We’ve Had Caitlin Clarks Before. We Just Haven’t Invested in Them.

This is Emotional Investment, Joel Anderson’s column about money and how we think about it. To suggest a subject, or get in touch, email

Caitlin Clark is a lot like Steph Curry. Or maybe she’s more like a combination of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Then again, you can see why people see some Pete Maravich in her game.

But no matter the comparison, Clark is already one of the most famous basketball players in America. Even if you don’t follow her sport, you know who she is.

Her final college game, the NCAA women’s championship, was the most-watched women’s basketball game ever—eclipsing even the men’s title game for the first time in history. Viewership for the draft where Clark went first was more than four times higher than the previous record. Demand for the draft was so high the WNBA even brought back fans for the first time in a decade. It’s not something that people typically pay to watch in person. But 1,000 tickets sold out within 15 minutes. Five days later, Clark made a surprise guest appearance on Saturday Night Live.

We’re at an inflection point for the WNBA and the game itself, a chance for women’s basketball to finally capture the sort of attention usually reserved for their male counterparts. But for many of the greats who preceded Clark, it’s a bittersweet moment.

“We were born too soon,” said Molly Kazmer, who in June 1978 became the first player signed to the Women’s Professional Basketball League, or WBL, which is believed to have been the first pro league for women in the U.S. Then known as Molly “Machine Gun” Bolin, Kazmer played three seasons in the WBL before it folded in May 1981. “I’m grateful for the Caitlin Clark effect, because she has stirred so much interest in the game. At the same time, I knew what it was like to be a pro without a league. I didn’t get a chance to retire. I didn’t get a chance to quit. I was just getting to the top of the game and then, boom. Gone.”

Now, for a shining moment, the WNBA and the NBA are being treated as equals—at least in terms of attention. But we can’t assume that things will continue that way. One only needs to look at how much Clark will be paid in terms of salary compared to her male counterparts: $76,535 versus the whopping $10.5 million that the NBA’s first draft pick is projected to bring in with his paycheck. For a women’s league to keep thriving, for us to have a future where other female superstars get their Clark moments, the money needs to follow, too.

Men tend to be the ones who hoard the money and patience needed for an eventual breakthrough. That’s an obvious fact of life for women in almost any endeavor. A United Nations report last summer warned that “the world is falling short of achieving gender equality.” And many of the same factors that impact disparities in, say, venture capital also show up in basketball.

“Men get investment even if there’s no reason to do it, and women do not,” said David Berri, a sports economist and professor of economics at Southern Utah University. “Men invest in men’s sports because they want to be involved in it. And when it comes to women’s sports, they’re like, ‘Can I see your financial statement?’ ”

During our conversation Berri pointed me to a chapter of his upcoming book, Slaying the Trolls, that he co-wrote with Nefertiti Walker, the chief diversity officer at UMass Amherst and a former NCAA Division I basketball player. The chapter was titled “In Sports, Men Really Love Investing in Men.”

Berri has long been a vocal critic of the NBA’s stewardship of the WNBA, and has argued in various media that the women’s game would be better with higher salaries and more promotion.

It’s part of the reason I called Berri in the first place; he seemed best positioned to talk about the dawning realization among fans that Clark would make crumbs compared to her male counterpart, despite, in all likelihood, being more famous and valuable to her league.

Not that it takes an expert to realize the issue. Even President Biden felt compelled to point out the seeming unfairness of the gap. “Right now we’re seeing that even if you’re the best, women are not paid their fair share. It’s time that we give our daughters the same opportunities as our sons and ensure women are paid what they deserve,” he said in a post on the social media site X.

The NBA brings in an estimated $10 billion compared to $200 million for the WNBA. But men don’t just take home more money than women—they take home a larger share of the available pot. According to Berri’s estimates, about 50 percent of NBA revenue goes toward the players, while that figure drops to 10 percent for the WNBA.

“They’ve never paid the men this badly,” Berri said. “At no point in NBA history can I find an incident where they paid the players only 10 percent.”

The WNBA has bristled at the criticism when it has addressed the issue publicly at all. But during a speech earlier this month, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league’s rookie wage scale didn’t tell the full story about how much money Clark could make this season.

“Caitlin has the ability to make up to a half of a million dollars just in WNBA wages this year, so they’re actually just looking at a base, which is collectively bargained and actually is low,” Engelbert said during a speech earlier this month, CNBC reported. Clark “has millions and millions of dollars in endorsements, and actually, because she’s declared to become pro, her endorsements are higher in dollar value—she has a global platform now, not just a U.S. platform, so she’s going to do just fine as well.”

That’s obviously great for Clark, who is reportedly poised to sign an eight-year, $28 million endorsement deal with apparel giant Nike that includes a signature shoe. But many of her peers—some of them even more talented and accomplished than she is, WNBA All-Stars like Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young—are unable to build massive followings and have to figure out other ways to live on the WNBA’s modest wages. It’s not enough to simply be a good player. You have to be a good influencer, able to seize a moment of popularity and turn it into deals.

