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The Great Migration: WNBA players head overseas for ‘offseason’ play

Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Well before the champagne flowed in Chicago following the Sky’s historic WNBA Championship, players from playoff-eliminated teams boarded planes, trains, and automobiles and ventured off to begin their “offseason” on teams in Europe, Asia, and Australia. Once their team’s WNBA season ended, many only had a week or two of rest and family time before they were due to check-in at international locales per the terms of their overseas contracts.

The continued year-round nature of women’s professional basketball applies, with few exceptions, to all categories of players in the W. Many of the league’s biggest stars, such as Breanna Stewart and Brittany Griner, have been on the 12-month hamster wheel for years on end. And rookies, like 2021 top overall draft pick Charlie Collier and WNBA Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere, are heading abroad for their very first international seasons. Collier will play in Italy and Onyenwere will head to Spain once she’s recovered from surgery to repair ruptured ligaments in her finger.

Jonquel Jones, this season’s uncontested MVP, and her top seeded Connecticut Sun were knocked out in the semi-finals on October 6th by the late-peaking Sky. Jones had exactly 13 days to come down from the loss, pack, fly across the world, psych herself back up, and be on the court in Russia for tip-off on October 20th. In her season debut for UMMC Ekaterinburg, she had 19 points and 9 rebounds in just 21 minutes.

Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

UMMC’s track record of being able to afford the most star power from the WNBA continues this year, with a roster that includes Jones, Griner, Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, and Emma Meesseman. It’s virtually a WNBA All-Star team competing in Russia every winter. With Stewart still recovering from an Achilles clean-up surgery (and adjusting to life with a newborn) and Griner opting for a longer rest period before heading over, UMMC may be slightly more on par with their competition for the first half of the season.

Griner, for one, has indicated her tenure of running the year-round race is coming to an end. 

“It is getting harder and harder,” Griner said the day after the Mercury lost the title to Chicago. “I’m not really looking forward to it, honestly — having to leave my family and go overseas again. Definitely going over this offseason, and then just taking it year-by-year.” 

Arike Ogunbowale has already returned to Dynamo Kursk in Russia and will be joined this year by Seattle guard Epiphanny Prince and New York forward Natasha Howard. One of the most impactful forwards in the league, as evidenced by her three WNBA Championships (2017 with the Lynx, 2018 and 2020 with the Storm), Howard concluded her WNBA season on September 23rd and was already across the globe and on the court for Kursk on October 6th, scoring 22 points and snagging 11 rebounds.

Arike Ogunbowale won All-Star Game MVP award after leading all scorers with 26 points. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Bella Alarie, Amanda Zahui B., Elizabeth Williams, and Kayla McBride were also all across the pond and logging minutes less than three weeks after their final WNBA contest. In McBride’s case, it was nine days between her last Lynx game and her first for Fenerbahce Safiport in Turkey. Zahui B. and Williams are also on the Fenerbahce roster this season and will be joined by Kiah Stokes, Bria Hartley, and Satou Sabally. Fenerbahce will be on the hunt to dethrone UMMC, who knocked them out in the semi-finals last year, 88-84, on their way to their third EuroLeague Championship in a row.

Kahleah Copper will be taking her Finals MVP skills over to Spain, where she’ll join Alarie and the Samuelson sisters on Perfumerias Avenida. The Aces’ Jackie Young and Wings’ Marina Mabrey are headed down under to play for Perth in Australia’s Women’s National Basketball League. A handful of other WNBAers will also be sprinkled throughout the WNBL. With nine players already signed to overseas contracts, the Dallas Wings likely have the highest percentage of personnel abroad this offseason. Eight Mystics and six Liberty have also already committed to playing internationally.

WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper (Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images)

Clearly, the financial gain to be made from playing overseas during the offseason is still alive and well for the vast majority of players. With a relatively short WNBA season (6 months), it’s not unreasonable for athletes to compete elsewhere during the winter months. The problem is that with WNBA salaries still a far cry from other mainstream pro sports, playing a 12-month schedule is one of the only ways to make a decent living in a career with an (at best) early-40s cutoff. The endless cycle means injuries, burnout, mental health issues, family separation, and other hardships weighing heavily on the shoulders of these players.

The conversation on how to change this reality is ongoing. Continuing to grow the WNBA to be a stand-alone, viable one-season option is the top priority but is not going to happen in the short term. The announcement of an Athlete’s Unlimited basketball season this winter is a great option for players who only need a small amount of extra income to subsidize their WNBA salary (AU players will reportedly earn $20K-$25K), or whose bodies just can’t withstand the year-round grind. The WNBA’s highly touted 2020 CBA, which significantly raised salaries, was also praised for allowing top players “to earn up to $300,000 more in ‘league marketing agreements,’ which are designed to keep stars from having to play overseas during the WNBA offseason.” But if anyone’s salary increase and marketing opportunities led them to opt out of overseas ball, they have yet to raise their hand and say so.  

The other component of the new CBA that will come into play in 2024 is the “WNBA Prioritization” clause, which will require 3+ year veterans to report back to their WNBA teams on time instead of missing training camp and preseason games when the EuroLeague playoffs extend into the start of the WNBA season. While the intent is commendable, it’s nerve-wracking for those who grew up without the WNBA and want to know there will be other options if the league ever takes a step back. If the EuroLeague doesn’t shift its schedule and the WNBA holds strong, many players will be caught in the middle and may be forced to choose between an often higher salary abroad and their lower WNBA salary back home.

It’s a concern top players in the W are taking seriously. On the Tea With A & Phee podcast this year, Lynx star Napheesa Collier discussed the issue with co-host and 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson. 

“Do you think players are going to opt out of playing in the WBNA to go overseas? Because you know most people make more money overseas and then you’d have the summer off,” Collier posited. “I feel like that was a bad move. You’re forcing players to choose. And if I’m not making that much in the league, it’s not enough for me to survive on during the year, then I’m going overseas and having the summer off.”

We still have a few years before players will be faced with these hard choices. In the meantime, the 2021-2022 international season is well underway and stocked full of WNBA talent as usual. Even the VanderQuigs have (hopefully) slept off their Championship celebration hangovers and are gearing up for the foreign stint of their double life. For the foreseeable future, this remains the reality for professional women’s basketball players.

Resources on WNBAers Overseas: See this from The Next, this from Swish Appeal, and this (when updated) from WInsidr. About half of WNBA team pages have a link or news story listing overseas status of their players, but half isn’t enough, and they are not always kept up to date.