For years, WNBA players including Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner have traded in rest during the offseason in order to play overseas.
Griner, who plays for the Russian basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the offseason, was recently detained in connection to a drug investigation. The seven-time WNBA All-Star was arrested at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow where the Russian Federal Customs Service claimed to find cannabis oil in her luggage. The offense could land her a maximum of ten years in prison.
“We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the WNBA and NBA,” Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas told the AP.
Shortly after Griner’s arrest, the U.S. State Department issued a “do not travel” warning for Americans because of the conflict in Ukraine. News of her detainment provokes several questions including why she was even playing in Russia and why are so many WNBA athletes competing for overseas teams?
This Is What You Need to Know
WNBA players have both personal and professional reasons for going overseas during the offseason. Of course, one of the driving factors is the well-earned money. More money than what they are paid at home.
Players can make several hundred thousand, sometimes even more than $1 million abroad. For many, it’s essential because their WNBA salaries aren’t always enough to live off of.
“Thank God for overseas because my bag would’ve been fumbled,” wrote Connecticut Sun player Jonquel Jones on Twitter.
With gender equality and equal pay now at the forefront of women’s sports, WNBA players have also been fighting for pay increases. In 2019, players could earn as little as $41,965 and no more than $117,500. The following year, the Women’s National Basketball Association signed a new collective bargaining agreement that would double their salaries and offer paid maternity leave.
Even with these slight improvements, there remain painfully obvious disparities between male and female players’ salaries.
“They don’t make any money. Compared to their NBA counterparts, the money players make in the WNBA is minuscule,” Fox Sports Radio Host Rob Parker told NBC News.
While NBA players such as Kevin Durant and LeBron James make over $40 million (and Stephen Curry over $45 million), the maximum base salary for WNBA players in the 2022 season is $228,094; the minimum is $60,471. It’s no wonder WNBA athletes are choosing to play in other countries.
They simply want to get paid what they’re worth.
Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi was reportedly paid $1.5 million by UMMC Ekaterinburg to play and not to play in the WNBA during the 2015 season. Many international teams can pay higher salaries because of more government and corporate financial support than the WNBA.
Who is Playing Overseas?
Nearly half of the WNBA’s roster went overseas this offseason with about 70 athletes competing in other countries. More than a dozen played in Russia and Ukraine this winter, including Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, and league MVP Jonquel Jones.
Jones left after Russia invaded Ukraine and airspace restrictions were enforced. “Just landed in Turkey and all I want to do is cry. That situation was way more stressful than I realized. Thank you God for always watching over and protecting me,” Jones posted on Twitter.
Top athletes including Brianna Stewart, Liz Cambridge, and Arike Ogunbowale also played for international teams. Meanwhile, Candace Parker, Sue Bird, Chiney Ogwumike, and Chelsea Gray chose to stay close to home.
Is There a Downside to Playing Abroad?
Athletes who compete during the season and offseason have little time to rest before returning to the WNBA. The lack of recovery time can increase the risk of injuries.
WNBA rules also threaten to financially penalize players which could discourage them from competing overseas. Many international seasons coincide with WNBA spring training camps and the beginning of the season, but players can still be fined up to 20 percent of their salaries for missing regular-season games.
Next year the WNBA will enforce new rules that allow players to be fined at a rate of 1 percent of base salary per day they are late to training camp, according to a report from the AP. Players may also be ineligible for the entire season if they are absent on the first day of the regular season.