Pay inequality led Brittney Griner to Russia.  We must fix it

Pay inequality led Brittney Griner to Russia. We must fix it

I woke up to the phone ringing just after 5 am in Portland. My colleague was calling from the East Coast. Lindz, it’s BG. She’s been taken into custody at the airport. She has her phone and can text.” Brittney Griner, who had spent several WNBA offseasons starring for UMMC Ekaterinburg, an elite Russian basketball club team, had been traveling back to Ekaterinburg from the US, connecting in Moscow when she was detained. She was now in the custody of Russian officials at the airport and, for the next several hours, I tracked her location on my phone and continued texting her, trying to stay with her as long as I could.

Staying with her was what Brittney had asked me to do when I started representing her as her sports agent right out of college in 2013. Though she was projected to be the No. 1 pick overall in the WNBA draft, the most important conversation we had early on wasn’t about endorsements or fame. From my experience in the business, I knew that success on the court for women has never been enough to guarantee women similar commercial rewards to men. Only women athletes regarded as conventionally beautiful by a Western standard, “feminine” — or simply perceived to be straight, who were both white and often less important, successful at winning, got any hint of endorsement opportunities. The WNBA and its players, in all of their intersectional power and beauty, are still waiting for society to catch up.

Fighting to shift how the marketplace views and values ​​women athletes has been at the center of my entire career as a sports agent. For Brittney, the most important things I could do to support her career and ensure she maximized opportunity were 1) to make her as much money on the court, as quickly as possible and 2) to always tell her the truth, do my best to protect her and be there for her, no matter what. Before that February morning, that included advising her (along with several other clients) to take advantage of the opportunity to play in Russia for the highest paying team in the world. Ever since that day, it has meant working furiously to try to summon every resource I can to help her, so that I can keep another promise I made after she was formally charged and minutes before she was led away. “BG,” I said, “We love you. We are here. Be brave. We will get you home.”

So while her detention has risen to the top of news for its geopolitical relevance, supercharged by celebrity, at its underbelly lies a story of gender-pay disparity here in the United States.

I spend hours in communication every day with a dedicated group of people who are working to get BG home. It is a community filled with activists — including WNBA players who’ve led some of our most important cultural conversations in recent years. It’s a community that chooses its words carefully, that’s used to move together as a unit. For now, that community is doing its best to trust in BG’s legal team and have confidence in the White House’s commitment to doing everything in their power to bring Brittney home. Yet as the process plays out, knowing that we cannot get into the details of her case, I must talk about why Brittney was in Russia in the first place.

Those unfamiliar with the layered challenges women face in professional sports will probably wonder why an athlete so accomplished — a three-time All-American, ESPY award winner, seven-time All-Star, All-WNBA selection, two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion universally liked with a megawatt smile who gives the warmest hugs you’ll ever receive, set an NCAA record (among women and men) for blocked shots, keeps shoes in the trunk of her to car to give to people experiencing houselessness around Phoenix and does volunteer work with kids who are bullied as she was as a child — would need to leave the United States to find offseason work.

The reality is that more than half of the women in the WNBA currently supplement their incomes by playing for professional clubs overseas from the end of the WNBA season to the start of the next. To date, the largest contracts paid to women basketball players have come from Russian and Turkish clubs. Top athletes can make six to seven times the maximum WNBA salary overseas — and the disparity as recently as 2019 was 10 to 15 times more than WNBA salaries. Then you factor in endorsements, with a first-round NBA draft pick securing an average of 10 times more than women of the same caliber via shoe contracts. That’s about $500,000 to $1 million of lost revenue per year the women are going overseas to make up. Most of the players who choose to play overseas get only a week or two off between the end of one season and of the start of their next. In fact, the EGOT of women’s basketball has been to capture NCAA, WNBA, Olympic and Euroleague titles.

It’s no secret that women in professional sports are paid a lot less than men. There is no magic WNBA commissioner wand that will allow Cathy Engelbert
to immediately pay players higher salaries — and demanding that the Women’s National Basketball Players Association negotiate a larger percentage of revenue for players won’t make much of a difference without more revenue growth.

And yet the same system that rendered a woman who is a generational talent nearly invisible until she was detained in Russia offers a rich ecosystem of income opportunities that are almost exclusively available for men.

The key to unlocking economic opportunity for women in sports lies in increased investment across four key, interconnected areas — media, sponsorships, merchandise and ticketing.

