By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
June 22, 2012
On Thursday night, glittery downtown Miami was awash in champagne and confetti as the much-vaunted Miami Heat won the franchise’s second NBA title in its history by besting the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. The Heats’ “King” LeBron James, he of The Decision and countless magazine covers, finally got his first championship ring, and perhaps put to rest widespread skepticism that he was capable of leading a team to an NBA Finals victory.
Under their reigning monarch, the 2012 NBA Finals comprise a vast kingdom. The Finals had unprecedented global coverage, reaching fans live in 215 countries and territories in 47 languages, digitally and on TV. A record 278 million fans globally were thought to follow the Finals on social media. Final numbers for the first three games, broadcast on ABC, put the Thunder-Heat series as that network’s most-watched NBA Finals, averaging 16.1 million viewers per game.
This Saturday, however, a very different kind of celebration will take place on other basketball courts, as the dozen teams of the WNBA commemorates the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation mandating equality in women’s sports funding and access within public schools, including universities.
The WNBA, which will mark the anniversary through grassroots local celebrations and wearing special “IX” uniforms designed by adidas, appears to be on an upswing sponsorship-wise – it just signed a multiyear deal with Boost Mobile as its first league-wide umbrella partner and has signed seven other new partners this season. But nothing brings the contrast between the NBA and the WNBA, and between men’s and women’s pro sports in general, into sharper focus than Forbes’ annual list of the world’s best-compensated athletes, released earlier this week.
James led the 13 basketball players who made the 2012 Forbes list, ranking fourth overall with total earnings of $53 million, behind boxers Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao ($85 million and $62 million respectively) and golfer Tiger Woods ($59.4 million, a $16 million drop from last year after losing such sponsors as Gillette and Tag Heuer).
Like all NBA players, James saw his salary sliced 20 percent by the NBA’s prolonged lockout, but he made up for that reduction handsomely through high-profile deals with such sponsors as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nike, and State Farm insurance. Forbes also noted that James received cash as part of his 2011 marketing deal with Fenway Sports Group, which delivered him a stake in the EPL club FC Liverpool.
James’ Thunder foe Kevin Durant and Heat teammate Dwyane Wade rounded out the rough top third of the list, with Durant, at number 34 and $25.5 million, cashing checks from Sprint and Nike, and Wade, at number 35 and $24.7 million, benefiting from deals with Gatorade and Lincoln Financial, among others.
Thirty NFL players ranked among the 100 highest-paid athletes, more than any other sport, and overall athletes from 11 different sports, including cricket and track and field, qualified.
But even with Title IX influencing sports for four decades, only two women managed to make the 2012 Forbes highest-paid list cut. Tennis stars Maria Sharapova and Li Na came in at numbers 26 and 81 respectively, with world number one Sharapova earning $27.9 million from a portfolio of sponsors including Nike/Cole Haan, Head, Evian, and Samsung, and Li signing deals with Babolat, Haagan-Daaz, and Mercedes, among others, in the wake of her 2011 French Open title.
The cutoff for the Forbes list was $16.6 million, which made it impossible for any WNBA player, and any other female athlete, to qualify. The maximum salary in the WNBA for the 2012 season is $105,500, with the L.A. Sparks’ Candace Parker identified as the league’s highest earner – endorsement deals with adidas and Gatorade push Parker’s annual compensation to close to $3 million.
Clearly, the glass backboard is still a major factor for WNBA players, and for the vast majority of other female athletes as well. And it’s going to take more than a shattering slam dunk to break it.