Explainer: Why do WNBA players compete overseas?

Competing overseas has long been the track WNBA players have taken in their offseasons.

Though the landscape has changed this season, plenty of WNBA players have headed abroad to compete in foreign leagues. The Athletic will be with many of them this winter, telling stories about their lives and the impact of nearly year-round competition.

Where do WNBA players compete?

From Spain to Australia to Turkey, you’ll find WNBA players competing in numerous countries.

Russia had been a popular destination for WNBA players, with the league’s brightest stars competing for teams like UMMC Ekaterinburg and Dynamo Kursk. It was known to pay the highest salaries — reportedly more than $1 million in some cases — and it boasted loaded rosters.

But because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing conflict, FIBA ​​has banned Russia from competition — and that includes participation in the women’s EuroLeague. Many players have been rattled by Brittney Griner’s lengthy detention and imprisonment in Russia, an ongoing ordeal the US government has deemed unjust.

China, which also paid well, isn’t an option this year because of COVID-19-related visa issues.

Turkey is an especially popular home to WNBA players this year. Jonquel Jones (Sun), Tiffany Hayes (Dream), Queen Egbo (Fever), Emma Meesseman (Sky), DeWanna Bonner (Sun) and Riquna Williams (Aces) are among those playing there.

Other players are competing in Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, Israel and other nations.

What’s the competition like?

Though players participate in competitive clubs in various nations, the EuroLeague is considered the most talented and competitive international league. The annual event is hosted by FIBA ​​and features 16 of Europe’s top teams, with a regular-season group stage and an eight-team playoff culminating in a neutral-site championship.

Sopron (Hungary) is looking to defend its title, and Fenerbahce (Turkey) hopes to avenge its championship loss.

What are the downsides of playing overseas? Are changes in store?

Players have long discussed the struggles of jumping from one league to the next with essentially no time off. It requires immense personal sacrifice for many as well as limiting their time to physically rest. Most are driven to year-round play to significantly boost their income. Unlike the WNBA, there are no hard salary caps or players unions abroad.

More WNBA players have opted to stay home this offseason for numerous reasons: a desire for rest, increased domestic opportunities and concerns stemming from Griner’s detention in Russia.

The WNBA has made salary increases to help offset the lure of greater overseas compensation, too. Players can make an average of $130,000, with some top players able to earn $500,000 with marketing agreements and bonuses.

But the collective bargaining agreement will create difficulty for WNBA players who compete overseas in the future. The scheduling is tricky for players, as their overseas leagues sometimes don’t end before WNBA training camps begin in April and games tip off in May. Beginning in 2023, new prioritization rules will come into play. Any player with more than three years in the league who arrives late to training camp will be fined per day. A player who does not arrive before the first day of the regular season will be ineligible to play for the season. In 2024 and beyond, any player who arrives after training camp begins will be ineligible for the WNBA season.

The “No Offseason” series is part of a partnership with Google. The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photo of Tiffany Hayes: Adam Hagy/Getty Images)


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