Parsing the (Likely) Pay Gap for Women in WWE

With the main event of WrestleMania coming for us in less than 24 hours, I’ve been thinking a lot about the work women are doing in wrestling. Couple that with my friend Andy (a huge fan of Cody Rhodes) telling me that AEW plans to have equal pay for their male and female talent, and it’s a perfect storm of wondering: what is the pay gap in wrestling between men and women? Can it be quantified?

Trying to find this out has been a hole with no bottom. For one thing, the topic of the gender pay gap in the United States is already divisive — there are people who flat out believe it doesn’t exist, or that it’s a matter of choice that’s not at all impacted by a larger culture of sexism. In some respects, I thought that trying to suss out the pay gap between male and female wrestlers would be easier — they’re all doing the same job for the same company. You could even try to limit comparisons to wrestlers who work about the same amount, who appear on the same shows.

Spoilers: it is not easier.

Secrecy Surrounding Incomes

Wrestling contracts are hugely secretive. I thought it might just be WWE; Americans don’t like talking about money, and keeping workers from comparing what they make lowers the collective bargaining power of the whole labor force. But I didn’t have any better luck searching for salary data on NJPW or AAA; this secrecy seems to be industry standard.

Despite this secrecy, women have come out and said that they didn’t get paid the same as the men doing the same or less work. Brandi Rhodes, when talking about the equal pay plans at AEW, said:

“At places I’ve worked before, no matter what, you start at this [set level of pay] or this is your weekly or your per show,” stated Rhodes. “But then if you talk to a man, the per show is completely different and they may be a man who’s never been on tv before.

“I’ve worked for a company where I had a pay that was okay, but it was way below pays of people who had never been on tv before. I’ve been in this industry for a long time and worked for some of the top companies, so why is that?”

AJ Lee has alluded to WWE’s pay gap between male and female talent1, and a former makeup artist for the company claims the difference in yearly income between top male and female talent in 2017 was $11.6 million. The piece “It’s Time for the WWE to Close Its Gender Pay Gap” by Scarlett Harris at The Daily Beast covers a lot of these issues really well.

Opportunity, Hustle, and Money

What dictates a wrestler’s overall income is complicated. It’s not just about what the women are offered as their base salary; it’s also about how fans react to and support women on the WWE roster. Merchandise sales are a huge part of how a wrestler proves to be a moneymaker.

The fact that more people do shopping searches for long-retired male wrestlers than active female wrestlers is a telling thing. In her book, AJ Lee talks about how little merchandise WWE offered for its female talent prior to her popularity, and even now, WWE Shop shows a disparity. The section of all women superstars has 533 items available for purchase. Meanwhile, the alumni section alone has 545 items available. In a brief scroll-through, the only woman I saw in there was Lita.

There isn’t a men’s page for comparison, but it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that there’s less merch made for women as a whole (both in quantity and variety). But this is where it starts to get more complex than just a split between men and women. To talk about a lack of opportunity to move merch is really to talk about wrestlers who don’t have the same main event opportunities. Men are also susceptible to being sidelined and unable to earn on merch sales when the company isn’t making it for them.

Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, and Ronda Rousey all have comparable merch to their male counterparts — but it’s popularity that dictates those sales and thus gets the WWE to invest in more merch. I went to my first NXT show back in 2016 and left with a Bayley shirt — I had seen maybe a handful of NXT episodes with her in them, but she had such a “do no harm but take no shit” vibe that I loved her instantly.

Another piece of this puzzle of compensation is that all wrestlers “are responsible for their own training and conditioning, as well as for providing their own costumes, wardrobes, props and makeup,” according to the Forbes article “Breaking Down How WWE Contracts Work” — and this is a well-known aspect of wrestling2. While a cursory search indicates that ring gear isn’t cheap regardless of gender, I’d argue that this disproportionately affects women’s finances.

I love Kevin Owens, but he can roll out into the ring in a t-shirt and gym shorts — fully customized gym shorts, albeit, but most men aren’t expected to be at the level of aesthetic display that is expected of women. Being pretty isn’t cheap and it’s work of its own sort.

