The 2023 WNBA season is a week old — and the highlight of this young season has been the return of Brittney Griner.
There have been musical tributes, videos, speeches, special ceremonies, press conferences, hugs, kisses — and even a visit from Vice President Kamala Harris, who attended the L.A. Sparks vs. Phoenix Mercury game on opening night. That game ended up being the WNBA’s most-watched regular-season cable game since 1999, with 683,000 average viewers, including a record-high 1 million viewers at its peak.
The league’s historic opening weekend also included a 24 percent increase in attendance and 30 million video views, making it the most-viewed opening weekend on WNBA’s social media sites.
“I hope BG felt the love because everyone is so happy to have her back,” said Sparks guard Nneka Ogwumike afterward.
“She’s a part of our family, a great player,” said Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale. “She’s a generational talent with her height and athleticism — and just a good person all around.”
Griner last played with the Mercury in 2021, when they went to the WNBA Finals. Like many WNBA players forced to supplement their incomes, she then traveled abroad in the offseason to play for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Of course, she was then infamously detained in February 2022 and sentenced to nine years in prison after Russian authorities found cannabis oil in her luggage. She spent almost 300 days in Russian custody before finally being released in December in a prisoner swap orchestrated by the Biden administration.
But while everyone rightfully celebrates Griner’s return, questions remain. How much influence will her ordeal have on the future decisions of WNBA players going overseas? Has her story made players think twice about going overseas — and how will the league’s new prioritization rules affect their decision-making process?
For Griner, at least, her days of playing abroad are done.
“I’ll never go overseas again to play basketball unless it’s for the Olympics,” she said during her first press conference last month. “If I make that [U.S.] team, that would be the only time I’ll leave the U.S. soil, and that’s just to represent the USA.”
But for a large majority of WNBA players — from Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi to Ogunbowale and Natasha Howard — offers to play for teams in Russia, Turkey, and other countries have been difficult to refuse, thanks to salaries supplemental to — or higher than — their WNBA income.
Overseas Pay Incentivization
Griner is betting on the WNBA’s continued growth and popularity to help bring about needed change for an ongoing issue.
“The whole reason a lot of us go over there is the pay gap. A lot of us go over there to make an income, to support our families, to support ourselves,” she said. “So I don’t knock any player that wants to go overseas and wants to make a little bit extra money. But I’m hoping that our league continues to grow and, with as many people in here now covering this, I hope you continue to cover our league and bring exposure to us.”
Player salaries and additional player compensation have long been points of contention for the league, whose last Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified in 2020 and runs through 2027. Under the current CBA, players are paid an average of $130,000 — but through marketing agreements, salary, bonuses, and in-season tournaments like the Commissioner’s Cup — top players can earn a lot more.
The emergence of the player-centric model Athletes Unlimited, which just completed its second year, has provided more choices. And now, WNBA prioritization, which kicked off this season, further incentivizes players to abstain from playing overseas.
This year, players under contract but playing overseas are fined 1% of their base salary for each missed training camp day — and suspended for the season if they miss the start of the regular season. The prioritization penalties stiffen next year and beyond.
A message for support
Playing overseas — or not — is solely up to the players, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told Front Office Sports, adding that the league is working on “a long-term financial, economic model” to help make the decisions easier for players.
“They’re going to have to decide that for themselves,” she said. “We’re never going to tell players what to do or not do during their free time in the offseason. They’ll make [that decision] with their family, their agent, as to what they want to do in the offseason.”
The opportunity to potentially make millions and be highly compensated has made playing overseas almost a necessity and a go-to option for players in the offseason. League officials are working on ways to make this less of an option.
“We’re building a real long-term financial, economic model that I think will make a great Harvard Business Review case study in four, five years. But we need a little more time to deploy that capital, grow the league, and get the right-sized valuation of our media rights.”
Engelbert, a former college basketball player, said she would have played year-round if she could — there was no WNBA back then — “because you know your body only had so many years in it. But in the meantime, we’re trying to improve the economic model so that our players, if they choose not to [play overseas], they could make really good money here.
“With all the bonuses, prize pools, and then they win an MVP, they could make money here for four, five months of work. Then they could do other stuff in the offseason without necessarily going overseas.”
Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said one of the themes for the team this year would be a message to garner more support for the league.
“It will be a theme of bringing our families home as well as the message of support for women’s sports,” she said. “Buy tickets, sponsor our league, help to fund the sport, then maybe less will need or want to play overseas because we are so well-funded here. That would be amazing. Hopefully, this [Griner] tragedy can really lead to some positive things.”
In the wake of Griner’s detainment, deciding to play overseas may also be more about safety.
“Obviously, it makes you think just a little bit because if something like that can happen to her – she’s one of us — it can happen to anybody,” said Ogunbowale, who has played in Russia in the offseason for years but did not go overseas this season.
“But I feel like players are safe. I’ve not been on an overseas team that I didn’t feel comfortable in, and it was obviously a time of turmoil [with the invasion of Ukraine], so hopefully, that doesn’t happen to another American.”
Howard, who played overseas in Russia in 2021-22 in a second stint with Dynamo Kursk, has played professionally overseas since 2014-15 in China, Israel, Italy, and South Korea. She said Griner’s experience didn’t personally affect her thoughts on playing overseas but may have for other players.
“To be honest, I think it did to a certain extent, (change their mind about playing overseas) — for me, no, not at all.”
However, her ordeal influences her fellow players, and her case will reverberate, if only because Griner remains beloved and an integral part of the WNBA.
“Her presence is very important. She’s the face of the WNBA,” said Howard. “Just watching them play when they played L.A., it was amazing how everyone came out, the VP, all the fans came together cheering her on. It was a great feeling to see her back on the court.”