Some are forced to go overseas, where the leagues can pay as much as eight times what they can make in the WNBA. Though Britney Griner’s recent detention in Russia brought the most attention to the pay disparity that drives players to foreign leagues, the same team once paid Diana Taurasi $1.5 million to sit out the 2015 WNBA season. “It’s hard when you have ‘the best league in the world,’ but we’re not treated like the best athletes in the world,” Liz Cambage, a former WNBA player from Australia, told ESPN in 2022. It also creates a world in which the WNBA is a side hustle for most, and where the Russian Premier League and Nike are the primary employers.

“Why the Russians do that is not because they think they’re going to make money off of this,” Berri said. “They’re oligarchs, they’re already worth tons of money. They’re doing it to promote their businesses.”

And that’s if players are even lucky enough to make a WNBA roster. In a league of only 12-player rosters, it’s not uncommon for first-round draft picks to barely earn playing time or even be released without ever playing a single minute in the league.

Take, for instance, the story of Dallas Wings forward Maddy Siegrist, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2023 WNBA draft. She played in a reserve role all last season, and needs a big Year 2 to cement her place in the league. She’s already thinking about life off the court: She eschewed offers to play overseas in favor of a job working in the athletic department of her alma mater, Villanova.

“It’s so competitive for roster sports, year to year, you definitely have to consider everything in the offseason,” Siegrist told me. “I was able to work at Nova and do some marketing stuff, but not everybody has that opportunity.”

When I was talking with Kazmer, she told me about her itinerant career after the WBL folded in 1981. She briefly considered going overseas, but family obligations kept her in the States. Soon after, she moved to the Los Angeles area and still held out hope for an opportunity to play professionally somewhere. In between games in local men’s leagues, Kazmer occasionally played pickup with players from area colleges. “It was the most competitive, amazing basketball play,” she said wistfully. I perked up when Kazmer mentioned one of the regulars at those games: Cynthia Cooper, then a high-scoring guard for back-to-back national champions USC.

When she emerged as the WNBA’s first superstar a decade later while playing for my hometown Houston Comets, I thought of her as a 34-year-old, seemingly out-of-nowhere phenomenon. But she hadn’t been nowhere; she’d been in Spain and Italy, dominating over there while several startup women’s leagues in the States quickly folded over the next decade.
“Ideally, I’d have loved to be playing basketball in America, to have been able to share everything I experienced with my family,” Cooper said in an interview in 1998. “It bothered me some, but it was still a dream; I was living a dream, so I couldn’t complain.”

Having Cooper as my personal introduction to women’s basketball was a stroke of dumb fan luck. She won the first two MVPs in league history, teaming with All-Stars Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson to form the core of the league’s most dominant team. Together, they led the Comets to the WNBA’s first four championships before Cooper retired in 2000. (She attempted a comeback in 2003 at the age of 40 but played in only four games.) Today, she stands as one of the game’s all-time greats, someone whose legacy should have stood the test of time.

But what followed in those post-Cooper seasons is a painful lesson for those who believe the ascendance of the women’s game is assured because of the brilliance of Caitlin Clark.

Without Cooper, it was never quite the same for the Comets, or for their fans in Houston. The Comets were never serious contenders for the title again, and by 2008 new team owner Hilton Koch was cutting costs by moving the Comets out of the much larger Toyota Center to the Reliant Arena. When Koch tried to sell the team for $10 million, the same amount he’d bought the franchise for a year earlier, there were no takers.

And in a still-surreal chain of events, the WNBA was forced to take over the franchise and disband it. “It’s a big deal, but it doesn’t mean it can’t come back,” then-WNBA president Donna Orender said to the New York Times. “Sometimes to get your footing, you have to take your sneakers off and put them back on.”

Today it’s not lost on me that it was an in-over-his-head male owner who fumbled away the best sports franchise Houston has ever had. Asked why he bailed on the Comets, Koch—a local furniture magnate—told the New York Times, “I only wanted to risk myself so far. My money was only going to last so long.” Basically, Koch was only interested in the WNBA as long as it didn’t cost him anything. It’s so typical, Berri said.

“Until men are excited about women’s sports, then you’re not going to see the same level of investment and the same level of excitement. And that’s what’s lacking here,” Berri said. “It’s a lack of emotional investment up front and then just a lack of foresight, because, I’m sorry, the audience is going to be there. The WNBA is going to be a big thing.”

Yet it’s 16 years later and the Comets still haven’t returned, a bleak reminder of the league’s financial limitations and oh-so-cautious ambitions. Today Houston is the second-largest media market in the country without a WNBA team, behind only Philadelphia. Over the years, when it seemed as if the league might quickly rectify its error like the NFL did after the Oilers left in 1996, there remained palpable enthusiasm around town for a Comets comeback.

But now that two decades have passed since their departure, we Houstonians seem to have come to terms with the loss. No new franchise could ever really replace the Comets, or what they did for the city and a generation of fans there anyway.

Plus, we learned the same lesson Molly Kazmer learned when the first women’s pro league shut down for good 43 years ago: No matter how good things may seem in the moment, no future is guaranteed for women’s basketball if the men don’t care enough—and don’t put their money on the line, too.