This is the first article in a multi-part series on the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). We will be exploring the history of the league and sports unionism; the gender wage gap in professional basketball; and how the players and their union, the WNBPA, are approaching collective bargaining negotiations.
Compelling Discussions of Gender Pay Parity in Sports, WNBA Players Could Soon Be Negotiating a New CBA
On Saturday, July 28th, Minneapolis Target Center was host to the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) all-star game. Played during the WNBA’s 22ndseason, four players from the Minnesota Lynx took the court. Recently, the Lynx have been a Minnesota professional sport success story.
Among the dynasty players was Minnesota Gopher standout Lindsay Whalen. With Whalen as floor general, the Lynx won the league championship during four of the last eight years. Late this season, Whalen announced her retirement, as she returns to coach women’s basketball at her alma mater.
As a league considered in possession of the top women’s basketball talent in the world, the WNBA represents one of the few U.S. women’s professional sports leagues, and, even rarer for women, a professional teamsports league. While attendance increased in the 2016 and 2017 seasons—using an average of game attendance, year over year comparison—it went down in 2018. This drop in attendance has been attributed to the New York Liberty being moved to a significantly smaller venue during the 2018 season.
History of the WNBA
In 1891, James Naismith brought to light a game he designed called “Basket Ball”. Originally a sport played only by men, Senda Berenson is credited with bringing women into the ranks. As an employee at (the all-women’s) Smith College, Berenson officiated the first women's basketball game in 1893.
Almost from its inception, basketball was popular among both male and female athletes. After World War II, professional sport leagues (including pro-basketball) came into their own. These were, essentially, leagues for men. The first professional basketball league for women was the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) which operated from 1978-1981. The creation of the WBL was, in fact, a byproduct of Title IX (1972) requiring equality of treatment regardless of gender in education.
As the WBL’s creator, Bill Byrnes, noted an uptick in girls and women in sports would be one of the results of Title IX implementation. The WBL’s short-lived and underfunded existence was the only attempt at this type of endeavor for women until the mid-1990s.
Then, brought-on by the popularity of the USA women’s 1996 Olympic basketball team earning a gold medal in Atlanta, two women’s leagues were birthed almost simultaneously. The American Basketball League (ABL) began play in October of 1996. Their games took place over the winter months, and were in direct competition for players with the newly created WNBA. Originally, the ABL paid higher salaries, and had recruited the top U.S. players.
However, without the support of deep pockets, and a significant understanding of running a professional basketball league, the ABL lasted only two and a half seasons declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the middle of the 1998 season.
Hence, though not the first professional women’s basketball league in the U.S., the WNBA has, by far, been the league with staying power. In 1996, the WNBA was created touting the slogan, “We Got Next”. Games began in 1997. Eight teams were part of the inaugural season. Set in motion was a league closely tied to the National Basketball Association (NBA). WNBA teams were placed in venues where NBA teams played, and were owned and promoted by NBA franchises.
One of the original decisions was that games would take place during the summer months—not competing with the NBA season. The league expanded to sixteen teams by 2002, and is now at twelve. Owned and operated by WNBA Enterprises, LLC, it is part of National Basketball Association (NBA), Inc. For better and worse, the close ties have led many to compare NBA and WNBA league management, teams, and players.
Today, five teams are still owned and managed by owners of their local market counterpart NBA team. However, the New York Liberty may be sold in the near future leaving only one-third of teams with owners who also own an NBA team.
History of Sports Unionism
John Montgomery “Monte” Ward, a baseball player in the 1880s and 1890s, led the formation of the first union for professional athletes. Formed in 1885—the same year Ward graduated from Columbia Law School—the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players was never recognized by team owners, but players were able to negotiate better individual contracts because of the formation of the union.
Frustrated by management’s enormous power over workers, Ward and other players quit the National League and formed their own league for the 1890 season, the Players’ National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. Most of the stars of the National League joined the Players’ League. The Players’ League shared profits among all players, and player-managers managed each team.
After one year, the Players’ League sold its teams to the National League. Despite repeated attempts to organize, baseball players would not have a permanent, recognized union until the Major League Baseball Players’ Association was recognized in 1966.
The National Basketball Association Players’ Association – NBPA – was the first permanent union for professional athletes in the U.S. The NBA recognized the NBPA in 1954. Male football players won their union next; the NFLPA was recognized in 1956. Male hockey players formed the NHLPA in 1967. Major League Soccer players formed the Major League Soccer Players’ Union for male soccer players in 2003.
The history of sports unionism among female professional athletes is, like the history of women in professional sports, much sparser and more recent.
Women playing in the Women’s Professional Soccer league had a union from 2010 until the league folded in 2012.
Women soccer players in the successor league, the National Women’s Soccer League, have had a union (USWNTPA) since 2017, but only players not part of either the U.S. or Canadian national teams are eligible for representation. This means that the oldest, and, probably strongest, union for female professional athletes in the U.S. is the WNBPA.
Formed in 1998, just two years after the inception of the WNBA, it was the first union for female professional athletes in the U.S. The WNBPA and the league ratified their first collective bargaining agreement on April 30, 1999.
As we will discuss in upcoming articles, WNBA players and their union “opted out” of the current collective bargaining agreement on November 1. This means that the current contract will expire at the beginning of the 2020 season, so the union and the league must start bargaining the new contract very soon.
Note: The article was edited on November 14th to correctly reflect attendance patterns.