Brittney Griner is one of the WNBA’s highest-paid players, earning just under the league’s maximum salary.
Yet, she played in Russia during the offseason, because she earned more than $1 million annually. The WNBA’s maximum base salary is $228,094.
In other words, Griner made far more in Russia, and she wasn’t alone.
Nearly a dozen WNBA players competed in Russia last winter, CNBC reports. While none returned this year, the pay disparity is hard to ignore.
Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones, who won the MVP award in 2021, once told ESPN she made her entire WNBA salary — about $205,000 — in one month playing in Russia.
Obviously, no WNBA player was going to play in Russia while Griner was sitting in a gulag for possessing a minor amount of hashish oil in a vape pen. But Griner’s incident hasn’t stopped WNBA stars from pursuing other opportunities in autocratic countries.
Griner’s high-profile teammates on her Russian team — out ballers Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot and Jones — are playing in either Hungary or Turkey this winter.
Is a return to Russia out of the question?
In a September interview with CNBC, Stewart appeared to leave the door ajar.
“Honestly my time in Russia has been wonderful, but especially with BG still wrongfully detained there, nobody’s going to go there until she’s home,” she said. “I think that, you know, now, people want to go overseas and if the money is not much different, they want to be in a better place.”
There’s the key phrase: “if the money is not much different.” Turkish leagues can pay star players several hundred thousands dollars per season, says the New York Times.
That’s not bad, but it’s not quite $1 million.
On average, WNBA players earn 44 times less than NBA players, forcing them to play elsewhere if they want to maximize their earning powers. The WNBA only generates an estimated $70 million in annual revenue. The NBA, meanwhile, brings in more than $10 billion.
Even so, the WNBA could pay its players more. The NBA splits basketball-related income between players and owners at about 50-50. Historically, WNBA players have gotten just 20 percent of league revenue.
The WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2020, promises a 50-50 revenue split if the league hits certain growth targets. But as of last October, those targets hadn’t been triggered, ESPN reports.
Vandersloot told CNBC she couldn’t imagine going to Russia right now, given the current geopolitical climate. But she said she would be willing to return if the situation changes.
“The thing about it is, we were treated so well by our club and made such strong relationships with those people, I would never close the door on that,” she said. “The whole situation with BG makes it really hard to think that it’s safe for anyone to go back there right now.”
Even with Griner freed, Russia remains a pariah state. Its brutal ongoing invasion of Ukraine is entering its 10 month.
At least three Americans are still detained in Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan, who’s being held on false espionage charges.
But Whelan has been wrongfully imprisoned since 2018. His captivity didn’t prevent WNBA players from playing in Russia before.
It’s hard to imagine anybody playing in Russia as long as the war in Ukraine continues. But if Vladimir Putin pulls back, it appears some WNBA stars are amendable to the idea.
Jones told CNBC she said would “consider going back to Russia if things changed politically and Griner was back in the U.S.”
One of her two conditions has already been met.