How do WNBA players score big salaries? By leaving the U.S.

·5 min read

The 2022 WNBA Finals kick off in Las Vegas on Sept. 11, but Seattle Storm’s superstar Sue Bird will not get a chance to play for the fairy-tale ending many had hoped for.

After two decades in the league, the 41-year-old’s career came to an end after a loss against the Las Vegas Aces in Game 4 of the semifinals. Bird retires from the sport with four WNBA championships and five Olympic gold medals. But despite being the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 2002, Bird spent years playing overseas to supplement the salary she got from the league. She told 60 Minutes that her paycheck was 10 times higher in Russia than her WNBA salary, which started at less than $60,000.

WNBA player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, has played in Russia for the past seven years. (Photo by EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
WNBA player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, has played in Russia for the past seven years. (Photo by EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Playing overseas in the offseason is a common trend among American female basketball players, who can earn millions internationally but make only an average of about $120,000 annually during their stateside WNBA seasons. The issue gained further attention when WNBA player Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia on drug charges earlier this year. Griner has played in Russia for the past seven years, where she earns more than $1 million dollars annually. As a top player in the WNBA, Griner gets the league’s maximum salary of $221,000. To compare, the average NBA player salary is about $7 million.

Former WNBA champion and basketball Hall of Famer, Tamika Catchings, also knows this issue firsthand. The Indiana Fever forward played 16 seasons with the WNBA before retiring in 2016. Her skills on the court earned her multiple titles and championships in the U.S., but Catchings still sought opportunities internationally in places such as Poland, South Korea, Brazil and Russia. “I think right now what it takes is more people speaking up as far as the pay gap, and not being so concerned in burning bridges and all that, but really just kind of standing up for what you believe,” Catchings told MAKERS following her retirement. “As a league, we gotta figure out ways to get more money to our league.”

WNBA player Katie Lou Samuelson of the Los Angeles Sparks wears sneakers that read
WNBA player Katie Lou Samuelson of the Los Angeles Sparks wears sneakers that read "Pay Women Athletes" during a game on June 23, 2022. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In 2018, the WNBA generated roughly $60 million in revenue while the NBA brought in $8.8 billion that same year. This year, the NBA reported a record $10 billion in revenue for the 2021–2022 season.  And while viewership for women’s basketball also falls short when compared to the NBA’s, the WNBA just delivered its most-watched regular season in 14 years with viewership up 16 percent across its national television partners.

But players say it’s not just about the compensation. The top international leagues — like the one Griner plays in that is controlled by Russian oligarchs — also provide female players with their own apartments, private car services and luxury travel perks similar to those afforded to their U.S. male counterparts in the NBA.

Chief Executive Officer, AOL Inc. Tim Armstrong and former WNBA Tamika Catchings speak onstage during The 2017 MAKERS Conference. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for AOL)
Chief Executive Officer, AOL Inc. Tim Armstrong and former WNBA Tamika Catchings speak onstage during The 2017 MAKERS Conference. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for AOL)

“I really think that it goes back to marketing,” Catchings said to MAKERS. “How do we elevate the WNBA as a whole?“ Bird believes one way to do this is to give female athletes more exposure. "We [women] make up half the population of the world," she told MAKERS last year. “By not highlighting women, and by not using them in your commercials, you’re really not allowing half the population to connect.” Elevating the WNBA also means growing it with things like longer seasons and bigger rosters. The league hopes that a recent $75 million capital raise — the largest-ever for a women’s sports property — will help get that ball rolling.

Another potential sign of change came prior to the start of the 2020 season when the WNBA and the players union made a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement. The deal secures benefits such as six-figure salaries on average, higher pay for star players and fully paid maternity leave. However, the agreement does not include equal revenue sharing. “There are even more changes, like prioritizing families and fertility and being able to pursue other goals,” Catchings told Dallas College recently. “The WNBA players are making more than I made when I played, and you know I haven’t been gone for that long. But [pay equity] is something that we have to continue to look at.”

Even with the lucrative Russian leagues off-limits due to the ongoing war with Ukraine, Griner’s detainment and new sanctions in place, American female basketball players are still planning to play in countries like Turkey and Hungary during this year’s offseason. “My hope is that I will be around to be able to instill and see that change for the league and see players making more money here in America, and not having to go overseas to be able to make more money,” said Catchings.