Every single woman in WWE is wearing makeup when she’s performing. Furthermore, it’s makeup that holds up against sweat, tears, and sometimes blood. Consider hair care as well. How many women have their hair dramatically dyed? How many have had extensions? And regardless of the styles that each woman has chosen, maintaining healthy hair requires hardware, product, and time. Women are spending more to meet the beauty standards in their industry, because no matter how tough they are, they’re still expected to be attractive.

Ultimately, most of this comes down to the opportunities a wrestler has to be in a main event and to appear in as many shows as they can. Wrestlers who make it to the main event make more money, period. Furthermore, it’s a common thread that even somone who isn’t doing main event work can still make a lot of money if they work as much as possible.

Ronda Rousey was asked once how she felt about a woman’s income in UFC versus a man’s and she replied that if she worked as many matches as Floyd Mayweather, she’d probably have made comparable money3. This idea — that if you hustle, if you put in the work, then you can make as much money as anyone else — is in wrestling too. Bubba Ray Dudley has said, “There is plenty of money to be made, you just have to know how to make it. And you have to know how to hustle, and you have to know how to not just get yourself over and keep yourself over.”

I don’t doubt there’s some truth to it, but I also don’t think it’s the whole story. There are 19 men on the RAW roster and 14 women. Three of those men are out with injuries, so that’s 16 men to 14 women. Even though they have nearly half the roster, I’m pretty sure women don’t command half the time on television and in matches. And like with men, the time allocated to the women is largely focused on the same women that WWE has decided will make them money. There’s only so much hustle a person can do if there’s nowhere for them to move.

Numbers, Insofar As Anyone Guesses

I’ve seen it said in many places that WWE claims the average wrestler makes $500,00 a year, but can’t find a source for that and have no idea what that number is based on.

Forbes claims that in 2018 John Cena made $10 million in its list of the top ten earners in WWE — and four of those men work part-time. There are no women on that list, even though WWE says that the Women’s Revolution started in 2015. Did none of those women hustle in the last four years? Did none of them move merch?

Stella Kae, the make-up artist who called out WWE on disparate income for women, says in her tweets that she’s heard of women on the main roster making less than men on NXT, and that some women start at $45K a year. I, with my associate’s degree and utter lack of physical fitness, could make $45K a year without getting kicked in the head at work even once. I saw one commonly cited leak that shows Ronda Rousey as making $1.5 million and Charlotte Flair as making $500,000, with them as the top two female earners.

Still, the numbers are mostly speculation, either from rumored leaks or financial wizards looking into a realm where mere mortals cannot, and it’s just hard to say.

Except for one very specific instance.

Triple H and Stephanie McMahon both have public contracts as wrestlers because they’re both also executives for a publicly traded company. And I’ll be honest: I tried to read these contracts, and I do not have the right kind of brain to track legal jargon. But the Forbes article linked above, “How Much Do WWE Wrestlers Get Paid?”, pulled out the numbers for me. Triple H’s contract is from 2012, and Stephanie’s is from 2013.

Triple H’s base salary as a wrestler, before any other bonus income, was listed as $1,000,000. Stephanie McMahon’s was $325,000. This was a time when they were the joint venture of The Authority. While August points out that Triple H did more actual wrestling work than Stephanie, this still asserts that the wrestling Triple H did was worth $675,000 more than any wrestling done by Stephanie McMahon.

If Stephanie’s wrestling work is only valued at 32.5% of what Triple H’s wrestling earns, then why exactly should we trust that women without her bargaining power and history with the company are earning anything near what the men are making?

Is it such a huge step forward to have women in the main event of WrestleMania if their labor is being paid out at half of what their male counterparts are making in the same year?

  1. I find this tweet attributed to “calling out” a lot, and it’s so vague to me. I keep wondering if it’s missing context and was more obvious in its time as being specifically about pay.
  2. And it is bullshit, by the way. I should be clear that I find almost everything I’ve heard about WWE’s labor practices utterly abhorrent. Vince McMahon is one “Bad Labor Practices Obscurinator” away from being a cartoon supervillain.
  3. The person who uploaded this video probably thinks the gender pay gap doesn’t exist. I don’t care for its description or title, but the clip itself is straightforward.