A close up shot of Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury at practice and media availability during the 2021 WNBA Finals on October 11, 2021 at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Michael Gonzales | National Basketball Association | Getty Images
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia for weeks as it escalates its war on Ukraine.
Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star, has not been allowed to leave the country after the Russian Federal Customs Service said it discovered cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow, an offense that could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Griner’s arrest, which was made public Saturday, has left many casual basketball observers wondering why she was in the country in the first place. But it is not at all uncommon for WNBA players to compete in the U.S. and then spend the offseason playing overseas.
Why do WNBA athletes compete overseas?
Griner has played the last seven WNBA offseasons with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia, where big-name players can earn more than $1 million a year.
Playing in Europe during the offseason gives WNBA players an opportunity to earn four to five times their salaries in the U.S.
“This is the big paycheck — for all of us,” Todd Troxel told ESPN in 2016, when he was an assistant coach for both UMMC and the Phoenix Mercury. “We all love Phoenix, but ultimately it’s all about here,” he said, referring to Russia.
Sports experts say the money professional women basketball players can demand overseas is too good to pass up.
“It’s a sad situation in many regards, but it’s not totally beyond the realm of understanding,” said Ketra Armstrong, a professor of sport management and the director of the Center for Race & Ethnicity in Sport at the University of Michigan. “The amount of money that athletes can make throughout other parts of the world is incredible and almost a no-brainer depending on how good you are and your overall market appeal.”
Armstrong said the allure of playing basketball abroad and seeing other parts of the world are also draws, even in politically repressive countries like Russia.
“Foreign countries treat their athletes well, and there’s a level of protection they have when in other countries. I can see why after going to a place repeatedly over a period of years, you could feel a sense of safety and maybe even invincibility,” Armstrong said. “That feeling of being home away from home gives them comfort, and so they don’t have that same level of fear that the average person may have when they think about being in …….