Bigger media investments and more networks committing to airing women’s sports in regular, recurring programming blocks have been shown to increase awareness and result in more fans tuning in.

Increased sponsorships, in turn — and a reimagined application of sponsor dollars that prioritize and properly value women’s leagues, teams and individual athletes — will make it possible for more women to sustain (and for more girls to aspire to) healthy and meaningful careers in sports . Sponsor dollars paid directly to WNBA stars would provide the fastest, most direct route to dramatically decrease the number of players who go overseas to supplement their income.

And investments in merchandise featuring and celebrating women’s sports teams and athletes will also deepen fan participation and help grow the community around women’s sports. Right now, demand is already outpacing supply and merch is too hard to find as it is — as anyone who’s ever tried to find the WNBA logo to shop on the Fanatics homepage will know.

Now we have a high-stakes example of how economic disparity can have terrifying consequences. This is why I am calling on companies to commit to investing three times the resources in women’s sports that they invest in men’s, to help accelerate sports industry parity. Data shows that a dollar spent on women’s sports is the best dollar spent in sports because it provides an outsized return for brands. So while spending equally on men and women is a good start (and should be celebrated, but also be the agreed-upon minimum), any company that truly wants to lead in closing the gap will need to do more. It’s time to truly, measurably bet on women.

The investment is smart and its overdue.

With the lives and freedom of players at stake, we can’t afford to wait or to continue to accept the same mistakes.

We must acknowledge our shared responsibility and take action.

Lindsay Kagawa Colas, WNBA star Brittney Griner's agent, sits for a portrait in an office.

Lindsay Kagawa Colas is WNBA star Brittney Griner’s agent.

(Courtesy of Lindsay Kagawa Colas/Wasserman)

An increase of three times is also symbolic. The 75-year-old NBA is three times older than the 25-year-old WNBA — and three times evokes the “rule of three,” a “just-right” Goldilocks test and, for good measure, is the jersey number of Diana Taurasi, who was recently voted the WNBA’s GOAT by her fans, is one of Brittney’s teammates and was my very first client as an agent. If Diana was measured by success, charisma and skill—and if not for being a woman—she would surely be the world’s most famous athlete.

Ultimately, a more meaningful commitment from the wider sports community is needed to sustain growth for the league and its stars in all the necessary mediums. And transparency is also key.

If companies adopt an approach similar to the new climate rules proposed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission — which may soon require companies to disclose information about their impact on climate change — I believe they will be rewarded by consumers, who expect brands to take a stand.

For example, disclosure from other types of brands might detail what was allocated to women’s leagues versus men’s leagues, what athletes were paid and information about whether men and women were compensated equally for their services. An even deeper dive could reveal how those investments elevated Black women; Black, Brown, Asian or Indigenous creatives; athletes with disabilities; non-binary or trans athletes; or other historically underrepresented groups.

In an industry that celebrates and thrives on competition, companies that take the initiative right now to lead — taking actions like conducting internal audits, articulating a clear vision for the progress they want to make, sharing success stories and being transparent about their commitment — will reap the benefits of being the first out of the gate.

By the time the world first learned about what happened to Brittney, a wave of shock had already hit the tightly knit women’s basketball community. As it rippled out through media into living rooms, Zoom meetings, business dinners and bars across the country that had, until then, not often contained conversations about women in sports, interest in Brittney Griner and the WNBA spiked.

American Brittney Griner scores against Elizabeth Williams, of Nigeria, during an exhibition game on July 18, 2021.

American Brittney Griner scores against Elizabeth Williams, of Nigeria, during an exhibition game on July 18, 2021, in Las Vegas ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

As we, Brittney’s family and friends, strive to compartmentalize our anguish over the unknowns, working while also holding our breath for her safe return, what better way to make her proud than to do everything we can to ensure that what’s happening to her now will never happen again?

We owe it to Brittney to ensure this history does not repeat, so that no other player, family or community will have to experience this again.

BG, I’m still with you. We all are. And we can’t wait to show you all the change you’re inspiring.

Lindsay Kagawa Colas is the executive vice president for Talent and The Collective at Wasserman, where she represents basketball stars Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart and Paige Bueckers, as well as top Olympic and Paralympic athletes. She secured the first maternity protections and first inclusion rider in shoe and apparel contracts.

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