Napheesa Collier Shouldn't Have To Play Four Years Of College Basketball

By David Berri

Two years ago, DeAndre Ayton was an 18-year old senior at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix, Arizona.  Ayton left high school as one of the top high school players in boy's basketball and enrolled at the University of Arizona. A textbook analysis (also detailed online) of Ayton's box score statistics indicates that as a first-year student he produced 8.2 wins for the Wildcats. And according to economic analysis detailed at Forbes, those wins were likely worth more than $3 million to the University of Arizona. 

Of course, Ayton didn't get $3 million from Arizona. What he got was a one-year college education. This education only lasted one year because in 2018 he declared for the NBA draft. After being drafted by the Phoenix Suns, Ayton signed a contract that is paying him $8,165,160 in 2018-19 (and $9,562,920 in 2019-20). So, at twenty years of age, Ayton is playing basketball for millions of dollars in the NBA. 

Three years ago, Napheesa Collier was 19-years old and a first-year student at the University of Connecticut. On an NCAA championship team led by Breanna Stewart, Collier only played 653 minutes. But in these minutes her box score statistics were worth 5.6 wins. So, per minute, Collier did more for the Huskies than Ayton did his first year for the University of Arizona.

Despite this productivity, Collier returned to Connecticut for her sophomore season. As twenty years of age (or essentially the same as as Ayton today), Collier was even better. Textbook analysis of her box score numbers indicates that Collier produced 11.2 for the Huskies in 2016-17, a mark that led the team. According to a working paper I co-authored with Dr. Jill Harris at the Air Force Academy (methodology also detailed online), Collier's production was worth $907,469 that season. 

But again, Collier did not leave school.  

Last year -- as a junior -- Collier produced 8.7 wins for Huskies. Those wins were worth about $656,026 to Connecticut.  Given all these wins and all this revenue, surely Collier left school after last season. Right?

Fortunately for Connecticut, she did not. When the 2018-19 season started, Collier -- now 22 years of age and a senior -- is once again playing for the Huskies. And once again, she is only playing for the cost of attending the University of Connecticut.

The story of Ayton and Collier illustrate a clear difference in women and men's basketball. In men's basketball, amazing players turn pro as soon as they are able.  Given the age limit in the NBA, this is often after one year of college basketball for elite men's players. Amazing women, though, do not follow this pattern. One reason for this difference is that the NBA's age limit is 19 while the WNBA requires a player be 22 years old before she can enter the draft. But even if this inequity in age rules was addressed, there remains an obvious difference in the salaries paid to players

The obvious reason for this difference is the salaries paid to players. Breanna Stewart just completed her third WNBA season. That season ended with an MVP award and a WNBA championship.  For all this, Stewart was reportedly paid $56,793. Given that the cost of attending the University of Connecticut is reported to be $53,112, one could argue that moving to the WNBA has not dramatically increased Stewart's compensation to play basketball in the United States. 

Of course, one reason these salaries are so different is that the NBA reportedly has more than $9 billion in revenue. According to Forbes (in an article citing a WNBA source), WNBA revenue is conservatively estimated to be at least $60 million. Even if this estimate is off by as much as $10 or $20 million, though, it is clear WNBA revenue is about $9 billion less than NBA revenue. And that means, WNBA revenues are simply not enough to justify paying a WNBA rookie -- or any other WNBA player -- what Ayton is being paid this year.  

That being said, it does seem possible for the WNBA to pay enough to entice a top prospect in women's college basketball to turn professional before they work four years for the cost of attendance at a university. To see this, let's think about what WNBA salaries are today and what they would be if the WNBA paid like the NBA. 

Currently average salaries in the WNBA are less than $80,000. Given that the WNBA employed 157 players last year, total salaries at Forbes were estimated to be about $12.3 million. If revenue is only $60 million (and it could be more), the WNBA -- as Forbes has reported -- only pays 20.4% of its revenue to its players. 

The NBA, though, pays about 50% of its revenue to its players. If the WNBA followed this practice -- and revenues are $60 million -- then the WNBA players would be splitting $30 million in salaries. With 157 players, this means average WNBA salary would be $191,083.

Currently average salary in the NBA is reported to be $7,417,919. This means Ayton's rookie salary is 110% the average wage paid in the NBA. If the WNBA also gave 50% of its revenue to its players and set the top pick's salary at 110% of the league average salary, then the top pick in the WNBA draft would be paid $210,331.  

We could also follow this same methodology to determine the salary paid to each of the next five picks in the WNBA draft. For example, Marvin Bagley -- the second pick in the 2018 draft -- is paid a salary worth 98.5% of the average NBA player's wage.  This percentage continues to decline for each of the next four picks, with the 6th pick in the 2018 draft -- Mohamed Bamba -- only paid 65.6% of what an average NBA player receives.

Given the percentages paid to each pick -- and the proposed average wage in the WNBA -- here is what the top six picks in the WNBA draft would be receiving:

  1. 110% of average; $210,331

  2. 98.5% of average; $188,190

  3. 88.4% of average; $169,000

  4. 79.7% of average; $152,369

  5. 72.2% of average; $137,980

  6. 65.6% of average; $125,322

All of these salaries exceed to current top wage in the WNBA. But would they be enough to entice a player to leave college? 

A few weeks ago the G-League (the NBA's minor league) announced the institution of Select Contracts for top prospects to join the G-League.  This contract calls for players who wish to leave high school and join the G-League to be paid $125,000.  The NBA has argued that this is enough money to entice a player to skip college. Currently NCAA schools only allow schools to pay the cost of attending an institution.  Attending a school as expensive as Harvard University, though, is still only $67,580 per year.  So, it appears a salary that pays nearly twice of cost of attending one of the most expensive schools in the nation may be quite the enticement. 

Then again, skipping college for the WNBA does mean that a player does not have a college degree. If one is paid $8 million, perhaps that is not a big problem. For a temporary 6-figure salary, though, this might be an issue. So, it is possible that some players may still stay in school.

But right now, an elite player like Collier isn’t faced with much of a choice: She can continue to work for very little in school or choose to work for very little in the WNBA.  If the WNBA increased rookie pay, though, an elite player can choose to stop generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for universities and start earning hundreds of thousands in the WNBA. Yes, not everyone would make that choice.  But if the WNBA paid like the NBA, players like Napheesa Collier would at least have a decision to make.