EXPLAINER: Why WNBA players are going overseas to play in the offseason
Russia has been a popular destination for WNBA players like Brittney Griner over the past two decades because of the money they can make playing there in the winter.
With top players earning more than $1 million — nearly quadruple what they can earn as base salaries in the WNBA — Griner, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Jonquel Jones have been willing to spend their offseason to play away from home. It’s hard for WNBA players to turn down that kind of money despite security concerns and politics in some of the countries where they play.
Griner, 31, a seven-time Phoenix Mercury All-Star, has been playing in Russia since 2014. She was returning from a hiatus for the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup qualifying tournaments when she was arrested at an airport near Moscow last month after Russian authorities said a search of his luggage revealed vape cartridges.
On Saturday, the State Department issued a “do not travel” advisory for Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine and urged all U.S. citizens to leave immediately, citing factors such as “the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials” and “the Embassy’s limited ability to assist” Americans in Russia.
Turkey, Australia, China, and France also have strong national women’s basketball leagues where some of the WNBA’s best players play during their offseason.
WHY RUSSIAN SALARIES ARE SO HIGH
Russian sports leagues have been able to pay these high salaries to top players because some teams are funded by government municipalities while others are owned by oligarchs who care more about winning championships and trophies than being profitable. There are stories of Russian landlords putting players up in luxury accommodations and taking them shopping and buying them expensive gifts in addition to paying their salaries.
In 2015, Taurasi’s team, UMMC Ekaterinburg — the same one Griner plays for — paid her to skip the WNBA season and rest.
“We had to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists, which is so behind anything in the history books in sixth grade,” Taurasi said a few years ago.
The Russian league has a completely different financial structure from the WNBA, where there is a salary cap, a players’ union and a collective agreement.
The WNBA has made progress in increasing player salaries and finding other ways to compensate players in the latest CBA, which was ratified in 2020. The contract, which runs through 2027, pays players an average of $130 $000, with top stars able to earn more. more than $500,000 through salary, marketing deals, in-season tournament and bonuses.
The ABC also provides full salaries while players are on maternity leave, enhanced family benefits, travel standards and other health and welfare improvements.
WHO IS PLAYING THERE?
More than a dozen WNBA players were playing in Russia and Ukraine this winter, including league MVP Jones and Courtney Vandersloot and champion Chicago Sky’s Allie Quigley. The WNBA confirmed on Saturday that all players except Griner have left both countries.
Nearly half of the WNBA’s 144 players were away this offseason, although stars Candace Parker, Bird, Chiney Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray opted to stay in the United States.
WILL IT LAST?
From a purely basketball perspective, the ABC will make it harder for WNBA players to compete overseas in the future. Starting in 2023, there will be new WNBA prioritization rules that will be enforced by the league. Any player who arrives late for training camp will be fined at the rate of 1% of base salary per day late. Additionally, any player who does not arrive by day one of the regular season will be ineligible to play at all that season. In 2024 and beyond, any player who does not arrive by the first day of training camp (or, with respect to unsigned players, finishes playing overseas) will not be eligible to play during all season.
The WNBA typically begins training camp in late April and the regular season begins in early May. Some foreign leagues do not end before these dates.
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