Explainer: Why do WNBA players go abroad to play in the off-season

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 four times what they could make as a base salary in the WNBA — Griner, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Jonquel Jones were all willing to spend their spare time playing away from home. It’s hard for WNBA players to turn down that kind of money despite safety and policy concerns in some of the countries they play in.

The 31-year-old Greiner, a seven-time All-Star winner for Phoenix Mercury, has played in Russia since 2014. She was returning from a break 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 her luggage revealed e-cigarette cartridges.

The State Department on Saturday issued a “do not travel” warning for Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and urged all US citizens to leave immediately, citing factors including “the potential for US citizens to be harassed by Russian government security officials” and “the embassy’s limited ability to assist” Americans in Russia.

Turkey, Australia, China and France also have strong domestic women’s basketball leagues where some of the best WNBA teams play in the off-season.

Why are Russian salaries so high

Russian sports leagues have been able to pay such high salaries to top players because some teams are funded by government municipalities while others are owned by oligarchs who are more interested in winning trophies and prizes than in being profitable. There are stories From the Russian owners they put players in luxurious accommodations, take them on shopping trips, buy expensive gifts for them in addition to paying their salaries.

In 2015, the Taurasi team, UMMC Ekaterinburg — the same person Griner plays for — paid her to skip the WNBA season and rest.

“We had to go to a communist country to get paid like the capitalists,” Torassi said a few years ago, “which is way too backward for everything that was in the history books in the sixth grade.”

The Russian League has a completely different financial structure than the WNBA, with a salary cap, a players’ union and a collective bargaining agreement.

The WNBA made great strides in increasing player salaries and finding other ways to compensate players in the last 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 than $500,000 through salary, marketing agreements, in-season championships, and bonuses.

The CBA also provides full stipends while players are on maternity leave, enhanced family benefits, travel standards, and other health and wellness improvements.

Who plays there?

More than a dozen WNBA players have been playing in Russia and Ukraine this winter, including MVP Jones, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley of Chicago Sky. The WNBA confirmed on Saturday that all players besides Griner have left both countries.

Nearly half of the WNBA’s 144 players have been abroad this season, although stars Candice Parker, Bird, Cheney Ogomec and Chelsea Gray chose to stay in the United States.

Is this the last?

From a purely basketball standpoint, the CBA will make it difficult 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 with more than three years of service who arrives late to training camp will be fined 1% of base salary for each day late. In addition, any player who does not arrive before the first day of the regular season will be ineligible to play throughout that season. In 2024 and beyond, any player who does not arrive before the first day of training camp (or in respect of non-signed players, play abroad ends) will be ineligible to play all season.

The WNBA typically begins its training camp in late April and the regular season begins in early May. Some foreign tournaments do not end before those dates.


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