Why Brittney Griner and Other W.N.B.A. Stars Play Overseas

Brittney Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury, has been detained in Russia in connection with a drug investigation. She had been there playing for the professional basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the W.N.B.A. off-season. The news of her detention on Saturday prompted questions about safety and politics but also about logistics — namely: Why was one of the W.N.B.A.’s best players competing in Russia anyway?

Griner is a seven-time All-Star, and she won a W.N.B.A. championship in 2014 alongside Diana Taurasi, who has also played in Russia. Trading off-season rest for international competition is common among W.N.B.A. players for many personal and professional reasons, but often the most pressing motivation is financial.

Here is a look at what drives W.N.B.A. players to play internationally.

Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones, who won the Most Valuable Player Award last season, had been playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia but left after Russia invaded Ukraine. Jones posted on Twitter about airspace restrictions on Wednesday as she was flying out of Russia and said: “Just landed in Turkey and all I want to do is cry. That situation was way more stressful than I realized. Thank you God for always watching over and protecting me.”

Other big-name stars, like Liz Cambage, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Sue Bird and Arike Ogunbowale, have played internationally.

The new contract also created opportunities for players to earn additional money through a marketing program and an in-season tournament.

It varies among countries, leagues and teams, but players can make several hundred thousand dollars and even more than $1 million. For many players, the bulk of their income is not earned in the W.N.B.A.

Cambage, a four-time All-Star who is from Australia, said recently on “NBA Today” that her pay for overseas teams was five to eight times as much as she earned in the W.N.B.A. Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier, who won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2019, said going overseas is essential for many players because of the lower W.N.B.A. salaries.

“For a lot of people, it’s not like you make enough to live off that for the rest of the year,” Collier said on her podcast in August, according to the website Just Women’s Sports.

In 2015, UMMC Ekaterinburg reportedly paid Taurasi, the Phoenix Mercury guard, $1.5 million to play for it and not to play in that year’s W.N.B.A. season. “It was a very personal choice,” Taurasi told The New York Times at the time. “My agent said it would be financially irresponsible not to do it.”

International teams tend to have more government and corporate financial support than those in the W.N.B.A., which helps explain the higher salaries.

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