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With a WNBA star detained, tensions brew over players going overseas

WNBA stars, including Breanna Stewart (10) and Brittney Griner (15), have long supplemented their WNBA incomes by playing overseas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
14 min

Last Oct. 18 was Brittney Griner’s 31st birthday, a day she spent cleaning out her locker and doing interviews following the Phoenix Mercury’s season-ending loss in the WNBA Finals. Looming over her later that fall: a return engagement with UMMC Ekaterinburg, the deep-pocketed Russian team with which she had played the previous six years during the WNBA’s offseason.

“It’s getting harder and harder,” Griner told reporters when asked about the double-duty. “I’m not really looking forward to it, honestly — having to leave my family and go overseas again. Definitely going over this offseason and then just taking it year by year.”

As is now well known, Griner’s EuroLeague season came to a jarring end Feb. 17, when the seven-time WNBA all-star and two-time Olympic gold medalist was taken into custody by Russian authorities at an airport outside Moscow, accused of having vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her carry-on bag. She is expected to remain detained until at least May 19, the date of her next court hearing, and could spend up to a year in custody before reaching trial. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison.

On Wednesday, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, following Griner’s first consular visit from U.S. Embassy staff, reported Griner “is doing as well as can be expected under these very difficult circumstances.”

But Griner’s detainment has also opened a window into the fraught economics of women’s professional basketball and the financial forces that send many of the WNBA’s top players, often reluctantly, overseas for up to seven months a year — lured by salaries that in some cases are four or five times what they earn in the WNBA, as well as luxury travel perks that not only don’t exist in the WNBA but are in some cases explicitly disallowed.

And that examination comes at a critical inflection point for the WNBA, with the league taking aggressive steps to try to keep players stateside all year long and with player movement already being influenced by controversial “prioritization” rules that will kick in beginning in 2023 and that could force a difficult choice for players: “The W” or their overseas teams.

“It’s something that, if I’m quite honest, I’m not happiest about in our [collective bargaining agreement], because it’s just really limiting what professional women’s basketball players can do in their offseason and their ability to make money overseas,” superstar Breanna Stewart said about those rules during a virtual news conference with reporters following her re-signing with the Seattle Storm on Feb. 10.

The low-profile, high-powered race to free WNBA star Brittney Griner from Russian custody

In 2023, veteran players who report late to their WNBA team’s training camp because of overseas commitments will be fined one percent of their salary for each day missed and could be suspended for the entire season if they show up late for the regular season. Beginning in 2024, players will be suspended for the entire season if they show up late for training camp. Training camp typically begins in April, with the regular season beginning in early May; some European leagues, meanwhile, feature playoffs that can stretch deep into May.

Players with less than three years of WNBA service, who typically play overseas as much for the development and extra playing time as for the money, are exempt from the prioritization rules. There are also exceptions for national team duty ahead of major international tournaments.

Rather than seeking a long-term deal with more security, Stewart, 27, chose to sign a one-year contract, in large part, she said, because of the uncertainty over how the prioritization rules will play out. The CBA between the league and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, ratified in 2020, runs through 2027.

“You’re cutting off one of my sources of income and not substituting it,” said Stewart, the 2016 WNBA rookie of the year and 2018 MVP. “I don’t have a great answer for what’s going to happen. But I think it’s going to affect a lot more players in the WNBA than people realize right now.”

‘Paid like capitalists’

Stewart and Griner, arguably the two most dominant American players of the past decade, were teammates for two seasons with UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is owned by Russian oligarchs and copper mining magnates and pays the highest salaries in the world: reportedly more than $1 million each per season for superstars such as Stewart and Griner.

That compares to a “supermax” base salary of $228,294 in the WNBA in 2022 (though with bonuses, incentives and offseason marketing stipends, a handful of elite players could earn $500,000 or more). The WNBA’s average base salary is around $130,000, with the rookie minimum at $60,471 and the veteran minimum at $72,141.

