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Caitlin Clark’s Salary Isn’t an Injustice
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Caitlin Clark’s Salary Isn’t an Injustice

It’s the economic reality of playing in front of 4,067 people in Indianapolis.

Caitlin Clark poses with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert after being selected first overall pick by the Indiana Fever during the 2024 WNBA Draft at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City on April 15, 2024. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The field of economics gives us pretty good answers to exactly one category of questions: economic questions. 

Aesthetic questions? Moral questions? Big-picture questions that provoke ultimate existential angst and cause one to wake up at 3:42 a.m. asking, “What’s the meaning of it all?” 

Not so much. Not that it would occur to Joe Biden.

Have you ever dribbled a basketball on the court of an otherwise empty basketball arena, and heard that weird, almost lonely echo as it reverberates through all that dark nothing and bounces off the concrete walls? That’s what it sounds like in our current president’s head when he thinks about economics. “Women in sports continue to push new boundaries and inspire us all,” one of his staffers tweeted from his account on Tuesday, responding to the outrage of the week. “But right now we’re seeing that even if you’re the best, women are not paid their fair share.”

There is, however, an economic answer to the question of why Caitlin Clark, the University of Iowa standout and first overall pick in Monday’s WNBA draft, will make an annual salary of only around $77,000 compared to the $12.1 million or so that Victor Wembanyama, the first overall pick in last year’s NBA draft, made this season. That reason is the number 4,067, which is the average attendance at games hosted by Clark’s new team, the Indiana Fever, and the number 40, which is how many games the Indiana Fever will play during the upcoming WNBA regular season. For Wembanyama and his San Antonio Spurs, those numbers are 18,110 and 82, respectively—with average ticket prices far greater than the $41 Fever fans paid in 2021. Add in the fact that the NBA is reportedly poised to sign a TV rights deal this summer worth between $60 billion and $72 billion over a multi-year period and the reason for the discrepancy becomes even clearer.

Total WNBA revenue in the coming season is projected to be around $200 million, which is a nice bit of money—but NBA revenue is 52.5 times that, about $10.5 billion. For comparison, consider: The most successful car salesman in Poughkeepsie makes a pretty good living, but the most successful car salesman in Los Angeles has private-jet money—not because he is necessarily a better car salesman, or because he has an Ivy League MBA, or because he puts in more hours, but because he is at the top of a much bigger market. A pretty good actor in Hollywood makes a heck of a lot more money than the best actor in Copenhagen, which is why we have all those people named Mikkelsen and Mortensen running around in the California sunshine to which Danes must adapt with some difficulty. As it happens, there isn’t technically any rule that says Caitlin Clark has to play in the WNBA instead of the NBA. She could always go take Nikola Jokic’s job.

If she could take Nikola Jokic’s job. 

As an economic question, what a thing is worth is what you can sell it for. That’s it. For $40, you can buy yourself a pound of pretty good coffee, a nicely bound King James Bible, a really nice pair of socks, The Oxford Shakespeare, or a year’s subscription to Hustler. These are morally and aesthetically dissimilar items, but $40 is $40 is $40. It is the word “worth” that throws people off—they think it means something other than “price,” which, in the context here under consideration, it doesn’t. 

An hour of labor—or a year of labor—is like a pound of coffee or a book or a pair of socks. What it is worth does not have anything to do with the virtue, education, or rarity of the laborer. A person who can accurately and artistically translate The Ramayana into Shoshoni has a rare skill requiring a great deal of education exemplifying true scholarly virtue, but he or she is going to make less money doing it than poor old Caitlin Clark is going to earn playing a child’s game in front of small drunk crowds at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The market for Sanskrit epics in Shoshoni is even smaller than the market for women’s professional basketball. At the top of her game, Simone Biles had a pretty good claim to being the greatest athlete of either sex then competing, but there isn’t a lot of money in gymnastics, and, even with her endorsements, her husband probably is going to make at least as much money as a workaday player in the NFL. 

Maybe you think people’s interests should be different from what they are. I know I do. I think J.S. Bach should sell more albums than Taylor Swift and that people should get more excited about a new production of Coriolanus than they did for the second installment of Dune. I think typographers and luthiers and people who play the viola da gamba should be in greater demand than pornographers and meth cooks and Sohrab Ahmari. So what? The relative wage scales at work are not a matter of justice, only a matter of economics. 

But is it unfair that women’s basketball pays less than the NBA? I don’t see why. Editors of women’s fashion magazines make a lot more money and are a lot more powerful in their industry than are editors of men’s fashion magazines, who often are obliged, as in the case of GQ, to pretend that they aren’t editors of fashion magazines at all. You’ll find very, very few men on the list of the world’s highest-paid models; if Forbes is to be believed, the most successful of them earn around $1.5 million in a good year, as opposed to tens of millions for the top female models. Men who host daytime talk shows way under-earn their female counterparts. Female “influencers” outearn males in the same occupation. I could go on.

Where Clark—and every other WNBA player—has a potentially toothier complaint is that she is going to be paid less than her NBA counterpart as a share of league revenue. The WNBA and the NBA operate under very different revenue-sharing models: The NBA, long established and drowning in money, shares total revenue with players, while the WNBA, a relatively fledgling concern, shares revenue above a pretty high ceiling, presumably to allow for the reinvestment of funds in the future of what is, as Caitlin Clark knows, a relatively modest but growing business. The maturity of the market matters a great deal: At the top of his game, Wilt Chamberlain was making about the equivalent of $2 million a year in 2024 dollars—not quite twice the current minimum salary in the NBA. Fortunately, Clark is reportedly finalizing an eight-figure Nike endorsement deal—and a signature sneaker—to tide her over until gender justice finally descends upon the WNBA.

NBA players have spent decades fighting for better deals in their growing industry. No doubt WNBA players will have to do much the same. 

That isn’t injustice. That’s the economic reality of playing in front of 4,067 people in Indianapolis. And that’s between the players and the WNBA, not between the WNBA and Joe Biden.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.