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POV: Is a New Era in Women’s Sports Signified by Caitlin Clark?

Fans are “increasingly willing to pay to watch women’s sports for their own value,” despite the slow pace of change.

In developmental psychology, there is a proverb that goes, “Change is gradual rather than insightful.” Occasionally, though, a catalyst causes a shift and a “lightbulb moment” that results in a step ahead. Women have fought for equal rights to play in sports and be paid for their full potential, just like men, for over a century. However, their pay is still a very small portion of what men get.

Caitlin Clark, a WNBA player, was recently drafted and may serve as a catalyst for efforts towards equity. Due to Clark’s enormous popularity, she has been able to get rich endorsement deals and even made an appearance on a recent Saturday Night Live episode. TV ratings can be used as a proxy for Clark’s impact on interest in women’s basketball. The March Madness title match between South Carolina and Clark’s Iowa was watched by more people than the men’s final for the first time ever. However, the difference between Clark’s $78,000 salary and the $10.5 million that top NBA pick Victor Wenbanyama would receive after being selected by the Indiana Fever in the WNBA draft, a few weeks later, is more than startling.

So why do female athletes make less money than male athletes? In order to pay its players more, the WNBA is working to increase its revenue stream through marketing, media deals, merchandise, etc. However, there are further explanations for the pay gap for women. Some may offer the hasty conclusion that “that’s because women’s basketball is inferior to men’s” as their explanation. However, it is not as simple as that. Leaders in sports management haven’t succeeded in pushing for policies that support women. For instance, under prior collective bargaining agreements, the WNBA players received less than twenty-three percent of the league’s earnings. In contrast, NBA players receive about half of the league’s earnings. That percentage increased to 50% in the most recent labor agreement with the WNBA for 2020, though. Nevertheless still unequal, it’s a move in a positive direction.

Naturally, historically, women have earned less than males in all major sports. Tennis legend Billie Jean King was an early supporter of equitable remuneration in the 1970s. In 1974, she established the Women’s Sports Foundation to deal with this and other issues. Superstars like Serena Williams later campaigned for reform, and by 2007, equal prize money was granted to men and women in all Grand Slam competitions. However, the top female tennis players still earn less than two thirds of what the top male players do. For instance, top player Iga Swiatek makes $24 million a year compared to $38 million for Novak Djokovic.

Why has the management of WNBA players not been more supportive? It is evident that racism, homophobia, and sexism are all involved in sports pay disparity. Player activists such as Megan Rapinoe have been spearheading the legal battle against the U.S. Soccer Federation in recent years to secure equal compensation for the men’s and women’s teams of the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT). Athletes will receive $24,000,000 in back pay as part of the settlement of their 2020 case, and the US Soccer Federation has committed to paying men’s and women’s national teams equally. However, Rapinoe has faced severe criticism for her activism in a variety of media and public settings, particularly due to the fact that she is an LGBTQIA+ person.

Another factor contributing to the inequality is the high number of Black women who play in the WNBA. To get paid more for their skills, the top female basketball players still need to travel overseas. Brittney Griner traveled to play in Russia. A number of senior players have taken notice of Caitlin Clark’s rise from being an untested white player to one of the highest paid WNBA players at $78,000. Aside from representing her home state at the University of Iowa and signing with Indiana (where she became a local hero), one has to question if Clark’s race has anything to do with her current extreme popularity.

However, it’s possible that Clark’s tale sums up this decade’s culture. Her rise to fame highlights a bigger trend that the man on the barstool failed to notice: spectators are becoming more and more prepared to pay to watch women’s sports on their own merits. Numerous pundits have commended the women’s game for its altruism and the teamwork that was evident in passing. Other sports have also seen significant transformation. Women’s soccer will soon have its first-ever stadium built in Kansas City. Additionally, the Boston TD Garden was sold out for the first time for the Women’s Hockey Beanpot event this year.

Thus, other players will gain from the hype around Catlin Clark, even as the WNBA seeks to capitalize on it. Yes, transformation happens gradually. Even though the forces that impede progress are pulling us down, Caitlin Clark’s moment offers us a peek of what might be coming.

Written by schooleiwa

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