NBA counterparts. The NBA CBA does not restrict players’ off-season salaries to limited funds provided by each team. Perhaps the NBA does not similarly fear its players will be lured by off-season coaching opportunities because of its players’ average salaries: the NBA pays out about 50% of its revenues to its players, providing the average NBA player for the 2018–2019 season a $6.87 million salary. Stephen Curry earned the largest maximum contract for the 2018-2019 season, raking in $37,457,154 from the Golden State Warriors. On the other hand, the WNBA pays an estimated 20.4% of its revenue to its players, meaning the average WNBA player’s salary is less than $80,000. The maximum WNBA contract is between $115,000 and $117,500. Toliver will earn $115,000 playing in the WNBA in 2019. Or perhaps it is a function of different competitive balance concerns. Regardless of the reason, WNBA players must consider off-season salary in a way their NBA counterparts do not when pursuing coaching positions.

In November 2018, the WNBA Players Association announced it was opting out of the current CBA following the 2019 season, and for good reason. The WNBA and the Players Association have a number of pressing issues to negotiate. Players want full transparency into the league’s finances to improve the game and players’ quality of life. The parties will likely discuss improving travel conditions to prevent nightmare situations such as those that arose this past season, where flight delays forced the Las Vegas Aces to forfeit a game after traveling for 26 hours on commercial flights in order to play the Washington Mystics in a game with playoff implications.

The Players Association should also address the off-season salary cap that prevents Toliver from earning her fair wage. As applied, it creates a glass ceiling in the coaching industry by placing yet another obstacle in front of women who aspire to coach in the NBA. The WNBA and its players, through initiatives and through basketball, empower women and girls to achieve professional success in athletics and beyond. The players deserve a CBA that does the same.

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