How do WNBA players choose their overseas teams? It’s complicated

On Jasmine Thomas’ first night in the Czech Republic as a member of Sika Brno, the police showed up at her house. They did so not because Thomas purposefully committed any wrongdoing, but because as she unpacked her belongings, Thomas blew her apartment’s electrical fuse, and she knew only one number to call. When authorities arrived, they contacted the manager of her EuroLeague team, Thomas recalls, because she did not have her phone number.

“At the time, I didn’t really understand a lot of the things I know now,” says Thomas, who began her overseas career in 2011 right after her debut WNBA campaign with the Mystics.

For the first time in her professional career, Thomas is stateside during a WNBA offseason. She is rehabbing the torn right ACL she suffered in May, commenting for ACC Network and working toward her real estate license. Over the last decade, however, she has suited up for various clubs in Turkey, Israel and Poland, collecting passport stamps the same way she has collected steals. With each stop, she has grown more familiar with the overseas decision-making process.

Deciding which club to join is highly individualized. For Thomas, her salary and the level of competition were top priorities.

“You want to make sure that the basketball decision is even worth it,” she says.

Other key factors, Thomas adds, were “comfort pieces,” like what city a team was based in, where her apartment was, whether she could bring her dogs, how many breaks were offered and how many flights would be compensated for family members.

Ticha Penicheiro has been in Thomas’ situation, having played in the United States and in Poland, Italy, Russia and Latvia, among other locales. The former WNBA All-Star now serves as the director of women’s basketball at Sports International Group, and she says her job is to try to “inform the player of everything they will need to make a solid decision about where to go.” She is an integral go-between for foreign clubs and players, who may not have as much familiarity with the teams they are considering joining.

The process of when a WNBA player starts to consider their offseason destination can vary, Penicheiro says. However, it usually is in full force during the summer, once international clubs have more clarity regarding the winter season’s budget.

That means while WNBA players are focusing on the American games in front of them, they are also considering where they want to play four months later. Chatter about what to expect from an overseas team, a coach and a foreign city becomes commonplace by a WNBA season’s end, says guard Erica McCall, who has played for four WNBA teams and is with Perfumerias Avenida in Spain.

For American players who may not be receiving regular playing time in the WNBA, worries about how those minute limitations could impact foreign offers can see in.

“It can be nerve-wracking,” Thomas says. “But it’s definitely easier to focus and not worry so much about overseas once you’ve been more established overseas.”

Plus, says Mike Cound, the president of Cound Group Global, creating a strong track record abroad can be more important to foreign clubs than merely being on a WNBA roster. The reason, he explains, is because “you don’t know how someone is going to adapt overseas, and teams know that well.”

Starting in the spring, the WNBA will have a policy in place that will impact the decision-making process. In its simplest terms, beginning in 2023, it will become punitive to miss the start of WNBA training camp, and players beyond their third year in the league will be fined 1 percent of their base salary for each day missed. Aside from some exceptions for issues like national-team obligations or being a rookie, second- or third-year player, a player who misses the start of the regular season will be suspended for the entirety of the WNBA regular season. In 2024, players will be suspended — again, with certain exceptions — the entire season if they are late for training camp.

It will have large implications on how players pick which club to join.

“(End) dates are huge now with prioritization,” Cound says. “When does their season end?”

The French league, for instance, stretched into early June, while Israel’s domestic competition finished in late April. WNBA training camps typically start in late April, and the season usually tips off in May.

Still, seemingly no factor looms larger in the decision-making process than money. Overseas salaries are known to be often significantly more than the WNBA offers, and although the number is down, about 66 players are competing internationally this offseason. Though multiple sources say that salaries abroad are down this winter — in large part because the high-paying leagues in Russia, China and South Korea are currently not options for American players — financial incentives for players choosing to compete overseas remain present. That doesn’t mean complications involving compensation don’t emerge.

Knowing if an international club traditionally pays its players when it is supposed to — or frequently issues late payments — is a key piece of information relayed by agents.

“I want to know the history of if they pay on time,” says Kahleah Copper, who stars for the Sky in the WNBA and took home EuroLeague MVP honors with Avenida in the spring.

That concern is not an issue with WNBA franchises. And though Penicheiro notes that the league’s salary cap restrictions can complicated decisions, WNBA free agency is often easier to navigate because of more finite and homogenous options.

“I have a little bit more autonomy in my own decision-making,” McCall says of WNBA free agency. “Like being able to communicate with people outside of my agent about where I want to play.”

Reflecting on her early career overseas decision-making process, Thomas says she wishes she would have asked more questions, received more insight into the differences among leagues and understood the importance of EuroLeague and EuroCup competition. As a result, she says, “I make a huge emphasis to do that for young players.”

McCall, too, is trying to make information about the overseas experience more readily available. Among the ways is her by hosting a podcast that focuses on different elements of professional women’s basketball, often diving into the foreign experience.

Like Thomas, McCall says, “When I think about my rookie year, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.” During her first season with KSC Szekszard in Hungary, for instance, she didn’t have a car.

“Now it’s something that is super important,” she says. So much so that in her contract, it states the team-provided vehicle must have an automatic transmission.

— The Athletic‘s Sabreena Merchant contributed to this report.

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 Jasmine Thomas: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)


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