WNBA star Brittney Griner is still in a Russian jail after 11 weeks, detained by Russian authorities who claimed they found vape cartridges in her luggage. Currently, the U.S. State Department is working for her release, stating Griner was "wrongfully detained."
If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison.
Among the questions that emerged was why was she playing in Russia? The answer is pretty simple.
Money: Griner, who is an All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury, was reportedly making $1 million as a player for UMMC Yekaterinburg (Ekaterinburg) — far more than her WNBA salary of $227,900.
And she isn't even the highest-paid WNBA player. That is her Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, who makes $228,000, a salary also made by Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart, both of the Seattle Storm. Taurasi also used to play UMMC Yekaterinburg for $1 million; she retired from playing in Europe in 2017.
Griner is sixth on the salary list of players; the lowest-paid WNBA player's salary is $60,471.
Compare Griner's salary to that of NBA player Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, who tops the NBA salary list making $45,780,966 a year. The NBA player whose salary comes closest to Griner's and Taurasi's is the Boston Celtics' Malik Fitts, who makes $231,062, ranking No. 488 on the NBA list. This was Fitts' first season in the NBA while Griner has been in the WNBA for nine years and Taurasi, 18 years.
Why It's Important: Though it's pointed out that the women's league brings in far less revenue than the NBA, the difference is staggering — and why WNBA players go overseas to countries such as Russia to play. UMMC Yekaterinburg is part of the EuroLeague Women, which also includes teams from Italy, France and Turkey.
This potential pipeline of money for players to play in Russia may also be trickling away. According to a New York Times article, the combination of the Ukraine-Russia war, Griner's detention on drug charges and increasing pressure from the WNBA to limit overseas play is making agents and players reconsider playing basketball in Russia. And as of February 2022, EuroLeague Women suspended Russian clubs including UMMC Yekaterinburg, Dynamo Kursk and MBA Moscow in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Another factor is who owns the teams. Russian oligarchs don't just like to own superyachts — many of which are being confiscated overseas due to sanctions against Russia — they also like to own sports teams. UMMC Yekaterinburg is controlled by Iskander Makhmudov and his business partner, Andrei Kozitsyn, both of whom head Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company (UMMC), which mines copper, zinc, coal, gold and silver.
Whereas in the past they had money to spend on top players, with sanctions their wallets are probably getting slimmer.
What's Next: But for now, Griner sits in a Russian jail, with her fate in the hands of Russian officials. With the recent change to her status to "wrongfully detained," it means the U.S. government will no longer wait for Griner's case to play out through the Russian legal system and will seek to negotiate her return, noted ESPN.
It also means that Griner's friends, family and supporters including the WNBA players can now bring as much attention to her case as they wish.
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