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How Does Caitlin Clark’s WNBA Salary Compare in Sports? An analysis shows big gaps



The Athletic

After a generation of college in Iowa, Caitlin Clark began her professional career this week in Indiana, where the average college graduate earns $52,267 annually, according to the U.S. Census American Consumer Survey.

But Clark is not your average young professional.

She is one of the country’s biggest stars with major name recognition and commercial appeal as she joins the WNBA. She sells out arenas, lands a $28 million Nike endorsement deal and keeps ratings skyrocketing — and her professional potential has sparked widespread debate about the economics of women’s basketball.

In her first season with the Indiana Fever, she will modestly surpass the Indiana median with a salary of $76,535. Even considering the WNBA’s five-month season, it’s a pittance compared to many other athletes, especially those hyped for having the potential to change the trajectory of their sport.

Victor Wembanyama, the top pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, made $12.16 million in his first season, about 80 times more than Clark per game. The NFL’s No. 1 draft selection, Caleb Williams, will earn about $1 million in salary in 2024, plus a signing bonus that will pay him more than $7 million. Even Paul Skenes, who was the top pick in the 2023 MLB Draft but is far from a household name, signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates worth about $9.8 million, including a $9.2 million bonus.

The WNBA’s revenues lag far behind those of other major North American leagues. But Clark’s salary also lags behind that of professionals in niche sports such as bowling, surfing and bull riding.

The base salary for a contracted player in the Professional Pickleball Association is $75,000. The top five ranked players on the PPA Tour will receive an average of $1.5 million in prize money and payouts this year. Ten players in the Professional Bowlers Association earned more than Clark’s rookie salary last year. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association consisted of 25 bull riders whose salaries exceeded $76,535, with the top-ranked rider earning nearly Clark’s entire four-year contract worth ($338,056) in 2023 from National Finals Rodeo revenue.

Clark’s relatively small salary has become such a national conversation that even the president has weighed in.

A major difference between the WNBA and its counterparts in many other sports is that WNBA players earn a smaller share of league revenue. While NBA players have negotiated a 50-50 split of basketball-related revenue, WNBA salaries represented 9.3 percent of the league’s revenue in 2023. Kelsey Plum, the Las Vegas Aces star and first vice president of the players association, has repeatedly said that WNBA players want a bigger piece of the pie, not necessarily a raw salary increase. ‘We are not asking to be paid what the men are paid’ she said. “We are asking to receive the same percentage of shared revenue.”

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has reversed the story surrounding Clark’s reward. At the CNBC Changemakers Summit, Engelbert explained that Clark could earn up to half a million in WNBA wages by 2024. However, that additional compensation is contingent on utilizing team and league marketing agreements, earning individual awards and advancing the playoffs.

Nothing is guaranteed beyond her base salary, which resembles the paychecks seen in leagues much newer than the WNBA, which is in its 28th season. The No. 1 pick in the Pro Volleyball Federation, Asjia O’Neal, makes $60,000 in the PVF’s first season. The PWHL also pays its players an average of $55,000 in the first year. The newer leagues have said their sponsorship and media rights are important sources of revenue. But the WNBA is also attracting major sponsors, including Google, Nike and CarMax, and has signed rights deals with ESPN and Amazon.

Given the WNBA’s position in the major sports landscape, it may be unreasonable to compare Clark to Wembanyama, Williams or Skenes. But she is also simply surpassed by the lowest-paid NBA player with a two-way contract ($559,872), some NFL practice players ($12,000 per week minimum) and minimum salaries in the NHL ($750,000).

1. Future Olympian, 18, earned $80,000 winning one multi-day event this spring and totaled $219,000 in five events in 2024.

2. A Finnish pro finished 15th, earning $77,350 in prize money in 14 events and never finishing higher than third place in 2023.

3. According to Sports Business Journal, the Charlotte Hornets entertainer earns an annual salary of $100,000 – not even the highest among NBA mascots.

4. The Miami Marlins signed the 17-year-old catcher to a one-year contract worth $75,000 in the 2024 class. He has been assigned to the Dominican Summer League Marlins in the minor leagues.

5. The MLS midfielder earned a base salary of $75,325 in 2023, making him the 789th highest-paid player.

6. The Professional Pickleball League’s base prize money and payouts for a contracted player are approximately $75,000.

7. The golfer earned $78,414 by competing in 11 events (best finish tied for 23rd) in 2023.

8. Despite not competing in most competitions, the 20-year-old ranked No. 26 and earned $76,439 in 2023.

9. The chess grandmaster earned almost $80,000 for winning one tournament – ​​the Grand Swiss – in November 2023.

10. The Fortnite player ranks 481st worldwide in total earnings, winning $83,475 last year.

The WNBA’s current position in its evolution is often compared to when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the NBA, leading to a wave of popularity that the league has enjoyed for decades. When Bird was hired in 1978, he signed a five-year contract with an average annual value of $650,000 (that figure does not take inflation into account). Johnson’s average salary was $460,000 over his first five seasons.

WNBA advocates hope Clark can help foster similar rivalries, with rookies like Angel Reese of the Chicago Sky and countless other players bringing history into the NCAA Tournament and other matchups.

At a donor event in April, Southern California head coach Lindsey Gottlieb mentioned Clark’s salary as a reason to advocate for more funding for women’s college basketball. Although Clark and USC star JuJu Watkins have lucrative endorsements, Gottlieb said neither will “get her worth and value in terms of basketball.”

The hope for Clark and other WNBA players is that change is on the horizon. The league has historically struggled to maintain its financial position through investments. Over the past decade, even older franchises like the New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks have nearly gone bankrupt. Teams have lacked adequate practice facilities and players have often competed abroad to supplement their income.

Now, teams have become more competitive overall, and new ownership groups in Atlanta, Las Vegas, New York and Phoenix are aiming to make life in the WNBA more attractive, both fiscally and with perks. The WNBA has pursued more corporate partnerships and media deals to improve the value of the league. The league had an estimated $200 million in revenue by 2023, doubling the 2019 total. according to Chiney Ogwumike, former vice-president of the players’ association. The WNBA recently announced it will spend $25 million on charter flights over the next two seasons. And it hopes a new media rights deal – the current one, which brings in about $50 million combined from broadcast partners, expires in 2025 – will bring a fresh influx of cash.

Consider the NWSL’s new broadcast deal, which pays $60 million annually, up from the previous amount of $1.5 million, increasing the salary cap by 40 percent between 2023 and 2024. Now, several players’ contracts pay out the high six figures annually and are valued at seven. figures about their lives. No WNBA player has ever signed a contract worth more than a million dollars.

That million-dollar mark could fall before Clark signs her next deal. And yet, her salary may never reflect what other stars in similar positions get paid without a significant change in the WNBA’s finances.

(Visual data: Drew Jordan / The athletic; Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletics; Photos of Caitlin Simmers, Caitlin Clark, Hugo the Hornet, Charlotte Thomas, Sofiane Djeffal and Vidit Gujrathi: Aaron Hughes/Getty Images, Gregory Shamus/Getty Images, Matthew Grimes Jr. / Getty Images / Atlanta Braves, Meg Oliphant / Getty Images, Sofiane Djeffal / Getty Images, Vidit Gujrathi / Hindustan Times)