WNBA stars for years have spent their offseasons playing in Russian pro leagues, lured by seven-figure paydays that trump their salaries back home.
With Brittney Griner detained in a Russian prison and the war in Ukraine still raging, WNBA players are sitting this season out. Breanna Stewart, a four-time WNBA All-Star and a former teammate of Griner’s on Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, explained her decision to the Associated Press.
“Honestly my time in Russia has been wonderful,” Stewart said. “But especially with BG still wrongfully detained there, nobody’s going to go there until she’s home. 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.”
Instead, Stewart plans to play for Turkish team Fenerbahce. There, she’ll earn a six-figure salary instead of the approximately $1.5 million she normally earns in Russia, per AP. By comparison, the WNBA’s supermax salary for 2022 was $228,094 with opportunity to make more in bonuses and marketing deals. It’s easy to understand why WNBA stars made the offseason trek to Russia on a yearly basis.
But Stewart’s not alone in shunning the opportunity this year. Per AP, none of the nearly dozen WNBA players who suited up for Russian teams last winter plan to do so again for the upcoming season.
Fellow WNBA All-Stars and former UMMC Ekaterinburg players Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot are among them. Jones is likewise planning to play in Turkey for Mersin. Vandersloot, who has dual United States and Hungarian citizenship and plays for Hungary’s national team, will play in Hungary. She spoke to the allure of playing in Russia under normal circumstances.
“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,” Vandersloot told AP. “The whole situation with BG makes it really hard to think that it’s safe for anyone to go back there right now.”
Griner was detained by Russian authorities after being found with less a gram of cannabis oil at a Russian airport on Feb. 17. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Griner’s been detained since and was sentenced by a Russian judge to nine years in prison on Aug. 4 on a charge of drug possession and drug smuggling with criminal intent. She and fellow American prisoner Paul Whelan remain at the center of complex diplomatic negotiations involving President Joe Biden amid 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 bringing her home a priority. Commissioner Cathy Englebert addressed the issue ahead of the recently concluded WNBA Finals while calling Griner’s ongoing detainment “unacceptable.”
“I recently received a handwritten letter from BG, and I am so inspired by her courage in the face of enormous 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 addressed her decision to play instead for Turkey to the New York Times in August. While Griner’s detention is the primary factor, the ongoing war remains a clear deterrent.
“What would make me feel comfortable about going back to Russia?” Jones asked. “BG being home, first and foremost. USA and Russia relations being better. The war in Ukraine being over with.”