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The WNBA’s Latest Pay Raise is an Opportunity, Not a Cure-all

The WNBA announced a $75 million raise and billion-dollar valuation. What it does with that money will paint the league’s future.

Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022 will go down as a significant day in WNBA history.

While teams around the league announced free agent signings, the league itself announced a $75 million funding round — the largest ever for a women’s professional sports league. The names behind the mammoth raise include Nike, Pau Gasol, Condoleeza Rice, and several NBA and WNBA team owners.

It can no longer be debated that there is a significant demand for professional women’s basketball and that many view it as a worthy investment. Smart, wealthy individuals from a variety of backgrounds have just proven that.

But exactly how significant this raise ends up being depends entirely on how the league decides to act in this pivotal moment.

The WNBA just celebrated its 25th anniversary campaign, one that concluded with a thrilling postseason and a cinderella champion in the sixth-seeded Chicago Sky. Ratings were up significantly, as was overall interest in the league, with new elements like the Commissioner’s Cup (though still a work in progress conceptually) giving the regular season added intrigue.

But with any league that’s still relatively young — for context, the NBA is a half-century older — the WNBA still has its issues. Those problems range from player compensation and benefits to fan support that is passionate, but needs a boost.

This raise can address many of those issues, but it will be up to commissioner Cathy Engelbert and her staff to make sure this influx of money can propel the W into a prolonged period of growth.

Here’s what the WNBA outlined in its announcement and what Engelbert added to during a media availability later on Thursday.

Marketing

One of the WNBA’s key snags over the years has been, quite simply, a lack of representation in media, advertising, and day-to-day coverage. While a lot of this is related to backwards-thinking executives who assume there’s no interest in women’s sports or have no interest in trying to develop an audience, the league is increasingly able to do more to help itself.

Engelbert emphasized the need to help players grow their personal brands — and not just in the United States, but around the world. She even hinted at the possibility of games in the future played outside of the US as the WNBA courts more global sponsors.

But in terms of how this influx of money would help to grow the league’s audience, the commissioner remained vague, citing the league’s new chief growth officer, Colie Edison, as someone tasked with growing the WNBA’s digital marketing presence.

“We’re really going to double down on everything that interfaces with our fans and make sure we’re agile and we’re self-sufficient and we have a heightened focus on acquiring and retaining, engaging fans,” she said.

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Fan Engagement

The WNBA needs to make it easier for fans to show their support. The extreme demand for fan jerseys has not matched up with a disappointing lack of supply, and though the WNBA has taken steps to remedy this — including announcing a deal with DICK’s Sporting Goods — supply chain issues have the league lagging behind.

In addition, Engelbert cited simple supply-and-demand issues. For example, a player blowing up early in the season and suddenly fans wanting her jersey, but without distributors prepared to deliver. She says the WNBA needs to be better at gauging what fans are interested in.

“We’re going to use some of the capital to invest in some technology as we think about a fan-facing, one-portal mosaic where everybody can go and figure out what they want, and then we have to be better at the supply-and-demand side,” she said.

But fan engagement goes further than making sure jerseys are available for purchase. The WNBA also wants to improve the quality of its broadcasts, aiming to optimize them for a younger-skewing audience. Engelbert mentioned ensuring the broadcast is suited for both larger and secondary screens, then suggested player wearables as a way to enhance viewers’ understanding.

She also acknowledged all the extras that come with being a WNBA fan, namely esports, fantasy, and trivia. How can those experiences be enhanced, both from a broadcast perspective and in-arena?

The over-arching theme here, as Englebert says, is “how do we make it easy to be a fan?”

Player Accommodations

If you were hoping for this investment to lead to an immediate improvement in player accommodations, you might be disappointed. Though the new CBA presented improvements to player salaries and gave them additional opportunities to earn bonuses, their actual earnings fall woefully short of their worth. From a PR perspective, seeing players complain about having to fly commercial when men’s professional sports leagues — and many high-level colleges — charter planes, is just as bad a look.

Engelbert seemed to throw cold water on the idea that the players would benefit directly from this investment outside of, perhaps, more marketing opportunities.

“This is an expense that is very high,” she said of chartered flights. “We’d love to do it, but that’s why we’ve got to deploy this capital. We need to have some growth and then hopefully longer term we’ll be able to afford more around this area.”

As for player salaries, she had a similar response, suggesting that the real benefits of this investment might not be felt for several years, when the league expects to see higher revenues as a result.

“We’ll continue to work on this,” Engelbert said. “But I think this is something where you look at what we’re trying to do to raise the profile of the players, to build them into household names, to build rivalries so more people watch — more people watch, the better media rights fee deals we get. And that will all come ultimately back to player compensation longer term.”

In other words, players shouldn’t expect much to change in the immediate future. And as Engelbert outlined throughout her media availability, the goal now is to use the funds to set the league up for success in the future.

But with players speaking out on social media, superstars headed overseas to supplement their income, and fans waiting to be reached, she better hope it works.

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