Why Do WNBA Stars Like Brittney Griner Play Abroad?

In this segment of "Scoreboard," Newsy's "In The Loop" explores the underlying pay issues in the WNBA that push some players abroad.
Posted at 8:09 PM, Dec 19, 2022

Eight-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is back on home soil after being released from Russian detention.

Griner spent close to nine months in Russia after being arrested there on charges of possession of hashish oil while she played for a Russian basketball team in the WNBA's offseason. She was sentenced to nine years in prison in August and spent the last few weeks of her time in a notoriously harsh penal colony.

Her release came in a swap where the Biden administration released a Russian arms dealer, which has sparked some political controversy, with former President Donald Trump denouncing the swap.

Amid all of this, many have questioned how an WNBA player, let alone an All-Star and likely future Hall of Famer, ended up having to take on a second, off-season job in Russia in the first place and what this says about the underlying pay issues in the league.

Firstly, WNBA players are paid less than their male NBA counterparts. This is a natural result of the WNBA bringing in less money than the NBA, but it's not the only difference in how players in the two leagues get paid. WNBA players also get a lot less in revenue sharing with team owners. When it comes to things like ticket and merchandise sales, they get a smaller slice of the pie.

Things like that often push players to second gigs, usually in the form of off-season play in other leagues outside the U.S.

Players are organized in a union, the Women's National Basketball Players Association. The WNBPA has played a big role both in keeping up pressure to free Griner and in pushing to give players better conditions that would allow them to rely on full-time revenue from their WNBA careers.

The average WNBA salary is roughly $100,000, with a minimum salary of just over $60,000 and a maximum of about $228,000, but that can go higher with certain bonuses. Even the lowest WNBA salaries pay not much below the average American household income

The season only runs from May to September, so there's plenty of room to earn additional income. However, it can be hard to do that while also staying in game shape.

WNBA teams have to navigate a strict salary cap and other spending limits that the league sets to keep all teams competitive with each other and to allow owners an easier path to turning a profit.

League rules go as far as banning teams from chartering their own planes to get to games. Sports Illustrated reported that after the New York Liberty used charter flights for half of the 2021 season, the WNBA issued the team a record $500,000 fine and threatened to terminate the franchise.

Brittney Griner Says She'll Play Basketball Again

Brittney Griner Says She'll Play Basketball Again

Griner also thanked President Biden for bringing her home, said that she "knows" he is "committed to bringing Paul Whelan and all Americans home too."


Ketra Armstrong, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan and a former college athlete herself, says it's one of many examples of the system around women's sports blocking growth. 

"There are even structural impediments that would prevent owners who wanted to go all in," Armstrong said. "Because the WNBA, we're thinking that it creates a competitive advantage or disadvantage with the haves and the have nots, so those who could fly on a charter plane would have an advantage over those who couldn't. What if that were a requirement for the benefit of the game that all of the owners had to commit to providing that type of resource and that type of transportation for all of the teams?"

But overseas, playing opportunities can come with a lot more cash. Teams in places like Russia, China and Turkey pay more, as clubs are often backed by government and corporate money or tied to larger clubs that field teams in other sports. Top players can earn salaries that go high into the six figures and can even top $1 million.

Nancy Lough, a University of Las Vegas sports management professor, says a lot of the gap comes from the fact that American sports are much more market-driven, and that media coverage is a big part of future growth. 

"Pretty much every other country has a sport ministry, and that sports ministry has money that goes directly from the government to run their sport organizations," Lough said. "We clearly don't have that. Almost any time you turn on ESPN, it doesn't even matter what season it is, they'll be talking about the NFL and NFL players. It could be the middle of July when the WNBA is going on. That inequity is dollars. That inequity is now being something that we are going to measure because the truth is, media creates audiences."

The WNBA and the players have worked toward improving the situation stateside. The newest collective bargaining agreement allows players to split certain kinds of revenue 50/50.

While LeBron James and Steph Curry are earning over $40 million this season and getting even more on top of that from merchandise, matching their income isn't the WNBA players' goal: They don't feel the need to earn as much as the men in the NBA do. They just want to split all the revenue 50/50 with owners, and they want access to more revenue streams — the same way the NBA splits its revenue.

WNBA All-Star Kelsey Plum, an Olympic gold medalist who plays for the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces, laid out the issue in a recent interview with The Residency Podcast.

AP / Las Vegas Aces' Kelsey Plum plays basketball.

"In the NBA, they have percentages of revenue shared for the players, so jersey sales, obviously their TV contracts," Plum said. "You see these every year, these contracts get bigger and bigger and bigger. But that's because their CBA, it negotiates where if the owners are making certain types of money, they get that as well, and in the WNBA that's not the case. I don't think I should get paid the same as LeBron, but the percentage of revenue. For example, they sell my jersey in Mandalay Bay, I don't get a dime."