Russia, Brittney Griner and the WNBA: How the league was pushed to a crossroads

Russia, Brittney Griner and the WNBA: How the league was pushed to a crossroads

Editors’ note, Dec. 8, 2022: Brittney Griner has been freed from Russia in a prisoners’ swap, according to President Joe Biden. This story about women’s basketball players was published in April.

As players report for the WNBA’s 26th season, set to begin May 6, the league is riding unprecedented momentum: It boasts soaring ratings, heightened cultural awareness and a fresh infusion of cash thanks to a $75 million round of fundraising that included the likes of Laurene Powell Jobs, Condoleezza Rice and Nike. And yet, more than a dozen players, talent evaluators and agents who spoke to Sports Illustrated described an equally unprecedented cloud of uncertainty hanging over the women’s professional basketball landscape.

Much is due to Russia’s arrest of Brittney Griner, Mercury star and singer, and players are now discussing how to best help Griner and whether it is better for them to speak out publicly or remain silent, as Griner’s family requested. Many players have a simple thought in their heads: It could have been me.

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That knowledge leads to another major source of uncertainty: Roughly half the WNBA players also played overseas in 2022, supplementing their salaries from the WNBA–which range from a rookie minimum of $60,471 to a supermax of $228,094–with oftentimes much fatter international contracts. Usually, the WNBA season begins with players and agents busy lining up overseas gigs in Australia and Turkey. But the arrest of Griner, detained until at least May 19, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have thrown the sport and its money-making ecosystem into flux. According to SI’s interviews, there is one thing everyone can be certain of: Everything is about change.

The most lucrative overseas contracts were long handed out in Russia by three teams: Dynamo Kursk and Nadezhda Oremburg. Griner’s team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, offers players six-figure salaries or, in rare cases, seven figures. These squads are no more available and may not be available for some time. Meanwhile, China, until recently a prominent option for WNBA players like Phoenix’s Tina Charles, remains closed to overseas players due to its zero-COVID-19 policy.

Agents and overseas contacts have been talking about team fit and dates. However, questions such as: Are your family safe? When the ruble dropped in value, will my clients get their money?

“It is just an unknown,” Storm star Breanna Stearn said at the USA Basketball minicamp in Minneapolis earlier this month. “Obviously, Europe will continue doing what it does overseas. EuroLeague will continue to exist. I am not sure about Russia’s state. It’s one of those things you just kind of wait and watch.” Players, executives, and agents alike believe that the WNBA has an unusual opportunity. League executives have been enthralled by the prospect of players earning their real money overseas, at the expense of being in the public eye Stateside. This has long been a problem. In the most recent collective bargaining agreement, new restrictions were placed on international play. The WNBA has long been frustrating players by not paying them enough to allow them to stay home during the offseason. The WNBA is now in a position to offer players a unique basketball experience, with the Russian, Chinese and Chinese leagues out-of-play and the WNBA on a financial high. At her recent predraft press conference commissioner Cathy Engelbert said, “We are creating an economic model where we’re aiming for players to prioritize the WNBA.”

Will she succeed?

Griner has played five seasons in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Griner has played five seasons in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Prioritize is the watchword around the WNBA these days. The process bargained as part of the 2020 CBA to restrict overseas play is called prioritization and it sunsets, over time, players’ ability to play an overseas season, then report late, either during training camp or even missing games in the WNBA season itself. All players with a minimum of zero to three years service will be fined 1% and have their annual salaries suspended if they are not in the market by the start of the regular season. In 2024, that suspension applies for the start of training camp itself.

Teams will not be allowed to forgo penalties. It will be enforced at league level.

Accordingly, a player like Stewart, who will be a free agent this offseason and in incredibly high demand, can simply elect to sign late this year. But by 2024? It will be a choice for her, and all the other veterans in the league. Nobody knows how prioritization will play out. Stewart said, “It’s going to be interesting,” at the end her remarks in Minneapolis.

“There’s the pro side, which is, hey, everyone’s gonna be on time,” one team executive says, offering the optimistic vision. “And that’s fantastic. We’re going to have a really great product from the beginning of the season to display the fans.”

But there’s another way things could go, according to the source. “Where you have the disaster, really top players just… not here.” And that’s really scary.”

Several players and agents tell SI that they or their clients would not think of playing in Russia until the Griner situation is resolved and, of course, the U.S. sanctions against Russia are ended. The lure of the Russian payday–the opportunity to accumulate generations of wealth–is so strong that agents and players tell SI that they or their clients will not consider playing in Russia until relations with the United States are restored to normal. Griner’s imprisonment for longer could mean that Griner’s calculation may change.

This gives the WNBA a window to convince players that they are better off staying at home. This outcome is something the players would prefer, but not at the cost of their economic earning power.

Or, as one WNBA agent puts it: “You know, it’s not like people wake up and say, ‘Hey, I want to play in Russia.'”

