Right as the Washington Mystics were eliminated from the WNBA playoffs, many players had to turn around, book new flights and re-pack their bags to prepare for their overseas basketball seasons. No fewer than five players have signed international contracts or are preparing to play in another non-American league during the offseason. More could easily join that list over the next several weeks.
That number is right on pace with last year when five players currently on the Mystics roster also played overseas. The glaring difference between the last WNBA offseason and this upcoming one is the detainment of Brittney Griner in Russia.
But, generally, the decision to go overseas or stay stateside hasn’t changed much among Mystics players.
When asked if her decision-making process had changed because of what happened to Griner, Elizabeth Williams said “yes and no.”
“[Griner’s] situation, the timing was unfortunate, the circumstances were unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s necessarily all of our experiences overseas,” Williams, who played in Turkey last season, told NBC Sports Washington. “But I think it does open up the conversations of players wanting to be here more. I mean, even for me, it [is] more of a mental fatigue than anything of just not wanting to overseas right away. But I mean, I think it won’t be surprising to see that a lot of players are gonna go over there and just take the bigger checks because it kind of is what it is.”
Playing in other countries’ basketball leagues is a commonality across the WNBA that isn’t seen too often in other American professional sports. For simple financial reasons alone, many players have to resort to playing overseas to make a living as an athlete.
For example, two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne (the highest-paid Washington Mystic this season) earned $227,900 and had the fourth-biggest salary in the league. By contrast, the minimum contract in the NBA is $1.8 million.
And Delle Donne – who does not play overseas – is the highest tier of contracts. Half of the Mystics roster makes less than $100,000.
So for most of the WNBA, playing overseas isn’t really a question. Where they play, now, is a question.
“I don’t know if being politically correct is right right now,” Myisha Hines-Allen, who played in Italy last season, said at her end-of-season press conference. “So I know I wouldn’t want to play in Russia. I mean that’s just that.
“But overall, again, we make our money going overseas, really. So it’s kind of hard to say ‘I will never play overseas again because of the situation’ and again, this is just my opinion for me. So in a sense yes, it has changed but at the same time I know that I need to go overseas to make a living for myself.”
Griner’s team in Russia, UMMC Ekaterinburg, is one of the premier women’s basketball professional teams in the world. Each season their roster resembles that of a WNBA All-Star team and she’s been a part of that for the better part of a decade. UMMC Ekaterinburg always sought out top-tier talent and often would pay its players more than what the WNBA would allow on a max deal.
Several years ago, Dianna Taurasi sat out of a WNBA season after UMMC Ekaterinburg requested her to do so to fully recover from an injury. They offered her more to play in Russia and she obliged to not play.
Going to foreign countries has always been a balancing act. Now, the pressure is felt even more
“I think for us, especially it does (affect our decision) because it’s different just being a player going overseas and it’s different than being a WNBA player going overseas. There’s a higher target around you as a player because you’re the best in the world, like our league is the best in the world,” Alysha Clark, who has played several seasons in France, said. “So, people and teams, they know that when you come to their country, so it’s definitely had me take a step back and really evaluate because like we said that could have been any one of us. And it’s a very scary situation.
“And again, like for us just continuing to stay diligent and making sure that like her name stays in the forefront and like the situation that happened and why she was even over there in the beginning of pay equity and all of these issues at the forefront of this conversation because that’s why we go over there. And so hopefully, it definitely makes you take a second to pause and think and I know for me, that’s something that I’ve taken into consideration for sure.”
Those players, along with Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Shakira Austin, are the five expected to spend some time abroad this year.
There is one Mystics player, however, who typically plays overseas and will not do so this season. Ariel Atkins said that she was staying in the United States to rest her body and also focus on her ambition to make the Team USA roster, again, for the 2022 World Cup.
Earlier in 2022, Atkins was on a Ukrainian team that had to leave the country as a result of the invasion.
Asked if Griner’s detainment was a factor in not going abroad, Atkins didn’t have a concrete answer.
“Yes and no,” Atkins said. “Not really something I’m ready to comment on.”
For now, the overseas route is the primary option for WNBA players to make a living playing basketball. There are new avenues, like Athlete’s Unlimited where Natasha Cloud and Tianna Hawkins dominated last season, that are making the option of staying in the US more tenable. Rising salary caps and off-court sponsorships are also beginning to help give players options, too.
However, as long as the WNBA’s salary limitations remain so will the need for half the league to play overseas. There just might be fewer teams and countries players are trying to play in.