How do WNBA players score big paydays? By leaving the United States

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The 2022 WNBA Finals kick off in Las Vegas on September 11, but Seattle Storm superstar Sue Bird won’t get a chance to play for the fairytale ending many had hoped for.

After two decades in the league, the 41-year-old’s career ended after a loss to 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 received 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 the Moscow 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 the Moscow 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 off-season is a common trend among American women’s basketball players, who can earn millions internationally but only earn 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, earning more than $1 million annually. As the top player in the WNBA, Griner earns the league’s maximum salary of $221,000. By comparison, the average NBA player salary is around $7 million.

Former WNBA champion and basketball Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings also knows this problem firsthand. The Indiana Fever forward played 16 seasons with the WNBA before retiring in 2016. Her skills on the court earned her several titles and championships in the United States, but Catchings still sought opportunities internationally in places like Poland, South Korea, Brazil and Russia. “I think right now it takes more people talking about the pay gap and not being so concerned about burning bridges and all that, but really just kind of standing up for what you believe,” Catchings told MAKERS after her . retirement. “As a league, we need to figure out ways to get more money for 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 about $60 million in revenue, while the NBA brought in $8.8 billion in the same year. This year, the NBA reported a record $10 billion in revenue for the 2021-2022 season. And while women’s basketball viewership also falls short compared to the NBA’s, the WNBA just delivered its most-watched regular season in 14 years with a 16 percent viewership across its national television partners.

But the players say it’s not just about the compensation. The top international leagues — like the one Griner plays in, which is controlled by Russian oligarchs — also give female players their own apartments, private car services and luxury travel benefits similar to those enjoyed by their American male counterparts in the NBA.

CEO, AOL Inc.  Tim Armstrong and former WNBA Tamika Catchings speak on stage during the 2017 MAKERS Conference.  (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for AOL)

CEO, AOL Inc. Tim Armstrong and former WNBA Tamika Catchings speak on stage during the 2017 MAKERS Conference. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for AOL)

“I really think it goes back to marketing,” Catchings told 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 world’s population,” she told MAKERS last year. “By not highlighting women, and by not using them in your advertising, you’re really not allowing half the population to connect.” Elevating the WNBA means also to grow with things like longer seasons and bigger rosters.The league hopes a recent $75 million capital raising — the largest ever for a women’s sports property — will help get the ball rolling.

Another potential sign of change came ahead of the start of the 2020 season when the WNBA and the players union reached an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. The deal ensures 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 recently told Dallas College. “The WNBA players make more than I made when I played, and you know I haven’t been gone that long. But [pay equity] is something we need to continue to look at.”

Even with the lucrative Russian leagues banned due to the ongoing war with Ukraine, Griner’s detention and new sanctions in place, American women’s basketball players still plan to play in countries like Turkey and Hungary during this year’s offseason. “My hope is that I’ll be around to be able to instill and see that change for the league and see players make more money here in America and not have to go overseas to be able to make more money,” Catchings said .

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