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. Breanna Stewart, a four-time WNBA All-Star and former teammate of Griner’s at Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, explained her decision to the Associated Press.
“Honestly my time in Russia has been great,” Stewart said. “But especially with BG still wrongfully detained there, no one is going to go there until she is home. I think, you know, now, people want to go abroad, 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. Here, she will earn a six-figure salary instead of the roughly $1.5 million she usually earns in Russia, per the AP. By comparison, the WNBA’s supermax salary for 2022 was $228,094 with the opportunity to make more in bonuses and marketing deals. It’s easy to understand why WNBA stars make the offseason trip to Russia on an annual basis.
But Stewart isn’t the only one avoiding the opportunity this year. According to the AP, none of the nearly a dozen WNBA players who suited up for Russian teams last winter plan to do so again this coming season.
Among them are fellow WNBA All-Stars and former UMMC Ekaterinburg players Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot. Jones also plans to play in Turkey for Mersin. Vandersloot, who has dual citizenship of the United States and Hungary and plays for the Hungarian national team, will play in Hungary. She spoke of the allure of playing in Russia under normal circumstances.
“The thing is, our club treated us so well and we built such a strong relationship 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 right now.”
Griner was detained by Russian authorities after he was found with less than a gram of cannabis oil at a Russian airport on February 17. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Griner has since been detained and sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian judge on August 4 on charges of drug possession and drug smuggling with criminal intent. She and fellow American prisoner Paul Whelan are still in the midst of complex diplomatic negotiations involving President Joe Biden in the context of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine at the behest of President Vladimir Putin.
In the meantime, the WNBA raised awareness of Griner’s condition and prioritized getting her home. Commissioner Cathy Englebert addressed the issue before the recently concluded WNBA Finals and called 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 great anxiety,” Engelbert said on Sept. 11. part of the WNBA family.”
Jones spoke to the New York Times in August about her decision to play for Turkey instead. While Griner’s detention is the main factor, the ongoing war is a clear obstacle.
“What would make me feel comfortable going back to Russia?” Jones asked. “BG is home, first of all. Better relations between the United States and Russia. The war in Ukraine is over.”