CHICAGO — Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Emma Meesseman, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley made sure to get a photo together after the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago. The quintet was not entirely into Team Stewart or Team Wilson. In fact, Quigley wasn’t even an All-Star. But their shared experience of playing together for the past two seasons as part of Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg’s team prompted them to take a quick shot.
“A special place in my heart #ekat,” Quigley captioned the Instagram story of the five of them – plus Stewart’s baby Ruby – before adding “missing BG”.
Eight-time WNBA All-Star and former Yekaterinburg teammate Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia for 166 days after Russian officials say they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil while she was entering the country in February to play for the team. Griner’s trial began July 1 and sources expect a verdict and sentencing later this week as Secretary of State Antony Blinken continues to urge Russia to accept a deal for Griner’s release. and Paul Whelan, another American whom the US government considers a wrongful detainee. .
For decades, Russian clubs like Yekaterinburg have been the crown jewel of overseas gaming experience for the WNBA and other international stars, where super teams have been formed, dominated and won championships. , and where some players earned seven-figure salaries and received amenities and resources to match. of the best professional basketball players in the world. Between 2013 and 2021, Yekaterinburg won five EuroLeague titles.
That won’t be the case in the upcoming WNBA offseason. Given Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine, strained US-Russian relations and Griner’s prolonged detention, returning to play in Russia was not a viable option for former Yekaterinburg players captured on this photo, some of the sport’s most recognizable faces and Griner’s teammates and pals. Where are they going, how has the salary structure changed, and what challenges await WNBA players looking to spend their offseasons competing and earning salaries overseas?
Where will they compete this offseason?
The players all said they had positive experiences playing in Russia. Vandersloot, a 12-year WNBA veteran who helped the Chicago Sky win their first title last year, had her sights set on ending her career overseas with Yekaterinburg before the war began. And Connecticut Sun’s Jones, the reigning WNBA MVP, had re-signed with the club earlier this year.
But the US travel advisory continues to designate Russia as Level 4 “do not travel”. And the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the sport’s governing body, has also banned Russian teams from participating in international events.
Stewart, Jones and Meesseman have signed with Turkish clubs for this upcoming offseason – Stewart and Meesseman with Fenerbahce, Jones with Mersin – while Vandersloot will play for Sopron in Hungary. All three clubs are part of the FIBA EuroLeague, from which Russian teams like Yekaterinburg are currently banned.
The US travel advisory for Turkey is a Level 2 “exercise increased caution”, while Hungary is listed as a Level 1 “exercise normal precautions”.
“To be honest, my time in Russia was wonderful, but especially with BG still wrongfully detained there, nobody goes to Russia until she’s home,” Seattle Storm’s Stewart told ESPN. in Chicago. “And then I don’t know what’s going on with basketball.”
Chicago’s Meesseman, originally from Belgium, added: “I don’t see many people going to Russia as the war continues.”
How much will they earn?
With the French, Spanish and Turkish leagues booming, Russian teams outside Yekaterinburg haven’t dominated the international basketball landscape in recent years, at least in terms of quality of play. But there’s no doubt that the salaries Stewart, Jones, Meesseman and Vandersloot will earn in Turkey and Hungary will be significantly lower than those they earned with Ekat, which, like many Russian teams, is backed by large corporations controlled by oligarchs.
Jones – who previously said she would earn her entire WNBA salary, $205,000 in 2022, in one month playing in Russia – said she took a “huge” pay cut when she was signed with Mersin, but that she was still earning “very good money”. .”
Salaries in Turkey for top WNBA players are between $300,000 and $400,000 – in what is widely seen as a down market at the moment – while other countries generally pay less . The market has further been hit by a shortage of competition, as Russian teams can only compete at the domestic level, and China, according to several longtime WNBA agents, still does not accept international players in the middle. of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are other opportunities for other clubs to step up and take that leap. [financially] be on the same level as Ekat,” Stewart said.
“I just see it as, I’m lucky to have four years to play for really big money and it’s helped me financially. It’s set us up really well for the future,” Vandersloot said, who is married to Quigley, who also plays for Chicago. “But it’s also just an opportunity to play. … I like to play all year round.”
Why Turkey and Hungary?
A former EuroLeague regular season and Final Four MVP, Stewart says signing with ‘powerhouse’ Fenerbahce makes sense for his family, as it’s not too far from Spain, where his wife Marta Xargay Casademont has family.
Sopron was a logical choice for Vandersloot, who obtained Hungarian citizenship in 2016. Quigley will not play, but she and their dog will accompany Vandersloot to Hungary.
“I can only hope that in the future, Russia will be accepted again,” said Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP during the Washington Mystics title run. “Because basketball there is really separate from politics, and I think all those players deserve to show their talent because they have great players.”
With Ekat off the table, WNBA stars still wanted to find clubs where they would have the opportunity to play with and against top competition, ones that would still treat their players right.
“I just wanted to go to a place where they really cared about me,” said Jones, who consulted with Sun teammate DeWanna Bonner before committing to Mersin. Jones will play alongside Bonner and fellow WNBA star Tiffany Hayes this coming season.
“Sopron is one of those clubs where it’s a good place,” Vandersloot added of the Hungarian side, which – powered by a handful of WNBA stars, like Gabby Williams, Stefanie Dolson and Briann January – beat Fenerbahce last April to win the 2022 Euroleague title. “They take care of you, they do it the right way. You can’t say that about every club.”
Would they play in Russia again if it was an option?
Former Yekaterinburg players don’t know if they saw their last basketball in Russia.
“I can’t say never, but I would be lying if I said it was something I would be interested in,” Vandersloot said. “It’s just hard to say. The whole situation with BG makes it really, really hard to think it’s safe for anyone to go back there right now.”
Asked if she would consider playing in Russia again after Griner’s exit, Stewart said she would take it “one season at a time.”
Jones, however, revealed that she would consider returning to Russia if the geopolitical situation improves.
“In my professional career, playing for Ekat has been the best I’ve been treated professionally,” she said. “I would definitely go back, with the people there, because it was such an authentic experience for me.”
What will be the impact of the prioritization on future engagements abroad?
Another wrinkle in players’ decision-making about their overseas commitments is the WNBA’s prioritization. The EuroLeague kicks off on October 12, with the Final Four scheduled for mid-April, but domestic leagues can last until April – usually when WNBA training camp opens – or even May – when the season ends.
Starting in 2023, players will face penalties if they arrive late for WNBA training camp, starting with fines and eventually progressing to suspensions throughout the season. Stewart said prioritization was a big part of why she only signed a one-year deal with the Storm last offseason.
But with plenty of money still to be made overseas — regardless of what happens with Ekat — and no massive WNBA salary increases on the horizon in the near future, the lure of playing in Turkey or Hungary could still be strong for top WNBA talent. .
“Priority is, like, the biggest talking point in the WNBA for me, especially in the next two years,” Stewart said in February. “With prioritization, you’re cutting off one of my sources of income.”
ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel contributed to this report.