WNBA stars have spent years playing off-season in professional Russian leagues, lured by seven-figure paydays trumping their salaries at home.
With Brittney Griner in a Russian prison and the war in Ukraine still raging, WNBA players are sidelined this season. Breanna Stewart, a four-time WNBA All-Star and former Griner’s teammate at Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, explained her decision to the Associated Press.
“Honestly, my time in Russia has been great,” Stewart said. “But especially now that BG is still wrongly held there, no one goes there until she gets home. I think, you know, people want to go abroad now, and if the money isn’t much different, they want to be in a better place to be.”
Instead, Stewart plans to play for Turkish team Fenerbahce. There, she will earn a six-figure salary instead of the roughly $1.5 million she normally earns in Russia, per AP. In comparison, the WNBA’s supermax salary for 2022 was $228,094 with the opportunity to earn more from bonuses and marketing deals. It’s easy to see why WNBA stars made the annual off-season trek to Russia.
But Stewart isn’t the only one shying away from the opportunity this year. According to AP, none of the nearly a dozen WNBA players who qualified for Russian teams last winter are planning to do so again for next season.
Fellow WNBA All-Stars and former UMMC Ekaterinburg players Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot are among them. Jones also plans to play in Turkey for Mersin. Vandersloot, who holds both American and Hungarian nationality and plays for the Hungarian national team, will play in Hungary. She spoke about the allure of playing in Russia under normal circumstances.
“The point is that we have been treated so well by our club and built such a strong bond with those people. I would never close the door on that,” Vandersloot told AP . “The whole situation with BG makes it really hard to think it’s safe for anyone to go back there now.”
Griner was detained by Russian authorities on February 17 after being found at a Russian airport with less than a gram of cannabis oil. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Griner has been incarcerated ever since and was sentenced on August 4 by a Russian judge to nine years in prison on charges of drug possession and drug smuggling with criminal intent. She and fellow US prisoner Paul Whelan remain at the center of complex diplomatic negotiations involving President Joe Biden, against the backdrop of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine at the behest of President Vladimir Putin.
The WNBA, meanwhile, has made raising awareness for Griner’s plight and getting her home a priority. Commissioner Cathy Englebert addressed the issue ahead of the recently concluded WNBA final, calling Griner’s continued detention “unacceptable”.
“I recently received a handwritten letter from BG and I am so inspired by her courage in the face of tremendous adversity,” Engelbert said on Sept. 11. “We are fully focused on getting her home safely, and she remains such an important part of the WNBA family.”
Jones spoke to the New York Times about her decision to play for Turkey instead in August. While Griner’s arrest is the main factor, the ongoing war remains a clear deterrent.
“What would I be comfortable with going back to Russia?” asked Jones. “BG is first and foremost at home. Relations between the US and Russia are better. The war in Ukraine is over.”