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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Clark helps to teach economics

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: April 20, 2024, 6:02am

When it comes to basketball, maybe Caitlin Clark can do everything.

The compelling University of Iowa star just wrapped up her college career and became the No. 1 selection in the WNBA Draft. She led her team to the national championship game two years in a row. She became college basketball’s all-time leading scorer and led the nation in assists this year — a breadth of skill that is kind of like an R&B icon having the No. 1 country music album.

Along the way, Clark has become the most famous women’s basketball player we’ve ever seen. Iowa’s championship-game loss to South Carolina had significantly higher TV viewership than the men’s title game the following night.

But what, perhaps, is most remarkable about Clark is that she has unwittingly taught millions of Americans a lesson in simple economics.

For being drafted by the Indiana Fever as the No. 1 overall pick, Clark is offered a contract that will pay her $76,535 in the first year of a four-year deal. She is expected to earn $97,582 for the final year of the contract. That is a result of the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement.

Critics have pointed out that Victor Wembanyama, who was selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the first pick in last year’s NBA draft, signed a four-year deal worth $55 million. And those critics blame gender inequity for the disparity. Even President Joe Biden weighed in, writing on X: “Women in sports continue to push new boundaries and inspire us all. But right now we’re seeing that even if you’re the best, women are not paid their fair share.”

And that is where the lessons about economics and capitalism come in.

Because the NBA, with 30 teams, annually generates more than $10 billion in revenue. With massive TV contracts and sky-high ticket prices and global merchandising agreements, the league brings in more money than Burger King and Taco Bell combined.

The WNBA, the world’s premier women’s basketball league, has 12 teams and generates approximately $200 million in annual revenue.

To break it down, the NBA brings in more than $22 million per player, considering that teams are allowed to have 15 players on a roster. The WNBA generates about $1.4 million for each player on a 12-person roster.

Clark’s basketball contract (aside from the millions she makes in endorsements) is dictated by a collective bargaining agreement forged between management and the players’ union. Is it fair? Is it just? Is it righteous when talking about an athlete who has generated unprecedented interest in her sport? That is for the union to hash out with management. Previous negotiations have landed on limited salaries for young players and a maximum of about $250,000 for veterans.

The unprecedented attention that Clark carries with her might change that equation. It might lead her to demand more or threaten to take her ball and go home. Big3, a professional 3-on-3 league, reportedly offered her $5 million to play in eight games.

But it seems the outrage over Clark’s WNBA salary is misplaced. That’s because, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women working full time in 2023 earned 83.6 percent of what men made in 2023. That percentage is essentially unchanged since 1994.

Gender inequity is real and it’s pervasive, and it extends beyond comparing Caitlin Clark to a men’s league where the average salary is more than $10 million. Because there is no comparison.

Instead of focusing on professional sports, where a miniscule percentage of aspirants get hired, critics should focus on, say, personal financial advisers. There, according to Forbes, men are paid an average of 58 percent more than women. Or on school bus drivers, where men are paid 46 percent more. Or on the recreation industry, where men are paid 40 percent more.

Meanwhile, the WNBA gets a rookie season of Caitlin Clark for $76,535. In terms of attention and attendance, she’ll be worth every penny.