The highest-paid NBA players, by comparison, make in excess of $40 million annually — or more than two times the payroll budget of the entire WNBA, which comes in at around $18 million.

That helps explains why many top players such as Griner, with a limited number of prime athletic years in which to earn money, rely on overseas income, even at the expense of rest, family time and occasionally personal safety.

“We had to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists,” Diana Taurasi, the Mercury’s superstar guard, famously said in 2019 of her tenure in Russia. In 2015, Taurasi skipped the WNBA season when UMMC Ekaterinburg paid her to rest during its offseason to stay fresh for the following season.

Stewart and Griner share the same agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas of Wasserman, who was among the many agents, team executives and players contacted for this story who either did not return messages or declined to comment. The WNBA, in consultation with the State Department and crisis-communications experts familiar with political-hostage situations, has asked all league-related personnel not to discuss Griner or issues related to Russia.

At the same time, the issue of prioritization has become a massive and divisive issue for the WNBA as agents begin negotiating contracts for players with overseas teams for a 2022-23 season that starts in the fall and that at its back end will bump up against the 2023 WNBA season and the new penalties.

“I defend the WNBA completely, and [league] management is doing a great job of growing the league,” said veteran agent Mike Cound, whose clients include seven-time WNBA all-star Candice Dupree and four-time WNBA all-star DeWanna Bonner. “But we’ve got holes in this thing, because suspending the top players doesn’t help the league or the teams or the fans — and it sure as hell doesn’t help the players. Myself and [other agents], we’re already looking for ways around this.”

It’s unclear whether Americans will have playing opportunities in Russia in the next European season; the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which ended the Russian basketball season, had American players scrambling to get out of the country and added layers of complexity and peril to Griner’s predicament. But China, another country that has historically paid top salaries (including to Griner in 2013 and 2014), is expected to revive its women’s professional league after a two-year hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the podcast they co-host, “Tea With A and Phee,” WNBA stars A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces and Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx have spoken candidly about the issue of prioritization, at times suggesting the rules could backfire on the WNBA by forcing players, if faced with the choice, to keep playing overseas and shun the WNBA.

“I feel like that was a bad move,” Collier said at one point regarding prioritization. “If I’m not making that much in the league … I’m going overseas and having the summer off.” At another point, she said, “I think they’re going to be surprised how many people choose not to play in the WNBA.”

Wilson added: “Summers off do sound good. I’m not going to lie. … All it takes is one person. If we have one person do it, everyone’s going to start thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe I could do this, too.’ ”

Collier and Wilson, through spokesmen for their WNBA teams, declined to comment for this story.

“If there are players who don’t choose to prioritize the WNBA, that’s a risk the owners took when they fought for this,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert of the threat of players shunning the league in favor of their overseas teams. “The owners agreed to triple the pay of the top players. In return for that, they want to build a league that’s prioritized.”

Last season, 55 players, including Griner, reported late to their WNBA teams because of overseas commitments, according to the Hartford Courant, and around 12 missed their teams’ regular season openers. Then there are the players who suffer serious injuries overseas — as Stewart once did with a torn Achilles’ tendon while playing for Russia’s Dynamo Kursk, costing her the entire 2019 WNBA season — or who become worn down from the year-round schedule.

Agents, of course, could attempt to find overseas teams willing to let players leave in April to make it back for the start of WNBA training camp — except that’s when many leagues are staging their playoffs. Would any team be willing to let one of its best players walk away right before the biggest games of the season?

Asked if she could envision a future in which top players don’t need to go overseas to earn what they do now, Allison Galer, an agent who represents Chiney Ogwumike and Liz Cambage, among others, said: “I think there’s a pathway to that, with the right infrastructure that the teams and the agents will have to provide. It has to come from everyone proactively looking for ways to make money in the WNBA — and make money in the WNBA offseason. And it has to be proactive because it’s not going to happen by itself.”