“You’ve gotta be built different a little bit to go over there,” says the Aces’ A’ja Wilson, who played one season in China (hurting her knee and leaving after just four games) and has not returned overseas. “… It is important to realize that you are there for something bigger than yourself and that you are providing for your family. These are the conversations I hear. That’s why I give credit to my teammates. It takes a lot to do this, and you are completely disconnected from the world. I’ve been there for a few months. I was like, this isn’t for me. It takes a lot to be able to say that. Just step away. You’re missing out. You have to find other ways to get it. And that’s sometimes the hardest part.”

Engelbert has said she wants the WNBA to be players' first priority. 

Engelbert has said she wants the WNBA to be players’ first priority.

Another factor will be the ripple effect of Russian and Chinese leagues falling off the table. The result is that the overseas market suddenly lacks its crown jewels. This moves everyone up one peg, from Turkey and Australia. The financial incentives will likely change dramatically due to the loss of top teams and the increased availability of players. The financial incentives available to top players may not be the same as those at the top of a market.

This does not mean that other foreign leagues will not try to compete for the same position. SI is told by a source that Australia’s WNBL believes it can get a higher star level player despite having a shorter season than the WNBA. Another league executive said that EuroLeague, where the Russian teams have played, is already being considered. This would allow for a change to the calendar to accommodate the WNBA’s stricter policies. Meanwhile, Athletes Unlimited, a Las Vegas-based upstart that ran a five-week season earlier this year and has announced a second one for 2023, will also bid for WNBA players’ services, even if it hasn’t been able to offer the requisite dollar figures yet to attract big stars. As of now, it offers players a base salary of $8,000, with the chance to hit upward of $10,000 in performance bonuses. A source from the WNBA tells SI that he thinks other leagues are similar to ours. “And that’s really, my knowledge, never happened before. The WNBA has always been the league that adjusts, we adjust for everything.”

Lynx forward Aerial Powers says the WNBA’s compensation just needs to get close to what players can earn by supplementing with overseas play to get them to stay–a feeling that, in SI’s conversations, represented something of a consensus.

“So, I don’t know how you can get there,” she said. “But if you can, I’m sure girls will not go overseas, because no one wants that toll on their bodies, to be away from their families.” When pressed on whether she thought the league could get to a number that would work for most players, Powers laughs and says, “You’d have to ask Cathy!”

She was referring to Engelbert, commissioner of the WNBA. Engelbert has a number tools she already uses. The league, as part of the new CBA, can sign marketing agreements with individual players that can more than double what is otherwise the max salary of just under $230,000 to more than $500,000. The commissioner can direct additional salary from league to players in return for performing requested tasks to amplify the WNBA’s message, such as public appearances or media requests. The Liberty’s Betnijah Laney, Lynx’ Napheesa Collier and Aces’ Dearica Hamby have reportedly already benefited. And a number of league sources tell SI the recent investment of $75 million from selling equity in the league can expand the total number of agreements, even as the salary cap and max salaries remain unaffected by the new capital. A new media rights deal is another potential financial win that could change the league’s economics. The current agreement with ESPN dates back to the middle of the last decade and pays a pittance compared to virtually any parallel contract–just $25 million a year. One league source tells SI the WNBA will shoot for $100 million per year for the new deal, which would begin in 2024. By comparison, Major League Soccer, a similar league in season size, television ratings and even age, already receives $90 million per year for the expiring rights deal it has. And that is considered well below market value.

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“By 2024, sponsorship dollars will continue to increase as women’s basketball athletes grow more and more into household names and cultural icons,” texts WNBA agent Allison Galer of Disrupt the Game, who represents players like the Sparks’ Chiney Ogwumike and Amanda Zahui B. “Television viewership, media coverage and social media conversation will be perfectly poised for 2024 to be a monumental year with the Olympics and the national WNBA television agreement set to be renegotiated.”

A massive influx of new capital should trigger the provision in the CBA that allows for players to receive half of basketball related income when certain revenue targets are met. SI has already heard from one agent that they envision maximum salaries of around $1 million. The agent said, “That would end overseas.”

A better media rights deal would likely lead to WNBA players having a higher profile, which would increase court opportunities, according to Erin Kane, Excel Sports’ WNBA agent, who represents Elena Delle Donne. “Once the earning potential for players in the U.S. exceeds what they can earn overseas, the choice is simple.”

Kelsey Plum, an Aces guard who has played overseas in the past, is paying close attention to all of it. She is frustrated that she can’t do more or know less, just like her USA Basketball teammates.

” I think there are a lot questions that people have,” Plum states. “And to be frank, I don’t think they’ve been answered.”

At the same time, second income streams are never far from any WNBA players’ mind. The Lynx’ Powers has her own side-hustle in esports, where her Twitch stream has become one of the platform’s most popular. She said that she cannot stop thinking about Griner, her meals, and her daily life. But she is also hardwired for money. She hopes Griner is taking notes to help her write a bestseller. Powers said that it was sad because it could have been her. “This could be any one of your teammates.”

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