Cathy Engelbert: WNBA to continue support playing overseas

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told media Thursday that the league will continue to support players' decisions on whether they want to play overseas, but also advise them on safety issues.

Engelbert spoke to reporters on a video call in the wake of Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner being released from a Russian penal colony Thursday. Engelbert addressed several issues regarding Griner, who has played many years overseas in Russia and China. Griner was arrested on drug charges at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport when returning to play in Russia in February.

Russia has long been one of the main destinations for top WNBA players because of the salaries offered. But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Griner's detention, American women are not playing there now. They are, however, in other potentially dangerous places.

"I think our players are going to do what they think is best for themselves," Engelbert said. "But we definitely inform them all the time of the security risks of where they might be playing. This just happened in Turkey when there was that explosion in Istanbul [Nov. 13]."

American women have been competing in overseas leagues since at least the 1970s. Even with the launch of the WNBA in the summer of 1997, most players still have played overseas. And it has been commonplace every year for some players to arrive late to WNBA training camps or miss them entirely. Others arrive late to the actual season.

The WNBA's collective bargaining agreement in 2020 included changes to get players to prioritize the WNBA season by giving them more revenue options during the offseason.

"I've been a big advocate for letting the players do what they want to do with their offseason. This is their time to figure out what they want to do," Engelbert said. "But we're also chipping away at the economic model and growing the league, and so we've tripled the number of player-marketing agreements we did with players this year.

"In order to do one of those agreements, they stay home here in the U.S. So I think more and more of our players are taking other opportunities here at home."

Engelbert also mentioned players staying in the United States to coach in college basketball or the NBA, or to do broadcasting work. Still, the salaries available in overseas leagues -- most of which have different economic models than the WNBA -- still may offer enough money that players don't feel they can bypass that opportunity. Which might lead to them missing the WNBA season.

Overseas leagues aren't necessarily driven by profit or competitive equality among teams. They might be state-supported or financed by a large business that sometimes owns teams in many different sports. Russia's teams have been owned primarily by the country's oligarchs, who might see them as personal vanity investments, or entertainment for their company's workers, or both.

Even before the WNBA's move toward prioritization, which is being phased in, some prominent players such as Griner's Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi took a season off from the WNBA to rest rather than missing the larger payday from overseas. However, Griner's situation and the prioritization push may change some decisions going forward.

"We also have 23 players from outside the U.S.," Engelbert said. "So, again, our players are going to do what's best for them in consultation with their families and their agents."

Engelbert also said the Griner situation brought about a lot of cooperation from those trying to get her back to the United States. Engelbert knew a potential agreement was close in recent days.

"But you never know again until it happens in that moment," she said. "Things fall through in the last minute, so when it happened this morning, I just got emotional. "It has been a total team effort. We use that analogy in sports all the time. But we could not have done this without the NBA, without Brittany's agent, lawyers, the whole ecosystem around women's sports. But, again, this came down to the leadership of our government and our State Department and they got this done, and I'm so grateful to them."

As for the future, she wants to give Griner all the support she needs, but also time to readjust.

"We're obviously going to respect the privacy of this very intricate, critical time in her coming back home," Engelbert said. "I'd love to call her, I'd love to see her. We're gonna give her the appropriate space and time for that.

"Then follow with what Brittney and her family want to do about re-engaging with the WNBA and our players."