Growing ‘The W’

The WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement was signed in 2020, one year after the arrival of Englebert as commissioner and just before the onset of the pandemic that upended the next two seasons. It was widely hailed at the time as the most progressive in professional sports, featuring not only significant pay raises but also a generous maternity leave, a child-care stipend and expense reimbursement for adoption, surrogacy or infertility treatment.

That may have contributed to a drop in the number of players who went overseas this offseason — down from 89 as recently as 2017-18, according to the league, to 70 this year. (The lingering pandemic might have also played a role.) Among the players who stayed back were superstars such as Taurasi, Sue Bird, Candace Parker, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Sabrina Ionescu, Elena Delle Donne and Ogwumike. Some players received part of the $1 million fund the league set aside for offseason marketing deals; others worked as broadcasters or coaches in the NBA; others have never played overseas.

Less discussed at the time of the CBA’s ratification — perhaps because they wouldn’t kick in until several years down the road — were the prioritization rules.

In an interview, Englebert, who before heading the WNBA was the first female CEO of Deloitte, one of the largest multinational companies in the world, characterized the rules as a justifiable ask from the league’s owners in exchange for doubling the top base salary and building in significant raises for all players, underscored by a 30 percent increase in the league’s salary cap.

“We understand; we don’t want to take away from their options,” Englebert said. “But we’ve built the only professional women’s league to have lasted 25 years. I think we’ve earned the trust of players.”

The WNBA will play the longest season in its history this year, 36 games per team, and Englebert said she would love to grow the league’s footprint even more, both in terms of the schedule and an expansion from the current 12 teams. But a longer schedule would create even more conflict with overseas leagues, which, as she pointed out, existed long before the WNBA’s debut in 1997.

“Everyone wants to point a finger at the league,” Englebert said. “I always say it’s actually the ecosystem around us that’s broken.”

The WNBA, Englebert said, is in the midst of a “three- to five-year transformation” in which part of her mission is to “disrupt the media-rights-fee valuation” to grow the league’s revenue. The league recently raised $75 million from more than a dozen investors, which Englebert has said it would use to expand marketing initiatives and build a sustainable business model.

But to do that, she said, the league needs its stars in their WNBA uniforms all season long, instead of showing up several weeks into the regular season.

However, Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBPA, characterized the prioritization rules as “unnecessarily strict” and said the league has not done enough, in the two years since the ratification of the CBA, to make good on its promises to work with FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, and the overseas professional leagues to match up schedules to avoid conflicts.

“They were adamant [prioritization] was their top priority,” Jackson said of the WNBA’s owners. “And when they introduced it, they were clear they wanted it to start immediately, in 2020. We were like, ‘Absolutely not.’ That did not make sense. We were pretty insistent it had to be phased in, which is where we arrived. ...

“Unless the economics change significantly, and without more cooperation with the league and the international leagues through FIBA, and without greater flexibility, I’m not certain this is [the way] the league and teams will have intended for this to play out.”

Jackson posed a rhetorical question: “In any other industry is it okay to limit the earning capacity of your employees when they’re not scheduled to work, when they’ve fulfilled their commitments to you?”

Englebert, however, turned the question around: The CBA, she said, “doesn’t say you can’t play in the offseason anywhere else. It just says you have to come back on time by the start of training camp. What job did you ever have where you didn’t have to show up on time?”

Acknowledging the players approved the CBA in 2020 in “overwhelming” numbers, Jackson also said: “Do we recognize this is part of the CBA, that we represented it to the players, that we wrestled with it, that we pushed back as hard as we could, and this is where we are? Yes, we recognize that. But as with any contract, it can be amended… I believe [the owners and league] are going to want to have the conversation with us to rethink this.

“We’ll be open to coming back to revisit this,” Jackson added. “I was saying that even when we signed it. I’m not backing out of the deal. It’s more like: just be careful what you ask for.”