Basketball

How Russia has Pushed WNBA to a crossroads

Brittney Griner is in detention in Russia.
WNBA player Brittney Griner is detained in Russia. Photo: Eurosport
  • Much of the uncertainty hanging around the WNBA comes from the detention of the Mercury star Brittney Grinner
  • Brittney Griner is one of the players that has travelled to Russia in the recent years to supplement her income
  • Grinner was arrested in Russia on arrival at Moscow airport in February, and she is still in custody
  • The most lucrative international contracts were initially offered out in Russia, notably by three teams: Dynamo Kursk, Nadezhda Orenburg

The WNBA is riding a wave of anticipation as players report for the league’s 26th season, which begins on May 6.

More than a dozen players, talent evaluators, and agents came out about an equally historic cloud of uncertainty hanging over the women’s professional basketball game.

The Las Vegas Aces team. Photo: Getty Images

Much of it arises from the arrest and detention of Mercury starlet Brittney Griner in Russia.

Players are now debating how best to assist Griner and whether it is better to publicly speak out or remain silent, as her family has requested.

A single, frightening idea lurks in the back of many players’ minds: It might have been me.

This information leads to yet another significant source of uncertainty.

In 2022, nearly half of WNBA players also played overseas, supplementing their WNBA salaries which range from a rookie minimum of $60,471 to a supermax of $228,094 with substantially larger foreign contracts.

Players and their agents are usually busy working up those international gigs in Australia, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia during the first few months of the WNBA season.

However, Griner’s detention until at least May 19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have thrown the sport and its revenue-generating environment into disarray. Anyone can be sure of one thing: everything is about to change.

The most lucrative international contracts were initially offered out in Russia, notably by three teams:

Dynamo Kursk, Nadezhda Orenburg, and Griner’s squad, UMMC Ekaterinburg, where players could earn six or even seven figures per season in exceptional situations.

Those teams are no longer viable possibilities, and they may not be for a long time. Meanwhile, China, formerly a popular destination for WNBA players like Tina Charles of Phoenix, is now closed to international players because of its zero-COVID-19 policy.

“It’s just an unknown,” Storm star Breanna Stewart said earlier this month at the USA Basketball minicamp in Minneapolis. “As far as overseas, obviously, Europe will keep doing what it does.

Las Vegas Aces in a match against LA Sparks. Photo: Eurosport

EuroLeague is going to continue to keep happening. The state of Russia, I’m not sure. And it’s just one of those things that you kind of wait and see.”

Despite all of the instability and worldwide tragedy, the prevailing belief among players, executives, and agents is that the WNBA, oddly enough, has a chance.

The idea of players earning real money elsewhere (at the expense of being in the public spotlight in the United States).  Have long irritated league management, who gained stricter restrictions on international play in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.

Meanwhile, players have often complained that the WNBA does not pay them enough to allow them to stay at home during the offseason.

Now that the Russian and Chinese leagues are no longer in play, the WNBA has an opportunity to prove to players that it can be their exclusive basketball home.

Several players and agents have told SI that they or their clients will not consider playing in Russia until the Griner problem is settled and the United States sanctions against Russia.

However, the temptation of the Russian payday the opportunity to build generational wealth is so strong that many feel they or their clients will return if relations ever return to “normal”.

And the money spigots start flowing again. Of course, the longer Griner is imprisoned, the more that calculation may change

Brittney Griner is detained in Russia. Photo: Skysports

Another factor will be the fallout from the collapse of the Russian and Chinese leagues. Suddenly, the overseas market is void of its best assets, causing everyone from Turkey to Australia to go up a notch.

However, the financial incentives are likely to shift drastically due to the absence of top clubs and the resulting increased number of players available.

At the top of the market, top players may not have the same financial incentives.

Aerial Powers, a forward for the Minnesota Lynx, believes the WNBA’s compensation should be close to what players can earn by supplementing with international play to entice them to stay—a sentiment shared by many in SI’s talks.

referring to the WNBA’s commissioner, Engelbert Powers said:

“So I don’t know if you can get to that,” she says. “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.”

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