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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Clark, Martin Square Off in First Pro WNBA Matchup

Kate Martin #20 of the Las Vegas Aces and Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever look on during the game
Things looked a little different Saturday night as the former Iowa teammates went head-to-head in Las Vegas. (Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa teammates Caitlin Clark and Kate Martin shared the court once again on Saturday, this time as professionals.

It was Martin’s Aces that got the 99-80 win over Clark’s Fever in Las Vegas. The pair's former coaches Lisa Bluder, Jan Jensen, Jenni Fitzgerald, and Raina Harmon were all in attendance to watch their Hawkeyes — Clark, Martin, and former national player of the year Megan Gustafson — take the court.

"It’s super special. It’s cool for our program, cool for Lisa, for Coach Jan, for all of them," Clark said in a pregame press conference. "They’ve known me since I’ve been 13 years old and now I’m 22 getting to live out my dream and they’ve been a huge part of that and helping me get here and helping Megan and Kate to get here too. It’s a great moment for them and I’m sure they’re not complaining about a trip to Vegas."

As for her college teammate, Clark had nothing but good things to say ahead of the showdown. 

"I’m just really happy for her and everything Coach [Becky] Hammon says about her is so true," she said. "Every person that played at Iowa and was around her knows that to be true. She’s the ultimate teammate, ultimate person, ultimate leader."

In the end, Martin stole the show with 12 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes, while Clark amassed eight points, seven assists, and five rebounds over 29 minutes of playing time. 

"It was weird," Martin admitted after the game. "I'm not going to lie — just looking out on the court and seeing her in a different jersey than me, it was obviously different. But it's really fun. We're both living out our dreams right now."

The Aces next meet the fever on July 2nd at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Barcelona Beat Lyon to Win Back-to-Back Champions League Titles

Barcelona's Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas celebrating after beating Lyon at the 2024 Champions League final
Ballon d'Or winners Aitana Bonmatí and Alexia Putellas helped Barcelona to a second-straight UWCL title on Saturday. (Ramsey Cardy - Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images)

Barcelona was crowned champion of the Champions League on Saturday with a 2-0 win over Lyon in Bilbao.

Alexia "La Reina" Putellas, who recently re-signed with Barcelona, came off the bench to score the team's second goal. Fellow Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí provided the team’s first. After the game, defender Lucy Bronze said Putellas was nicknamed "the queen" for a reason.

"Alexia is the captain of the team and she's the queen of Barcelona for a reason,"  defender Lucy Bronze told DAZN. "She's got the quality to do that in the last minute of the Champions League final when we were up against it at the end and it just sealed the win for us. It was amazing."

The victory marked Barcelona's first win over Lyon in a UWCL final, having previously gone up against the French side at both the 2019 and 2022 Champions League finals. It's also Barcelona's second Champions League title in a row.

"It's hard to win it once, but to do it back-to-back, Lyon showed how difficult it is and this team has finally done that," Bronze said. "I think we go down in history as one of the best teams in Europe."

This season, the team also secured a quadruple for the first time in club history, having already won Liga F, the Copa de la Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. The win ensures that coach Jonatan Giráldez — who has officially departed the team to join the NWSL's Washington Spirit — leaves Europe a champion.

"It was an incredible game. I am really happy, it's one of the best days of my life for sure," Giráldez told broadcaster DAZN after the game. "We did an amazing job. I am very proud of all of them."

Following the win, Putellas said her team "can't ask for anything else."

"Our objective was to win four out of four," the Spain international told reporters. "We have achieved everything we wanted. Every minute of sacrifice has been worth the effort — and I'd say that not after the game, but before, just entering in the stadium, with all the support we had here, it was worth it."

2024 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Aitana Bonmatí said that the crowd support made it "feel like Camp Nou."

"I am on cloud nine right now," she said. "It is an historic day which we will remember forever."

Sun’s Alyssa Thomas Ejected After Flagrant 2 on Sky Rookie Angel Reese

Angel Reese said there were "no hard feelings" stemming from Alyssa Thomas's flagrant foul. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Angel Reese might have gotten knocked down on Saturday, but she got right back up again. 

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas was ejected from the Sun’s 86-82 win over Chicago following a flagrant foul 2 on Reese — the first of her career. While the two were battling for a rebound, Reese took a clothesline hold around the neck courtesy of Thomas before hitting the ground.

After the game, Reese told reporters that there were "no hard feelings" and she appreciated Thomas for playing her hard beneath the basket.

"I know she purposely probably didn’t do it towards me," Reese said. "But just being able to come out there and just be strong and stand on two feet, it was going to be a tough game and that’s what I’m built for. And my teammates had my back throughout the whole game. So I was prepared for it."

She also didn’t buy into the idea that it was a "Welcome to the WNBA" moment, but thanked Thomas "sending a message" because it helped her get back up and "keep pushing."

"It’s not just because I’m a rookie. I’m a player. I’m a basketball player. They don’t give a damn if I’m a rookie. I mean, I want them to come at me every day. I want them to come at everybody," she added. "I mean, they’re not supposed to be nice to me. I hope y’all know that. They’re not supposed to be nice to me or lay down because I’m Angel Reese or because I’m a rookie."

Reese finished the game with 13 points, five rebounds, and two assists over 33 minutes.

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.

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