Congratulations to the Minnesota Lynx. Now get out and support them

On Wednesday night the Minnesota Lynx won the WNBA title for the fourth time in seven years. According to MPR News, the Lynx are on their way to becoming the most successful franchise in Minnesota sports history and “Lindsay Whalen is the greatest athlete in the history of Minnesota sports”.

The gender pay gap in basketball

This may or may not be true. As an Englishman, my knowledge of basketball amounts to Nike Air Jordans, White Men Can’t Jump, and Space Jam. But one thing I do know is that Lindsay Whalen is highly unlikely to become one of the best remunerated athletes in the history of Minnesota sports.

As David Berri wrote of her teammate in Forbes recently,

This season, Sylvia Fowles led the WNBA in field goal percentage, finished second in rebounding per game, tied for second in blocks per game and ranked fifth in points per game. Her team — the Minnesota Lynx — also finished with the best record in the WNBA. For all this, Fowles was named league MVP.

According to Summit Hoops, Fowles was paid $109,000 for all she did in 2017. Meanwhile, Leandro Barbosa is scheduled to earn $500,000 from the Phoenix Suns in 2017-18. This past July, though, Barbosa was waived by the team. So Barbosa will be paid nearly five times what the WNBA MVP earned, and Barbosa won’t even play for the Suns.

This simple comparison suggests there is a substantial gender wage gap in professional basketball. 

It is certainly true that female basketball players are paid less than their male counterparts. We can also assume that its true that they put in just as much time and effort as their male counterparts.

But, when we’re talking about pay, it is not time and effort expended by the worker or player that matters. It is the amount of revenue they generate. And this is not the result of a sexist conspiracy, but of the choices of the public. As Berri notes,

According to a Forbes analysis, the NBA’s teams generated $5.9 billion in revenue in 2015-16. Similar analysis doesn’t seem to exist for the WNBA, but we do know its revenue is far lower. Therefore, it is not surprising the WNBA pays lower salaries…In 2017, the WNBA posted its highest attendance in six years. Total attendance in the WNBA’s 21st season was 1,574,078, with teams averaging 7,716 fans per game. This per game mark is more than 10,000 fans below the per game mark seen in the NBA in 2016-17.

TV viewership tells a similar story. In 2015, the WNBA averaged 202,000 viewers on ESPN and ESPN2. This season, NBA broadcasts averaged around five times that.

For all the time and effort the Lynx put in, you, the public, are less willing to watch them play and less willing to buy merchandise with Lindsay Whalen’s name on it. This lowers the value of these players to potential sponsors.

So how can we reward the Lynx? 

Happily, if this gender pay gap bothers you there a few things you can do to help the Lynx out. And, given their winning play, you might even enjoy it.

Go to a game. Watch them on TV. Buy a cap or a T shirt with Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, or Lindsay Whalen’s name on them. Increase the value of these players to their employers by getting behind them. That way, you’ll increase their wages. And, along the way, you’ll see a Minnesota franchise actually win something.

John Phelan is an economist at Center of the American Experiment.