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Why do so many WNBA stars play basketball overseas?

Recent events with Brittney Griner in Russia have highlighted the ugly underbelly of the business side of the WNBA and how much women are paid in the sport

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 17, 2021, Courtney Vandersloot (L) of the Chicago Sky drives to the basket against Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury during Game Four of the WNBA Finals in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ac

Think of an NBA player and you imagine a few givens. Tall, of course. Agile, definitely. Multi-millionaire, naturally. I mean, the league minimum is just under $900k. Even if we are talking WNBA, where you might imagine, to the shame of our society, that the women might be earning a little less, they are still millionaires. Right?

The truth of the matter is that the WNBA has a league maximum salary of $221,450 per year. What’s more is that only seven players earn that figure. The average across the league is $120,648.

You would be forgiven for thinking that even for that relatively paltry sum, the best deal on offer would be here in the good old US of A, but you would be wrong. Players in overseas leagues are paid more, often much more, than they are in the WNBA.

To top up their salaries, the top players in the WNBA regularly spend the off-season playing abroad, particularly playing in leagues in Turkey, China, and Russia. There, they can earn as much as 15 times their US salary.

While you may expect the men’s game and the women’s game to have a pay gap, for all kinds of reasons from legitimate drawing power of the sport to just good old fashioned misogyny, the enormity of the gap between what WNBA players can make at home and overseas is truly shocking.

As long as players are undervalued by this amount, you will continue to see them take second jobs in other leagues. After all, a professional athlete’s career is exceedingly short in the NBA, averaging only 4.5 years. And if it is true in the men’s side of the game then it is equally valid in the women’s side. They have a relatively small amount of time to maximize their income.

The WNBA has reached an agreement with the players union to phase in pay rises, getting the average up to $130,000 and the top players over $500,000 by 2027. But that is still a pittance compared to what other leagues are willing to pay. If this is not seriously addressed, we could see a talent drain toward the east.


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