A close up shot of Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury at practice and media availability during the 2021 WNBA Finals on October 11, 2021 at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Michael Gonzales | National Basketball Association | Getty Images
Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star, has not been allowed to leave the country after the Russian Federal Customs Service said it discovered cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow, an offense that could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Griner’s arrest, which was made public Saturday, has left many casual basketball observers wondering why she was in the country in the first place. But it is not at all uncommon for WNBA players to compete in the U.S. and then spend the offseason playing overseas.
Griner has played the last seven WNBA offseasons with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia, where big-name players can earn more than $1 million a year.
Playing in Europe during the offseason gives WNBA players an opportunity to earn four to five times their salaries in the U.S.
“This is the big paycheck — for all of us,” Todd Troxel told ESPN in 2016, when he was an assistant coach for both UMMC and the Phoenix Mercury. “We all love Phoenix, but ultimately it’s all about here,” he said, referring to Russia.
Sports experts say the money professional women basketball players can demand overseas is too good to pass up.
“It’s a sad situation in many regards, but it’s not totally beyond the realm of understanding,” said Ketra Armstrong, a professor of sport management and the director of the Center for Race & Ethnicity in Sport at the University of Michigan. “The amount of money that athletes can make throughout other parts of the world is incredible and almost a no-brainer depending on how good you are and your overall market appeal.”
Armstrong said the allure of playing basketball abroad and seeing other parts of the world are also draws, even in politically repressive countries like Russia.
“Foreign countries treat their athletes well, and there’s a level of protection they have when in other countries. I can see why after going to a place repeatedly over a period of years, you could feel a sense of safety and maybe even invincibility,” Armstrong said. “That feeling of being home away from home gives them comfort, and so they don’t have that same level of fear that the average person may have when they think about being in a country abroad.”
In contrast with the pay in many foreign leagues, the maximum base salary in the WNBA is $228,000 a year — the minimum is $60,000 — under a collective bargaining agreement that was signed in 2020 and extends through 2027.
In a news release after the agreement was signed, the WNBA said players could earn up to $500,000 in a season with bonuses, tournament play and team marketing deals added to the base salary.
Griner, 31, has helped the U.S. bring home two Olympic gold medals. She has also won an WNBA championship and a college national championship.
Griner earned a base salary of $221,000 in the most recent season, according to Spotrac, a database for sports salaries. WNBA salaries are notably lower than those of NBA players, often raising questions about pay equity in the WNBA and the NBA, the latter of which has a longer schedule and brings in more revenue.
“They don’t make any money. Compared to their NBA counterparts, the money players make in the WNBA is minuscule,” said Rob Parker, a nationally syndicated radio host for Fox Sports and a sports media professor at the University of Southern California. “Many go over there to make more money and then come back to America to play in front of their home fans.”
Days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Connecticut Sun player Jonquel Jones, who also plays in Russia, tweeted her gratefulness at being able to play and earn money abroad.
“Thank God for overseas because my bag would’ve been fumbled,” Jones wrote on Twitter, using a slang phrase for losing money. “I’m glad they pay me what I’m worth and see the value in me simply being one of the best at my craft.”
About 70 WNBA players went to compete overseas this offseason, the WNBA said Monday. The league confirmed that all WNBA players other than Griner are out of Russia and Ukraine.
The State Department has issued a “do not travel” advisory for U.S. citizens thinking of heading to Russia and urged all U.S. citizens to leave immediately as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine escalates.
Relatives and friends of Griner could not be reached for comment Monday.
“I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details,” Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, wrote Sunday on Instagram. “Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated. I love my wife wholeheartedly.”