WNBA is improving but disparities still exist; South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, players make strides

The WNBA just completed its 25th anniversary season with a sentimental storyline finish. Native Chicagoan Candace Parker, a 14-year WNBA star, former Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, helped lead her hometown team, the Chicago Sky, to its first championship. Parker’s 16 points, 13 rebounds and five assists aided Allie Quigley’s 26 points, and the 80-74 win over the Phoenix Mercury concluded what’s been a pivotal and historic year for the league.

Coach Dawn Staley

Around the same time, the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees approved a new seven-year, $22.4 million contract for Coach Dawn Staley. It makes her the highest paid Black coach in women’s basketball. The deal, which will pay her $2.9 million this coming season, puts her on par with University of Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, who had been the highest-paid coach in women’s basketball. 

The WNBA signed a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with its players right before the season began. The contract runs from 2020 through 2027, though there’s an opt-out provision at the six year mark. It’s by far the best deal for any women’s sports leagues, though it certainly doesn’t compare to the NBA’s plush deal. Still, the pact includes a significant salary bump for the league’s highest-paid players, going from an annual base salary of $117,500 to $215,000.

Commissioner Engelbert

It also offers additional salary increases, changes to free agency, travel improvements, additional motherhood and family-planning benefits, enhanced marketing and career-development opportunities, and changes to revenue-sharing potential. “We believe it’s a groundbreaking and historic deal,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told the Associated Press on the day of the signing last January. “I’m proud of the players; they bargained hard, they unified, they brought attention to so many important topics.”

Some key points include the salary cap rising to $1.3 million per team. Players will receive full salary while on maternity leave, there’s an annual child care stipend of $5,000 and a guarantee of two-bedroom apartments for players with children. It’s the fifth CBA in the league’s history, and certainly the best from the standpoint of player empowerment and compensation. Another big deal is players who complete their contracts and have five or more years service in the league can become unrestricted free agents, with one exception. 

Any player tagged as a “core” player will still be subject to some restrictions. But a player can only be tagged as “core” three times, and that drops to two with the 2022 season. Commissioner Engelbert also said that the salary cap will increase by 3 percent years. Overall there’s a 53 percent increase in total cash compensation, consisting of base salary, additional performance bonuses, prize pools for newly created in-season competitions and team marketing deals. 

The league top players could earn over $500,000, which again doesn’t compare to top NBA salaries, but is more than triple the prior maximum compensation. Other high performance stars can earn between $200,000 and $300,000.  Travel status, another major player gripe, has also been improved. Under the new CBA, premium economy class status is guaranteed for all players during the regular season. Also, each player will get a hotel room, rather than some players sharing rooms. While the new CBA does include plenty of improvements, commissioner Engelbert is determined to improve the league’s status and place in the American pro sports universe. One thing she’s adamant about is not evaluating the WNBA by comparing it to the NBA, MLB, NFL or NHL. “It’s (current men’s leagues) a male model discounted by 80 to 90 percent,” she said.

Instead, she has a five-year plan that includes assembling a consortium of powerful stakeholders who don’t view the WNBA as the NBA’s “little sister.” Engelbert also has plans to prioritize marketing and merchandising, while looking hard at expansion, sports gambling and partnerships. And, she’s making the case for higher media rights fees.

“It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “I have a plan, and I’m already working on it.”

Improved salaries but still lagging behind NBA

Part of what makes her feel good about the league’s future is a 25 percent ratings increase this season for WNBA games. ESPN even placed a handful of games on ABC, and the league hopes to get even more coverage next season. ESPN and ESPN 2 provided the lion’s share of regular season and playoff broadcasts. Englebert also says increasing the value of WNBA teams is another high future priority. Still, overall the league seems headed for a bright future.

If women’s pro basketball has been fighting an uphill battle for respect and attention, women’s college basketball has faced an even tougher fight. Things boiled over last year when the inadequate lodging and questionable scheduling of games led coaches to call out the NCAA and demand equity.

One of the most vocal coaches was South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, a former All-American and All-Pro player as well as the victorious coach of the U.S. Olympic team and the longtime coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Prior to Staley’s arrival at South Carolina, women’s basketball was worse than a joke. But under Staley the Gamecocks have won one NCAA title and they reached the Final Four this past season.  
“Credit where it’s due,” Staley told USA Today. “This university and this state have a rich history of racism, and I’m not going to disregard that. But this is one of the most progressive decisions they’ve ever made. They need to be recognized for being committed to leading the way in gender equity in America. This is an equitable statement and in the midst of all our inequities in our country, I hope it’s a turning point.”Under the new contract, Staley’s base salary will be $1 million per year with outside compensation starting at $1.9 million in the first year and escalation by $100,000 per year thereafter. Her 2021-22 compensation begins at $2.9 million with the final year topping out at $3.5 million. The contract includes additional performance compensation opportunities up to $680,000 per year.

Staley didn’t mince words when she severely criticized NCAA officials about the stark differences in treatment and coverage between the men’s and women’s tournaments. She added that the injustices she saw were very much on her mind as she began contract negotiations. “I didn’t do this for me,” Staley said. “I am an advocate of equal pay and overall, this is a huge statement for women and for Black women — and not just in sports but all over the country — when you think about how much less they’re paid on the dollar compared to men.”

At 51, she’s not just one of the top women college basketball coaches, but one of the best in the game period. She’s taken the Gamecocks to three Final Fours in the last six tournaments, winning the title in 2017. Her teams are also huge draws, as South Carolina’s women frequently lead the nation in attendance, averaging more than 10,000 fans per game. Besides leading the U.S. Women’s team to the gold medal in Tokyo, Staley’s other personal exploits include being a three-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time winner of the Naismith Trophy, and induction into the Hall of Fame. 

“Dawn Staley is one of the nation’s top coaches, regardless of the sport,” said South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner in a statement. “She has built our women’s basketball program from the ground up, and her teams have produced champions, both on and off the floor. The ability to keep Coach Staley at the University of South Carolina is great news for all Gamecocks. I join with our fans in looking forward to seeing the great achievements her program will continue to produce in the future.”

Staley, a native of Philadelphia, PA, also doesn’t shy away from noting the importance of her new deal to other Black women coaches, and the Black community as a whole.  She is one of the most decorated players and coaches _ men or women _ in the history of the game. She knows this contract has the power to resonate, particularly in the Black community.

 “Too often when Black people are in these positions [of leadership] we’re afraid to risk it all,” Staley said. “But I was unfraid to lose. I was principled in my believe that, I’ve done enough … the money is the thing that pulls people in, it’s the highlighter, but for me, it’s about equity. It’s being able to know your worth, know you’re an asset to something and getting what you deserve. And it’s not a favor, it is earned.”“We have to keep fighting,” she said. “Now is the time for us to raise women’s sports to where they deservedly belong. It’s long overdue, but we’re moving in the right direction — and there’s momentum to sustain it.”

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