Charles Barkley calls WNBA, which loses $10 million yearly, “a great product”
By Selwyn Duke
Is basketball great Charles Barkley a socialist? He certainly talked a bit like one recently, though it wouldn’t really be fair to thus label him.
It’s more accurate to say he’s not very bright.
Complaining recently on something called The Bird and Taurasi Show that Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) players shouldn’t have to resort to offseason, international-league competition to supplement their incomes, Barkley criticized American business for not recognizing the WNBA’s supposed value.
“‘The WNBA is a great product, but y’all should not have to do to these c[***] countries to make money,’” Sports Illustrated wrote Sunday, relating Barkley’s words. “‘These American companies should put y’all in commercials, they should partner with y’all. ...I’m asking these American companies to step up so y’all don’t have to go play in these other countries.’”
A “great product”? Unless there’s some slang usage of “great” I’m unaware of — such as “bad” meaning good — one has to wonder about Barkley’s claim. The WNBA has lost an average of $10 million a year since its inception, which means it’s approximately now a quarter billion in the red; it only exists because the NBA props it up.
This said and in fairness, the market doesn’t recognize every great product as such. There was a restaurant on Route 22 in upstate NY that served one of the two best examples of Mexican food I’ve ever had. But the eatery, sadly, didn’t last; its middle-of-nowhere location and poor ambiance sealed its fate.
But there’s a difference. That restaurant wasn’t subsidized for 26 years as a value-signaling project by a far more successful dining establishment and given, all during that time, significant TV exposure. The WNBA has been afforded every opportunity to succeed — but hasn’t.
So unless one believes the market is behaving stupidly in not supporting it, that sounds like the very definition of a bad product.
Nonetheless, Barkley thinks companies should “step up” and sink cash into a venture that bleeds money like some aging ex-jocks do brain cells. What’s his next big idea? Investing in Silicon Valley Bank? Partnering with Sam Bankman-Fried? Is the WNBA essentially the electric cars of the sports world?
Clearly sympathetic to Barkley’s position, Sports Illustrated contrasts the highest average yearly WNBA salary — Aces guard Jackie Young’s $252,450 — with the top NBA earner, Steph Curry, who’ll pull down $48,070,014 this season. But here’s an idea:
If Barkley and, possibly, some other NBA figures really are so pained at this injustice, well, they can split their money with the gals.
Given the average NBA salary is almost $10 million, they shouldn’t feel too much pain. Barkley can set the example, too, by donating half his estimated $60 million net worth to the ladies. Who needs that much money anyway, right, Chuck? C’mon, man, step up!
I get the feeling the NBA’s value-signaling project isn’t worth that much too them, though. Oh, it should be well-financed, is Barkley’s thinking — but with other people’s money.
Perhaps Barkley is smarter than he sounds, maybe even sharp enough to realize that saying what I’m writing could hurt his brand; only, he really tried making his WNBA case, also saying he couldn’t “understand” why companies weren’t already partnering with the “great product.” And he kvetched about how “bad” NBA players commanded more money than WNBA “superstars.”
You may as well ask why stellar amateur wrestlers or archers don’t earn as much as lousy NBA players, or why phenomenal bricklayers don’t draw the salary bad neurosurgeons or lawyers do. If some would say I’m comparing different fields (irrelevant, actually), then wonder why heavyweight boxers earn more than lightweights. The answer in every case is: Market forces determine all these pay disparities.
And if we’re to indulge some arbitrary sense of “fairness,” we should apply it across fields. Is it “fair,” after all, that WNBA players earn more than policemen, whose job is far more important?
As for “bad” NBA and “superstar” WNBA players, Barkley is speaking in relative terms. If any female hoops standout were objectively as “bad” as the men in question — in other words, if she could actually compete in the NBA — she’d be marketing gold, the biggest thing in sports. This brings us to perhaps the matter’s crux, which is that if female athletes want the men’s money, there’s a surefire way to get it:
Compete in the men’s arena and succeed.
Put up, or shut up. For it’s “Equal pay for equal work,” and the “work” here (aside from pleasing the market) is succeeding among the best competition: the men. So Barkley’s argument is akin to saying that the biggest star in an under-10 league should command NBA-level money if he is, relative to his pond, the biggest fish around.
Moreover, where is it written that there’s a right to emerge from a sports career (frivolity, by definition) filthy rich and set for life? How about having a Plan B and, if necessary, moving on and working a normal job, just as most everyone else must? Does skillfully being able to throw, kick or hit a ball around bestow some kind of new-royalty status?
Note here that many if not most WNBA players have college degrees, and they already make substantially more money than the American average. It’s their responsibility to parlay that into future security.
(Oh, and I’m still waiting for the complaints about female fashion models earning considerably more than male ones.)
As for women’s sport in general, is it really a “great product”? You can decide: As reflected when the U.S. women’s soccer team — then the world’s best — lost to the FC Dallas Under-15 boys’ squad 5-2 in 2017, there isn’t a physical sport in which the best women could compete in even a robust male high-school environment. Why, in the 400-meter and 800-meter runs, the best times for 14-year-old lads are better than the women’s world records.
As for Barkley, he shone in hoops and is rightly in the Basketball Hall of Fame. In the economics arena, however, it’s air balls all the way.