Last month, Russian authorities arrested WNBA star Brittney Griner at the Moscow airport after they found cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage. The Russian media isn’t being particularly forthcoming with information about her detainment, but as of March 8, she’s still in Russia.
The reason Griner is in Russia in the first place was because she plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League. She’s played in Russia for the past seven years, and she makes over $1 million per season. And she’s not alone — playing in European and Asian leagues in the offseason is extremely common among WNBA players.
The NBA, which partially owns the WNBA, needs to dedicate more time and money to their female players so they don’t have to forgo an offseason and play overseas to support themselves.
Playing in other countries during the WNBA offseason can allow players to make double, triple or even quadruple of what they make in the United States. Griner’s current yearly salary in the WNBA is $227,900, which is just about a fourth of what she made in Russia this winter, and there are only three players in the WNBA who make more than Griner — by $194.
Meanwhile, Steph Curry, the highest-paid player in the NBA, will make $45.7 million this season. The NBA player whose salary is closest to Griner and other top WNBA players is Joe Wieskamp, a forward for the San Antonio Spurs who made $202,068 last year after playing 17 games — out of 82 — and scoring an average of 2.2 points per game.
Salary issues in professional sports is not a new phenomenon. The U.S. women’s national soccer team has been fighting for equal pay since 2016, and spring training for Major League Baseball is delayed due to issues surrounding the collective bargaining agreement between players and owners.
The main argument against paying WNBA players more is that the league simply isn’t profitable, because no one watches it. It’s true that the WNBA generates about $60 million in revenue per year, while the NBA generates $7.92 billion. Since the WNBA costs $70 million to run, it has technically lost an average of $10 million every year that it has existed — which, as one lovely blogger puts it, “the NBA subsidizes out of the goodness of its politically correct heart.”
But the NBA’s “politically correct heart” has room to grow a few sizes. As Las Vegas Aces forward Kelsey Plum pointed out in 2018, 50% of the revenue in the NBA goes to players’ salaries, while only 20% of the WNBA’s revenue goes to their players.
What part of fining the New York Liberty $500,000 for taking charter flights to games is politically correct? Yes, the flights may have given the New York Liberty an unfair advantage in games, but how do you not look at this situation and realize that the issue isn’t the team that’s chartering the flight, but rather the collective bargaining agreement that does not allow charter flights for the WNBA while private planes are the norm for the NBA?
It’s been five years since I first wrote about how the NBA’s management of the WNBA is a circular problem, and while the WNBA has benefitted from some increased visibility since then, the issue of equal pay still looms large.
If the NBA wanted to pay WNBA players more, they could. If they wanted to, they could cut salaries of the owners — most of whom are billionaires — and redistribute that money to WNBA players. They could advertise the women’s league better. They could make the WNBA season longer than 36 games, which might allow for more time for fans to become invested in teams.
At the end of the day, people will still complain that the WNBA is “boring,” less competitive and that there’s no dunking. That’s their prerogative. I personally love watching the WNBA because these women are extremely talented shooters, ball handlers and passers — and I find the teamwork displayed by WNBA teams to be something that the NBA could take a lesson or two from.
And if Russian police detaining one of the most prolific dunkers in women’s basketball — who makes four times her U.S. salary by playing overseas in the offseason — isn't enough to make people realize we need to be paying WNBA players more, I don’t know what will.
Sydney Miller is a senior psychology major. Reach them at email@example.com.