What the Data Say: Why Brittany Griner played in Russia


Everyone knows that Brittany Griner is a superstar WNBA basketball player who played in Russia. And many know that she made a lot of money there. But why was this the case? NBA superstars do not play abroad.

One reason WNBA stars’ treatment differs from the treatment of NBA stars is the rampant sexism that often denigrates female athletes. Another culprit, however, is the NBA (National Basketball Association). The NBA created the WNBA in a manner that minimized the public impact of women’s professional basketball. Apparently, they did so intentionally.

Let us look at history. Twenty-six years ago, after years of discussions and fits and starts, another women’s professional basketball league was begun, the American Basketball League (ABL). This seemed an excellent time to start a women’s professional league, building upon the positive notoriety of the 1996 U.S. women’s Olympic team, which won the gold medal in a popular, dominating fashion. With eight of the 12 stars from that 1996 Olympic team, the eight-team league formed with teams spread across mostly second-tier league cities like Columbus, Ohio; Hartford, Connecticut; and San José, California. It also included franchises in Atlanta and Portland.  

The same year, 1996, the NBA announced another women’s league, the WNBA, also an eight-team league, which would start to play in the summer of 1997. Several of these teams were affiliated with the NBA teams in their respective cities, automatically starting with some organizational and financial clout.

The WNBA had the other four stars of the Olympic team; however, they were some of the

biggest stars–Cheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, and the veteran Ruthie Bolton. They publicized these teams and stars as if all the players from the Olympic team had gone to the WNBA. Moreover, in a calculated move, the league’s season was set to play in the summer, when the NBA teams would not be playing, thus not having to share the fan base.

Using its clout, the NBA secured television contracts for the WNBA and crowded out the ABL

from ever getting a television contract. Without a TV deal, the ABL folded after two seasons, thus clearing the field for the wintertime fans. However, before it did, it played two seasons–in the fall and winter–and considered itself the superior league as it had the greater share of the top players. Each year it challenged the WNBA to a playoff of their champions, similar to the old AFL v. NFL football game, which came to be known as the Super Bowl.

With such a shortened season, the WNBA places limits on individual players’ salaries, more than

should be appropriate. This year’s top base salary was $228,094, earned by three players— WNBA Seattle Storm stars Jewell Lloyd and Breanna Stewart and Phoenix Mercury icon Diana Taurasi. Thus, many of the star players of the WNBA play in Europe and other places during the regular basketball season with million-dollar contracts.

Breanna Stewart plays in Russia and has a salary of at least $1.5 million. Taurasi, one of the

oldest players in the league, made a similar amount before she stopped going overseas. Retiring

Sue Bird was making at least $1 million per year before injuries caused her to stop playing overseas in 2014.  

When these women are not playing in the WNBA—in its season—they play overseas in various countries. In addition to Russia, these countries include China, Australia, Spain, and Turkey.

Thus, they play year-efforts in bringing Griner home.

“The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) profoundly welcomes the release of Brittney Griner from a Russian prison,” NNPA President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. stated.

The NNPA is the trade association of more than 230 African-American-owned newspapers and media companies in the United States.

“Brittney Griner was a political prisoner,” continued Chavis, the leader of the famed Wilmington 10, also political prisoners.

“Thanks to the effective leadership of President Joe Biden, our beloved sister is now free,” Chavis declared.