It is a credit to the economics profession that the labor theory of value has largely fallen out of style. There is, however, one sector of the economy in which it continues to be taken seriously: sports.
The latest example of this economic fallacy emerged when A’ja Wilson of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces took to Twitter to poke LeBron James’s new contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“154M. must.be. nice,” wrote Wilson.
“We over here looking for a [million] but Lord, let me get back in my lane.”
When she received push back on comparing her value to one of the greatest players of all time, she responded
“Ohh, it’s about skill set? [B]ecause I heard a bench player gets paid more than … nvm.”
In her defense, Wilson is a 21-year-old athlete who probably hasn’t thought a great deal about economics. It’s understandable for someone in her position to be envious of the paychecks earned in major professional sports leagues. Unfortunately Wilson’s thoughts reflect a growing trend of sports commentary looking at the plight of the “underpaid” WNBA player. Lisa Borders, president of the WNBA, has even directly pointed to sexism as a driving reason for the discrepancies between the earnings of male and female players.
Of course, the real issue has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with the fact that the WNBA simply isn’t very popular with Americans.
For example, last month the WNBA averaged 250,000 viewers per game with a high of 378,000. Relative to the history of the league, this was an extraordinary success, up 39% from last year. By comparison, last year’s Professional Bowling League averaged 650,000 viewers for ESPN. So even relative to other non-major professional leagues, the WNBA struggles for relevance.
Is it possible, however, that this simply shows an inherent sexist bias by consumers against women’s basketball?
Unfortunately the “blame the patriarchy” narrative doesn’t hold up when you compare the WNBA to the college game. This year’s Women’s NCAA Championship managed 3.5 million viewers on ESPN this year — down 9% from 2017. Meanwhile last year’s WNBA championship series averaged 487,000 viewers, with a high of 597,000 for Game 1. These numbers were promoted by the league as the highest since 2003.
Of course, TV ratings themselves are less important to this topic than dollars attached to their television contracts, and to the WNBA’s credit ESPN doubled the value of their contract with the league to $25 million a year in 2016. This has led David Berri of Forbes to argue that because WNBA salaries make up less than a quarter of league revenue, as opposed to the NBA’s 50% split, the WNBA is clearly exploiting their players. Undermining Berri's position is the simple observation that revenue is not the same as profit — another measure by which the WNBA has consistently struggled. As the New York Times reported in 2016, only half of WNBA teams have managed to become profitable 20 years after the league's founding.
A case can actually be made that WNBA players are actually overpaid relative to what consumers actually want. After all, the WNBA is subsidized by the NBA in a variety of ways including direct financial support, free publicity, and the fact that many WNBA franchises are owned by the city’s NBA owner. In fact, the WNBA’s big television contract was itself a byproduct of the channel reworking its agreement with their male counterpart.2 So instead of grumbling about the salaries male basketball players enjoy, perhaps A’ja Wilson should be thankful that the men's product helps bolster her own paycheck.
At the end of the day, just about any article focusing on how athletes are either under- (or over-) paid stems from the fallacious view that their compensation is an inherent product of their labor, rather than the subjective values of consumers.
The financial success of professional athletes has almost nothing to do with their talent and everything to do with the entertainment the public receives from it. LeBron James is one of the greatest athletes in human history, but if his sport of choice generated the public interest the WNBA has, he would not be signing a $154 million dollar contract. This also helps explains why e-sports players are making more money than the best in the WNBA. No pain can still result in financial gain.
Of course consumer preferences can change. Perhaps the American public will come to appreciate the strong fundamentals of the WNBA and, as a result, salaries will improve. Until then, women basketball players should perhaps look for markets that place greater value on their skill. Like Russia.