Top WNBA free agents Courtney Vandersloot, Breanna Stewart and Emma Meesseman are joining forces for EuroLeague club Fenerbahce this offseason.
Vandersloot signed with the Turkish team this week and will join the team on Feb. 15. While her deal creates a veritable superteam, it also creates questions for the players and the WNBA due to a controversial new rule.
The prioritization rule requires WNBA players to return from overseas play by the time the league opens its season on May 19. Players who fail to do so will be ineligible to play in 2023.
The EuroLeague playoffs are set to end April 16, in plenty of time for the Fenerbahce players and others to return in time for the start of WNBA training camps on April 30. But in 2022, the Turkish league playoffs did not end until May 15; if the 2023 schedule follows a similar footprint, then Vandersloot, Stewart and others could face a quick turnaround.
How does the prioritization rule work? And how did it come to be? Just Women’s Sports breaks down the answers.
The rule requires players to prioritize the WNBA over international leagues. It was codified in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement but goes into effect for the first time for the 2023 season.
Players with two or more years of experience in the WNBA must report to their teams by May 1. If they do not, they will be fined. And if they miss the start of the regular season on May 19, they will be suspended for the year.
In 2024, the consequences will get even harsher: Players will be suspended for the whole season if they do not join their WNBA teams by May 1 or the start of training camp, whichever is later.
Many WNBA players head overseas in the offseason to supplement their WNBA incomes. Last offseason, almost half of the WNBA’s 144 players went overseas, per the Associated Press.
Players can make much more money abroad then they do in the U.S.-based league.
Breanna Stewart, for example, signed a supermax one-year deal with the Seattle Storm in 2022. The deal was worth $228,094, just a fraction of the $1.5 million per year she made for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg. Though she left the Russian club for Fenerbahce in 2022, she likely earned another large payday.
The WNBA holds its season in the summer, while international leagues play in the winter, which has allowed players to stay on the court throughout the year. But some international leagues’ late-season schedules have conflicted with the start of the WNBA season in recent years.
The prioritization rule was negotiated as part of the WNBA’s latest CBA, which was signed in 2020 and runs through 2027.
“The owners really stepped up on the compensation side for the players in this collective bargaining cycle, and I think the kind of quid pro quo for that was prioritization, showing up on time for our season,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said ahead of the 2022 WNBA Finals.
The WNBA Players Association agreed to the clause as a concession to the league so they could make gains in other areas of the CBA.
“The league was in a place of not negotiating without it,” WNBA legend Sue Bird said of prioritization. “We wouldn’t have got the money, the maternity leave, without it. I’m not defending it… I want the WNBA to be the only league people play in. I want it to thrive so we never have to go overseas.”
Several players have indicated that as long as salaries in international leagues eclipse those in the WNBA, the prioritization clause will remain an issue.
Vandersloot has said the rule is one of the reasons she signed just a one-year deal with the Chicago Sky last offseason. Her Sky teammate, Emma Meesseman, said the rule is unfair to non-American players.
Just how much influence will the rule have on players? When training camps get underway, the WNBA will find out.