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Brittney Griner’s homecoming underlines WNBA’s perpetual offseason struggle

Brittney Griner was arrested in February while traveling to join her Russian club, UMMC Ekaterinburg. (BSR Agency/Getty Images)

After 294 days in Russian custody, Brittney Griner began her journey home Thursday.

With Griner safely on her way back to the United States, the focus for WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and the WNBA shifts to supporting the 32-year-old and her family – and to ensuring that Griner’s ordeal doesn’t happen again.

The Phoenix Mercury center was released in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout after months in custody and “painstaking and intense negotiations,” President Joe Biden announced Thursday.

Engelbert learned earlier in the week that negotiations were “intensifying” and that a “solution might be on the table,” but she didn’t feel any relief until she heard the news this morning, she told reporters Thursday.

“A deal is not done until it actually gets executed and transacted,” she said. “So it wasn’t until this morning that we really knew that Brittney was actually on a plane, coming to the United States.”

Griner was arrested in February while traveling to rejoin her Russian club. Prior to her detainment, she had spent eight seasons with UMMC Ekaterinburg, winning the Russian Championship every year.

Despite Griner’s plight, the draw of international leagues remains strong for players, even as the WNBA tries to keep them in the United State in the offseason.

For years, WNBA players have headed overseas in the offseason to make up for the U.S. league’s low salaries and short season. Russia became a popular destination for many players due to the high salaries its teams can offer. The maximum salary a player could make in the WNBA in 2022 was $196,267, while players can make a million dollars or more in Russia.

High-profile players including Sue Bird, Maya Moore, Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi all have spent time with UMMC Ekaterinburg in seasons past.

Griner’s detainment highlighted the offseason struggle for WNBA players, some of whom choose to put their safety on the line to provide for themselves and their families. Countries such as Russia can be particularly dangerous for women, the LGBTQ+ community and people of color.

The WNBA is increasing its slate of games in hopes of also increasing salaries and benefits, Engelbert said. During the 2023 season, each team will play a record 40 contests.

The league also will have a prioritization rule starting with the 2023 season, which will require players to report to their team by the start of training camp or by May 1, whichever is later. If they miss the start of training camp, they will be fined. If they miss the start of the regular season, they will be suspended for the year.

“We have to build an economic model,” Engelbert said. “We are only 26 years young. We aren’t 75, or 100 or 110 like some of the men’s leagues are. So we are working on that and studying history. We are building rivalries. We are building household names.”

Players do have opportunities to expand their careers in the United States during the offseason, Engelbert said. She cited marketing campaigns and broadcasting deals as two options.

But if athletes still choose to play overseas, it’s important that they know the risks, the commissioner said.

“I think our players are going to do what they think is best for themselves and their families,” she said. “But we definitely inform them all the time of the security risks of where they might be playing.”

Some WNBA players who do choose to stay in the United States in the offseason have to get creative. After all, marketing and broadcast opportunities aren’t available to everyone, particularly for younger players or role players who may not have the same name recognition as established stars.

For example, Chiney Ogwumike works as a commentator for ESPN, and A’ja Wilson has an advertising gig with Ruffles. But young Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is spending the offseason as Director of Recruiting Operations at her alma mater Arizona.

Players in need of options could look into offseason opportunities that prepare them for “life after basketball,” Engelbert said.

“There are also internship opportunities that aren’t part of big marketing agreements like the stars might get or endorsements from corporations,” she said. “But there are internship opportunities to hone their skill set for what they do in life after basketball.”

That is one of the reasons she took the commissioner job, Engelbert said. Her goal is to set players up to be able to pursue other work opportunities when their playing careers are over.

“We need to do a better job as a League of placing them in internships and apprenticeships for their skill sets,” she said, citing Nike as a company that has given opportunities to former players. “Now, they’re focusing on playing basketball during their young years, but not everybody’s body is going to hold up like Sue Bird’s did for 20 years.

“We are providing more and more opportunities, should the players want to take those opportunities.”

Engelbert added that she understands the difficulty of convincing players to do something other than play basketball because of the passion they have for the game.