Enthusiastic Las Vegas Aces owner Mark Davis let slip an interesting piece of news at his press conference introducing Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler as head coach and general manager of the Raiders: Incoming Aces head coach Becky Hammon will be the first WNBA coach to make $1 million in salary. The exact number had been rumored around that range—ESPN and The Athletic had reported only that she would become the highest paid WNBA coach ever—but here was some official confirmation, and it landed right on the eve of the league’s free agency season, which has already brought us some rockin’ deals and big money moves.
In the same way the news of Hammon leaving the NBA for the WNBA was read as a disappointing development for women with little thought for the women she’d be coaching, Davis’s celebration of a woman making a million bucks did not take an uncomfortable inequity into account. “Little girls, guys, anybody can look at her and say, ‘She’s just like me. A small basketball player who’s retired and she got the job and she’s making a million dollars. I can do that, too,'” Davis said.
They can also look at Hammon’s situation and see what was obvious to Liz Cambage: The WNBA is a league where coaches typically out-earn their players, rather than the other way around. And in Hammon’s case, the disparity is quite large. Even the highest-paid WNBA player—say, Breanna Stewart, returning to Seattle on a one-year $228,000 supermax deal next season—will make about a quarter of what Hammon makes. The WNBA’s salary cap for the upcoming season is about $1.38 million, with a $1.15 million minimum, so Hammon could earn about the same as an entire team combined. Cambage, who played her last two seasons with the Aces and likely won’t return, pointed out this issue in a tweet that implied she wouldn’t return to the WNBA at all. It’s no empty threat. She’s left the league before, and she’s long been critical of the WNBA’s player pay and travel arrangements, situations improved but not totally remedied by the league’s 2020 collective bargaining agreement.
Cambage’s was a good, sharp point which did not at all warrant the hostile response it got from ESPN’s Holly Rowe yesterday, not once, but twice! The grumbling started on ESPN’s afternoon NBA show, NBA Today, which Rowe joined to do a quick WNBA segment. “Becky Hammon spent 15 years in the WNBA as an undrafted player, made her way, became one of the greatest of all time,” Rowe said, when asked about the tweet. “Becky Hammon earned every penny she’s about to get paid because of her lifetime work in the WNBA, and players like Liz Cambage got paid more because of some of the work Becky Hammon did. So let’s celebrate a woman getting a million-dollar contract in the league instead of women tearing each other down.”
The subject came up a few hours later, during a 30-minute WNBA free agency special that aired on ESPN2. This time, Rowe felt compelled to point out that sour grapes might be at play.
“I’ve actually heard that Las Vegas was not going to re-sign her and so that might be some anger coming out about that,” she said. “This tweet really rubbed me the wrong way. Put some respect on Becky Hammon’s name. Becky Hammon played in the WNBA for 15 years and the work she did getting paid a lot less than Liz Cambage are what has made your contracts possible. So Becky Hammon has earned every dollar that she makes in this contract, and I think that it’s important to know the history of the league and the players who helped build it.”
This might be a reasonable response to a tweet that read, “I will not put any respect on Becky Hammon’s name. She has not earned any penny of what she is going to make in this contract.” But Cambage didn’t say anything about Hammon. She only questioned the logic of a system that permits teams to invest much more in management than in players. (And for that matter, who is more worth the investment? I’m reminded of the dumbest tweet I’ve ever seen, Nate Silver earnestly polling his followers to ask whether a person starting an NBA team would rather build around Giannis Antetokounmpo or Brad Stevens.) Rowe is awfully quick to assume Hammon and players of her era expected the WNBA’s next generation to shut up and be grateful, not to keep pushing for more. I can’t imagine that’s what they wanted at all.