A’ja Wilson has been in the WNBA for less than two months, but the Las Vegas Aces’ superstar center is already becoming a face of the league. She has won a Rookie of the Month award, she’s a lock to be named an All-Star for the first time, and she’s now stepping up as the voice of the players when it comes to pay inequality.
It started on July 1, when Wilson was out to dinner with her father and saw breaking news of NBA star LeBron James signing a free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. The specifics of the deal — four years, $154 million — were enough to make Wilson shake her head and pick up her phone.
She tweeted a quick message and sparked a huge debate:
Wilson’s seemingly reasonable take was met with responses that covered the spectrum: Some fans supported her, some non-fans mocked her, some NBA stars showed support, some media types tried to punch holes in her argument. It ignited such a wide-ranging public conversation that Wilson now finds herself the de facto spokesperson for the issue of fair pay in women’s sports.
Wilson said she didn’t expect such a big response, but she’s happy her tweet got so many people talking.
“This is the first time I’ve actually used my platform in this way to express the way I’m feeling, and to express how we’re all feeling,” Wilson said. “I wasn’t expecting it to blow up, but I’m glad it has. People who know me off the court know I express what’s on my mind, and I can also take the heat.”
Wilson didn’t just take the heat, she dished it out as well. She spent much of the following week engaging in conversation via social media, responding to questions and comments and trying to change minds. And when it was called for, she didn’t hold back from applying a little attitude:
Wilson’s biggest concern was making sure her message was not distorted in the process.
“I love LeBron,” Wilson said. “He’s worth every penny, nickel and dime, and he does good with it. I’ve got nothing against it. It’s just me, thinking about myself as a professional athlete, thinking, ‘Damn, it’s out there, how can we get it as well?’ Not necessarily his number, his contract, even though people made it seem that way… For the women, the respect factor is the biggest thing. We don’t really get the respect we need. It’s not the fans, it’s other people that don’t follow the league. You saw that when I tweeted it out, I got a bunch of men saying, ‘Get back in the kitchen, you don’t deserve to be making [millions] like LeBron,’ totally missing the fact of what’s being said. The league is trying to push not just equal pay but respect. I’m not going to have someone telling me I’m not doing my job or I don’t deserve more.”
There is an enormous disparity between salaries in the two leagues. The NBA’s highest-paid player for the 2017-18 season was Golden State guard Stephen Curry, who made $34.6 million. The maximum salary for a WNBA veteran is capped at $115,500.
As the No. 1 overall pick in April’s WNBA draft, Wilson was slotted into a first-year salary of $52,564. The NBA’s most recent No. 1 pick, Phoenix Suns big man DeAndre Ayton, is slated to make more than $8.1 million this year.
Both Wilson and Aces teammate Kayla McBride concede it’s not realistic to shoot for as much total salary as the NBA, as the men’s league brings in a lot more money through ticket sales, apparel sales, broadcasting rights and other revenue streams. According to Forbes, the NBA’s 30 teams earned $7.36 billion in revenue for the 2016-17 season, while the magazine estimated the WNBA’s revenue for 2017 to be around $52.4 million. So reaching the LeBron and Steph stratosphere when it comes to total contract dollars is not feasible.
What Wilson and McBride (and most of the WNBA players) take issue with is how that revenue is being distributed. While the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association mandates that 50 percent of league revenue be distributed to the players, the WNBA’s players receive less than 22 percent of league revenue.
Wilson’s tweet may have turned up the volume on the conversation, but the issue itself is not new. McBride said the revenue split makes for regular locker-room conversation among players.
“It’s a major topic,” McBride said. “It usually starts off when we’re talking about overseas. The reality of our situation is that’s where we make our money, so it starts there, like, ‘Are you going overseas this year?’ It starts there and it comes back to, ‘Man, I wish we made more money in the WNBA.’ We’re overseas more than we’re in America. So it’s not something we really set out to talk about, it’s just understood. Then when the numbers are thrown around — we only get 22 percent of our revenue, while the NBA gets 50 percent — then it sparks a conversation. That’s hard to hear.”
McBride, a fourth-year veteran who is averaging 18.9 points per game for the Aces this season, played for a club team in Turkey’s professional league over the winter.
WNBA players can vote to opt out of the current CBA after the 2019 season, and McBride sees that as the only way to increase the players’ share of revenues.
“Players are actually going to be able to vote to opt out of the CBA, so it’s important to understand what’s important,” McBride said. “Inform yourself on what we do have and what we don’t have as a league. Right now is the best time for us to come together to really move forward. We’re going to have to opt out, I think everybody knows that. I think that’s our best option.”
Despite her relatively new status as a star in the WNBA, Wilson wasn’t afraid to speak out. And McBride believes she speaks for most of the league.
“I think women’s basketball in general is growing, viewership is growing, popularity is growing,” McBride said. “Nobody is going to do it for us. We know more about it than anyone else can ever tell us. We live in this every single day. It may not happen within the next five years or 10 years, but it’s important for the girls coming up to be able to get their respect. We might get backlash for it, but we need women in this league willing to put it out there. We deserve respect. I think this was the perfect time for her to be speaking out.”
Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected] Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.