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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.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

Chicago Sky Upset New York to End Liberty’s Unbeaten Streak

chicago sky's angel reese on the court against new york liberty
Angel Reese registered a near double-double against a strong Liberty side. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Liberty’s unbeaten streak came to an end on Thursday as Angel Reese and the Chicago Sky got the upset win over New York with a final score of 90-81. 

Angel Reese stood out with a near double-double, registering 13 points and nine rebounds. She’s currently the only rookie this season to exceed 10 points in her first three games, and the first player in Sky history to begin their career with three consecutive double-digit scoring games, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The outcome may not have come as a surprise to Liberty stars Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who sung Reese’s praises ahead of the game.

"She’s a workhorse," Stewart told The Post. "She doesn’t stop. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s tough to box out and good at cleaning up for her team offensively and defensively."

"I feel like she’s an energizer bunny," Jones added. "She doesn’t stop moving, she doesn’t stop crashing the boards. Just someone that is gonna be relentless in her approach to getting to the glass and playing tough."

It was the first time Chicago has met New York this season. The game was especially meaningful for new Chicago head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty for seven years as a player and joined the team's Ring of Honor in 2011.

"This place means a lot to me... I played in that jersey, I adored that jersey, I adored every player that I had an opportunity to play with. The love that I received even today was overwhelming," Weatherspoon reflected after the game.

Following the win, Sky guard Dana Evans had some kind words for her coach.

"I mean, it's just special. She's special," Evans said. "She just breeds confidence in each and every one of us. We love her. We just wanted to go so hard and play hard for her, and I feel like this one was really for her. We really wanted this for her more than anything."

Thursday's victory brings Chicago's record to 2-1, a somewhat unlikely feat given that their offseason featured starter Kahleah Copper getting traded to Phoenix. The Connecticut Sun are now the only undefeated team left in the league this season, and will formidable foes for the Sky as they take their winning streak on the road to Chicago this weekend.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

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