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'We didn't back down': How women's basketball players scored major wins for equal pay

Basketball players Nneka Ogwumike and Sue Bird take Know Your Value inside U.S. team members' fight for equal pay in the WNBA and shared how other women can incorporate what they learned into their workplaces.
Image: Los Angeles Sparks player Nneka Ogwumike dribbles the ball during a game against the Chicago Sky on Aug. 16, 2019.
Los Angeles Sparks player Nneka Ogwumike dribbles the ball during a game against the Chicago Sky on Aug. 16, 2019.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP file

The U.S. women’s national basketball team is poised to make history in Tokyo this summer as it aims for its seventh straight Olympic gold medal. And back home, players are already celebrating a recent major milestone: a win in their fight for equal pay in their pro league.

“This was a living example of literally knowing your value and not budging,” said Sue Bird, a star player who took the lead in devising the new national team’s pay plan, which for the first time will pay top players as they train for the Tokyo Olympics. “We knew what we were bringing to the table, and we didn’t back down."

The groundbreaking agreement will enable players to earn up to $100,000 to attend a one-year training camp in the U.S. ahead of the Olympics, which Bird said will prevent players from having to go overseas to make a living. The agreement stemmed from a plan she and teammate Diana Taurasi devised to address the need for more opportunities for players during the wintertime and to generate momentum for the Olympics. The plan allows players to train as a team and stoke enthusiasm among fans during an exhibition tour.

Sue Bird dribbles the ball during a game between the U.S. Women's National team and Louisville Cardinals on Feb. 2, 2020.Joe Robbins / Getty Images

In a separate win on the equal pay front, WNBA players have negotiated a new contract that now allows top players to more than triple their salaries.

Both Bird and Ogwumike are taking steps to close the massive pay gap between professional female and male basketball players. While the average pay last year for a WNBA player was around $116,000, men in the NBA were paid about $7.5 million on average during the current season. While the men play more than twice as many games as are offered in the WNBA schedule and they have a bigger fan base, sell more tickets and bring in more revenue, critics say the gap is still over-skewed.

“I think we realized that it was more than just equal pay,” said Nneka Ogwumike, who worked on the collective bargaining agreement as president of the WNBA Players Association. “It was equality and fighting for what we deserve moving forward.” Ogwumike said the players were able to make a deal that “improves almost every aspect of their daily lives as professional athletes. Beyond significant base salary increases, the deal includes performance-based bonuses, plus paid maternity leave and fertility and adoption benefits, as well as entitlements for more comfortable travel and expanded marketing opportunities.

While both Ogwumike and Bird recognize their star power as athletes, they each learned a lot about their own value as they advocated for themselves. They said they hoped women can incorporate what they learned into their workplaces.

Nneka Ogwumike shoots the ball during an exhibition game against the Louisville Cardinals on Feb. 2, 2020.Wade Payne / AP

“If you don’t ask, it will be a no, because you’re selling yourself short if you don’t ask,” Ogwumike told Know Your Value. “And I don’t think it stops at asking.” She said the key to achieving the landmark WNBA contract was “linking arms, collaboration and empowerment of each other.”

Bird told Know Your Value that her own negotiations revolved around the needs of the team, and that she and Taurasi constantly asked themselves, “what would work for everybody?” and “what would everyone want to be a part of?” And as the WNBA’s all-time leader in games played, Bird was in a position to know.

“I’ve played a long career and kind of experienced all you can experience in a women's basketball player’s life, so I’ve seen it all,” Bird told Know Your Value. “I’ve lived it, [or] if I haven’t lived it, I’ve heard teammates’ stories and I’ve lived vicariously through them.”

Yet she didn’t even count that among the assets she brought to the negotiating table until it came to hammering out the details of the plan.

“With that [experience] you have a wealth of knowledge, so much that I didn’t even realize it until conversations started to happen and you’re able to say, ‘Yes, that will absolutely work’ or you could say, ‘Oh no, that would never work,’” Bird said. “You’re just so aware of everything that’s happening, and you also have a network in that you can speak for players and you can speak confidently and they trust you.”

Another of Bird’s relationships had a positive impact on her fight for pay equity. Bird told Know Your Value that she counts her partner, women’s soccer star and equal pay advocate Megan Rapinoe, among the people who most inspire her.

“I’ve had a front-row ticket to it all [and] I’ve learned so much from her,” Bird said. While the principles of their fights for equal pay are similar, the entrenched systems they’re fighting against are different — for one thing, U.S. Soccer is a non-profit organization and the WNBA is a business. While Bird is looking at ways to grow revenue by increasing the popularity of women’s basketball, she’s pointed out that Rapinoe and her teammates already have a huge fan following.

“To be honest, Megan has a situation where they do have the revenue, they do have the ticket sales, they do have the popularity, and they’re still having to fight this fight,” Bird said. “I mean, it’s ridiculous.”

It’s all the more reason, she said, why women have to take up this fight themselves.

“If we’re not going to fight for ourselves, no one’s fighting for us, historically speaking,” Bird said. “It’s uncomfortable to have to walk into a room and speak of your own value and tell people you’re valuable, [but] it’s incredibly important because you can’t wait for somebody else to advocate for you.”