For many years, WNBA players have regularly gone overseas during the WNBA’s off-season to make the most of the higher salaries they can earn in international leagues.
Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner — who was detained last month at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after being found with hash oil — has been doing so since the 2014/15 season, returning each year to play for Russian side UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Under the WNBA’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the average cash compensation for players is almost $130,000. For the top stars, the WNBA says they can earn “in excess of $500,000,” which is three times what they could earn under the previous CBA.
“Other top players will have an opportunity to earn between $200,000 and $300,000,” a WNBA statement on the new CBA read.
These salary increases were implemented partly to try and stop players traveling abroad, but these figures still pale in comparison to salaries in Russia.
Top WNBA stars competing in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League — where there are no salary caps like there are in the WNBA — can often expect to earn more than $1 million per year.”Griner was in Russia for work: playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg, where in 2021 she helped the team win its fifth EuroLeague Women championship,” Tamryn Spruill, a journalist who covers women’s basketball, wrote on the Change.org petition she set up for Griner, which is designed to raise public awareness of her plight.
“Like many athletes competing in the WNBA, Griner plays abroad during the WNBA offseason because her salary is exponentially higher in other countries,” Spruill wrote on the petition’s page.
“For WNBA players, that means playing abroad, while NBA rookies who haven’t played a professional game yet are handed salaries many-times higher than what title-winning, All-Star designated WNBA veterans could ever hope for,” Spruill added.
“These realities are not the fault of the players. They simply want to be paid their worth like their male counterparts, and they do not deserve to be entangled in geopolitical turmoil for doing so.
“This winter, seven-time All-Star Griner, reigning league MVP Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot of current WNBA champion Chicago Sky were among the players competing in leagues in Russia and Ukraine.
According to the New York Times, nearly half of the WNBA’s 144 players traveled to play abroad during the last off-season.
“Playing overseas has some positives, as the players are able to improve their style and can increase their individual technique,” Janeth Arcain, a retired WNBA player and current agent, tells CNN.
“But negatively there is a factor that you will be tired for the new WNBA season and this can cause injuries and maybe you’ll be out of the season.
“I don’t think the salaries of the WNBA are enough, so many players will play in other countries to be able to increase their income and be able to have and provide a better quality of life for her and her family members.”
In the past, star names such as Diana Taurasi, Becky Hammon and Sue Bird have also played in Russia. In 2015, Taurasi opted not to play in the WNBA for a year after her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, offered to pay her more than her season’s WNBA salary.
Hammon, who grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, even became a naturalized Russian citizen in 2008.
That same year, when she was the runner-up in the WNBA MVP voting, Hammon created a stir when she decided to suit up for the Russian National Team in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
She said she was feeling overlooked by USA Basketball for a spot on the national team but still wanted to fulfill her dream of playing in the Olympics. Hammon also played for the Russian team in the 2012 London Games.
Arcain, who is a four-time WNBA Champion and former WNBA All-Star, believes lucrative international deals mean that players will continue to compete abroad for the foreseeable future, but says there are ways the WNBA can tempt its stars to stay on US soil during the off-season.