Since the early 2000s, many WNBA players have also played for teams overseas. The WNBA season is only four months long, so they can effectively play for two teams in one year. They do this for the obvious reason: money. Brittney Griner, who was a WNBA sensation during her rookie season, was paid just $49,440. In China she earns $600,000. Here's a map made by the WNBA a couple of years ago of where all their players were going in the offseason: I count 96 players playing for second teams in 14 different countries scattered across Europe and Asia.
After ten years bouncing back and forth between the United States and Europe playing basketball year round, Diana Taurasi is tired. She may have finished second in MVP voting as she led the Phoenix Mercury to the 2014 WNBA Championship, but when they hand out the rings and unveil the championship banner in four months, Taurasi won't be there. According to Kate Fagan, Taurasi's Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg is paying her more than her WNBA salary to take the season off. UMMC Ekaterinburg pays Taurasi $1.5 million, while her 2015 WNBA salary would've been right around the maximum of $109,500.
Taurasi explained her decision in an open letter to fans. An excerpt:
The year-round nature of women's basketball takes its toll and the financial opportunity with my team in Russia would have been irresponsible to turn down. They offered to pay me to rest and I've decided to take them up on it. I want to be able to take care of myself and my family when I am done playing.
The move makes plenty of sense for UMMC Ekaterinburg. They're already paying Taurasi $1.5 million; what's another $110,000 or so to make sure she shows up for the season healthy, rested, and injury free? In another piece, Fagan explains that top WNBA players have regularly been offered bonuses by their overseas teams to sit out the WNBA season, but nobody has taken them up on that offer, until now. Why not?
Well, the [WNBA] is widely regarded as the most competitive in the world, and the players themselves — Taurasi included — want to compete against the best while also helping cultivate the fan bases in their cities.
In other words, there is a sense of solidarity among most female players.
You may be wondering how European teams can afford to pay players so much more than the WNBA. There are different explanations for different teams in different countries, but here's Jim Caple back in 2007 when Taurasi played for Spartak Moscow:
Like most owners, von Kalmanovic says he loses money on his team. Unlike most owners, his claims are believable. Spartak averaged approximately 3,000 fans a game, but the specific attendance doesn't really matter because tickets are free (the plan is to get fans hooked, then start charging admission). He says the team also pays to have its games televised. With salaries, travel, publicity, overhead and a youth basketball school his wife manages, von Kalmanovic estimates this year's expenses would run $5 million to $6 million. And how much revenue does he take in? "There is no revenue. I take in nothing."
When basketball is your passion and you're part of the new Russian oligarchy, what is $6 million over the course of a season? One person said he saw von Kalmanovic go through $1 million in a single weekend trip to France.
"I have friends who go to casinos," von Kalmanovic said. "I know friends who risk on the stock exchange. I am Lithuanian — for me, basketball is everything. It is a hobby, a pleasure, a casino, whatever you want."
"There are six or seven owners [like him] in Russia," Taurasi said. "They're hotheads who want the best women's basketball team, and that's their hobby, so they don't care how much they pay."
In Taurasi's case, the UMMC in UMMC Ekaterinburg is the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, a major Russian mining company that also has numerous subsidiaries. It is owned by Iskander Makhmudov, whose fortune is estimated at $5.3 billion.
If more players start taking bonuses to skip the season, the WNBA will have a real problem on its hands. The league and players agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement just last year, and it is in force until 2021. The maximum salary of $107,500 rises to just $121,500 by 2021, a paltry $2,000 raise per season. Even if a player wins just about every individual and team bonus available, the most they can earn is around $150,000, far below what even mediocre (by WNBA standards) players can earn overseas.
It is hard to tell, though, how much of a challenge this actually is to the WNBA's viability. To be sure, it is highly, highly embarrassing. Taurasi is on pace to finish her career as the WNBA's all-time leading scorer, and yet it is really easy for a team halfway across the world to pay her more money to sit on a beach for four months than the WNBA can pay her to actually play basketball.
The real question is whether anybody will follow Taurasi's example. I remember six years ago when the Euro was especially strong, and Josh Childress signed a lucrative deal to leave the NBA and play for Olympiacos in Greece. Some thought it portended something awful for the NBA, but no player of consequence followed Childress's lead. He didn't even complete his contract in Greece before slinking back to the NBA in 2010, where he was so bad he could barely get any run.
Of course, the difference in salaries between the NBA and WNBA is multiple orders of magnitude. It is much easier to lure, say, Sue Bird or Maya Moore away from the WNBA when they're only making $110,000 than it is to nab LeBron James and Kevin Durant when they get paid $20 million. For the WNBA's sake, they'll have to hope players keeping making what Fagan calls an "emotional investment" in the WNBA.
Because if they begin to make decisions based solely on finances, there may not be any players left.
Photo via Jennifer Stewart/Getty