Skylar Diggins-Smith Wants to Be Paid Like a Man and Isn't Afraid to Say It

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I was aware of the situation — that there was a discrepancy between NBA and WNBA salaries — before I joined the league. I always played in the Amateur Athletic Union, so I had friends and teammates and mentors who were older than me and had played in the WNBA. But I didn't really understand the discrepancy until I got into the WNBA and saw the numbers on my own.

Players in the NBA get about 50% of the revenue. For women, the percentage is in the twenties. So before we even talk about base salary or anything like that, we don't even get paid the same percentage of the revenue that we bring in, which is kind of unbelievable. People try to hijack this issue and say that women's basketball may not be as interesting a game, because they disparage women in sports, period. But we don't even make the same percentage of revenue! And jersey sales…we don't get any of it. The men do. And I have had a top-five jersey for three or four years in the WNBA.

I’m the highest paid player on the Dallas Wings, and my salary is in the low six figures. [Harrison Barnes, the highest paid player on the Dallas Mavericks, made $24 million last season.] He's definitely younger than me. Do you know his stats? Was he an All-Star? I mean, it doesn't matter. But last year, I was First Team All-WNBA, which only goes to five players. I was also a WNBA All-Star for the third time.

To think of that and then to see how the numbers translate for guys who are bench players, guys who never see the floor…

I’m at a loss for words sometimes, talking about this. It’s unfortunate that men make more money for the same amount of work, or even less work.

Not to discredit any work that they've put in, but you have women playing year-round basketball going overseas to have more opportunities for higher wages. I've never been overseas to play. I'm with Roc Nation, where I’m the only woman signed, and I take my off-season and use it to explore other opportunities, to work with different brands and explore different marketing opportunities that Roc Nation and I decided to pursue, like my basketball camps. But 90% of the league goes overseas. And so these women are playing year-round, which is terrible for your body. It’s so much wear and tear.

I would be curious to know how successful we could be with such a great product if we had the same platform as the guys do. Think about the marketing dollars that they spend on guys, the platform given to them. Branding opportunities, TV deals, endorsement deals. It's kind of like the chicken and the egg. People always talk about, “Well, you gotta have more people in the seats.” But nobody puts us on TV! We have a competitive game, great match-ups; everything that would yield people wanting to see us, plus the success of women's college basketball.

But you rarely see the WNBA on the “Worldwide Leader in Sports”: ESPN. You rarely see them talking about women's sports in general, let alone highlights of the WNBA games. Yes, LeBron is one of the best athletes in the world, but they'll go into everything that he ate before they show a highlight of a WNBA game.

I was a guest on the His & Hers that featured Jemele Hill and Michael Smith and is no longer on ESPN. I was filling in for Jemele during game five of the WNBA Finals — Minnesota versus L.A. That’s the longest the series could go. And they have a board where they write down what's gonna happen on the show. And game five of the WNBA finals was not even on the board.

They asked me, “Well, is there anything that you wanna talk about?” And I kinda scoffed and said, “Uh, game five of the WNBA Finals?” So they just scribbled it into one of the blocks. It was so symbolic, that moment. It’s kinda unbelievable how the WNBA is viewed and treated even by the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.”

Then there’s the travel. Let’s say we have a game on Thursday and a game on Friday and they're both away. We will play Thursday night, then fly on a commercial plane on Friday — the same day as the game — and play. In college, everyone who played Division I chartered private planes. But it’s a WNBA policy that everyone flies commercial, because if someone charters then it would be considered an advantage.

So you’ve got 6’5”, 6’8” women flying coach. Some lady in the airport came up to me and she's like, “You guys fly commercial? Why aren’t you guys on your own plane?”

I mean, I don't even know what to say. It’s ridiculous. Shame on them not to put us in positions to be successful when we have the best product. Change has to start within our league. The players have to take a look at our collective bargaining agreement. The Players Association has to step up. We want a league that we can be proud of, where our children can have the opportunity to play and not have these issues. We still stand on the shoulders of the trailblazers before us who gave us the opportunity to play. As athletes, we have to fight. As women, we have to fight. And we need more people at our table to fight with us. There need to be more women and more people of colour hired so we can curate our own sports stories. And we need men speaking out about these things.

There are definitely men out there who support us. We have guys on different professional teams who come out and support the game all the time and show up and bring their daughters and their families. You'll go to an Atlanta Dream game and see Dwight Howard. Kobe has brought his daughters to the Staples Center. We’ve had Cowboys and Mavericks show up at the game and support us.

I haven’t seen Mark Cuban at a game. And I’m sure I wouldn't miss him.

I’m at a loss for words sometimes, talking about this. It's unfortunate that men make more money for the same amount of work, or even less work. I always wonder: If I have a son and I have a daughter, what do I tell them? What do I tell my daughter if it's her dream to play in the WNBA? And what do I tell young girls across the world who I encounter, who look to us as superheroes and aspire to be like us, who dream of playing in this league?

Because we don't play just for the money — we love the game of basketball. We love the competition. It's the greatest, most competitive league in the world. Only the top 1% of all women who play the game make it to this level. But what am I supposed to tell my daughter? This lack of gender parity and the wage gap will be there, whatever she wants to do. She will never make the same amount of money as a man. She will never make the same amount of money as my son will.

In basketball, the big difference between the males and the females is that most of us have our degrees because we understand the situation. We understand the disparity in wages. So a lot of women are trying to start that hustle earlier, be it investments or starting their own businesses.

By far, I make more money through endorsements than playing. I'm with Zappos and Puma right now. I'm with Body Armor. Basketball is part of what I do but it's not just who I am. I’m trying to set up for my life after basketball.

Luckily, anything that Roc Nation Sports does, Jay Z definitely has a hand in, and anything that he touches turns to gold. He’s helping me grow my brand, which is women's empowerment. Growing the game of basketball. Encouraging people to lead active and healthy lifestyles. Beauty. I love everything about my femininity. I never have to sacrifice any of my femininity to be in sports.

As told to Anna Peele exclusively for Wealthsimple; transcript edited and condensed for clarity. Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell.

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