Women’s Basketball Shows Sports Disconnect for Amateurs

Economics Sports

New Orleans     I have nothing to add to the women’s basketball controversy that still hangs over LSU’s championship victory, where start forward Angel Reese has been blistered by some for the same things that Iowa’s star guard Caitlin Clark had done in the intense competition of the games.  Reese and Clark both agree that different standards were used to criticize Reese by outside commentators because of race, and there’s no question that was the situation, so case closed.  The only positive thing to come out of this dustup is the fact that perhaps it triggers a longer, deeper conversation about how non-white athletes in many sports are given short shrift compared to white players and teams.  We’ll see, but the other thing at play here is money, and that’s worth some conversation as well.

When the door opened a crack thanks to some courageous athletes and their legal and vocal protests to the iron rule and hypocrisy of the NCAA’s pretense that they were amateurs and could not be compensated outside a scholarship and the meals that are part of that package, they are now allowed to be paid for their likeness, appearances and promotions based on their talent.  Of course, the NCAA still has not thrown in the towel and continues to maintain much of the fiction that it’s alright for them and the universities to make billions while the players make pennies or less while providing the product and taking all the risks with none of the reward.  This wall is crumbling, though, and part of the reason lies in the sad economics of women’s basketball.

The WNBA, Women’s National Basketball Association, had its draft yesterday.  Aliyah Boston, South Carolina’s star, was the number one pick.  Given the size of the league with only 144 total players, there were only 36 draft picks, and only about half of those players will be on rosters this next season.  Others who are graduating will have to play elsewhere around the world, which even WNBA stars do regularly to make more money off season, as was crystal clear in the arrest of the great star Brittney Grinder and her Russian saga.  According to the Times, “the base pay for rookies this season will range from $62,285 to $74,305, depending on the draft round.”

Here’s the rub in a nutshell.  Many star women athletes will stay in school because they can now make more money with endorsements and promotions in college than they will make in the pros.  If you are Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, why would you be in a hurry to turn pro when you can play in front of 14,000 fans every home game rather than the less than 2000 average gate for a WNBA game and make more to boot?  Heck, there’s a gymnast for the women’s LSU squad who isn’t even the best of the lot, but who has monetized herself and her sport to put hundreds of thousands of dollars in her pocket as an athlete and influencer.

Don’t get me wrong.  Not everyone can do that and most will never collect a dime for their time and their sport, but as these anomalies spread to other women’s and men’s sports, the walls will keep crumbling beneath the autocratic NCAA and its fabrications.  The NBA pays plenty for one-and-done players from schools, but as the money gets better for college players, they might wait, especially since most players are not generational talents.  Just maybe that could spread to football, baseball and the rest.

Right now universities in the big time sports, outside discriminatory barriers like those for women’s basketball players, just can’t compete with the cash the pros are offering.  The women may be delivering a message though to the universities that they need to do more to pay for the play and up their game to compete to keep players in school, rather than just serving as minor leagues for the pros.  If so, the fiction around big time college athletes being free labor might finally confront the realities of the free market, another fiction they so dearly love as they embrace their monopoly power.