WNBA Players Make Less Than NBA Refs … So They Get Creative - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WNBA Players Make Less Than NBA Refs … So They Get Creative

WNBA Players Make Less Than NBA Refs … So They Get Creative

By Brendon Kleen


Because these women are more serious about their futures by necessity.

By Brendon Kleen

The debate didn’t begin with Liz Cambage, but the MVP runner-up and Dallas Wings center certainly put it more succinctly than anyone had before.

Cambage is expected to sit out the 2019 WNBA season, which tips off this month, in part because of her displeasure with the working conditions, as well as her trade request not being fulfilled. 

People are used to NBA players getting sky-high salaries, but her reference to the men (and women) in stripes was a stunning — yet accurate — point.

The highest salary for a WNBA player is less than the minimum salary of an NBA referee.  

Veteran maximum salaries for players like Cambage in the WNBA top out at $117,500 annually, while the top overall pick in the 2019 draft, Notre Dame’s Jackie Young, will make $53,537 in Las Vegas this season, according to High Post Hoops. By comparison, the median salary for Notre Dame bachelor’s degree holders with less than five years’ experience is $64,700, according to a report by Payscale.com. (Young left school early to go pro.) 


Dallas Wings center Elizabeth Cambage (No. 8) during a game against the Los Angeles Sparks at Staples Center July 12, 2018.

Source Jevone Moore/Alamy

The WNBA minimum salary is $41,965. More than half the league travels overseas to compete professionally across Europe and Asia to make more money, while others are paid a portion of each WNBA team’s $50,000 stipend to stick around in the offseason and do community work on behalf of their franchise.


It’s harder to discern exactly what NBA refs get paid. Several published reports indicate referees start around $150,000 and can make upward of $500,000, but the referees’ union did not respond to a request for confirmation of those numbers. A decade ago they started at $91,000, but that was multiple new union contracts ago — and the NBA has dramatically increased its revenue in the intervening years, in part through huge television deals.

The WNBA just signed a new, far more modest TV deal to add games on CBS Sports Network in addition to ESPN. But player salaries and perks have lagged, leading to a potential strike at the end of this season.

It can be a drain on talent. In 2015, star Diana Turasi didn’t play in the WNBA because her Russian team covered her salary to keep her healthy to play there. (On the flip side, last year’s MVP Breanna Stewart will miss the season after tearing her Achilles tendon in the EuroLeague championship game.) This year, superstar Maya Moore is sitting out the entire season to put more time into spreading her Christian faith. 

The calculation for elite players in the women’s game goes beyond their playing careers. Just as with all athletes, they have a fixed amount of time to make money from their athletic ability. But unlike big-time male athletes, they are unlikely to leave the game with much of a cushion. “If [NBA and WNBA players] get to our retirement point and retire in the same time frame — say, five years — that guy who left the NBA is more set up,” says Atlanta Dream forward Jessica Breland. “He’d be more set up to live off his money a lot longer than me.”

As OZY’s exclusive series Shoot Your Shot reveals, WNBA players often turn to side hustles to take advantage of their knowledge and work ethic. Some get involved with more traditional extensions of basketball, including fashion, media and athletic gear. Others focus on what they care about outside sports. Breland opened a health spa in North Carolina called Br3 Studio. Los Angeles Sparks forward Alana Beard interned with a venture capital firm in San Francisco last summer.

Kristi Toliver, a guard for the Washington Mystics who this season took an assistant coaching position with the NBA’s Wizards, admitted to the New York Times that coaching was a tough decision. Tough because rules imposed by the league limit her earnings to that $50,000 stipend, and because both franchises are owned by the same company.


Jessica Breland’s Br3 Studio offers float and sauna sessions.

While she was happy to avoid going overseas and to be able to rest her body, Toliver says, “Obviously, there are financial burdens that come with that, but this is also a very exciting opportunity that I want to take advantage of.”

But the situation brings an urgency for these players to think about their next step. “At the end of the day, there’s a lot more life after basketball than there is life in basketball,” says Phoenix Mercury forward Essence Carson. Carson now works as a distribution manager for Universal Music Group year-round. “I have years in front of me. I can preserve my body for the WNBA season, and I also get a head start on that career without selling either one short.”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories