By Doug Feinberg
SYDNEY (Associated Press) – Highly publicized Britney Grenier’s legal troubles in Russia and Ukraine’s invasion of Ukraine have led the WNBA’s top players to take their talents elsewhere out of the season.
Over the past few decades, Russia has been the preferred destination for WNBA players to compete due to the high salaries that can exceed $1 million – nearly four times the base salary of top WNBA players – and the resources and facilities their teams have provided.
It all came to an abrupt end.
“Honestly, my time in Russia was great, but especially with BG still being held there, no one is going there until you get home,” said Griner’s teammate, Brianna Stewart, who has paid millions for the duo. “I think, you know, now, people want to go abroad and if the money isn’t that much different, they want to be in a better place.”
Greiner was arrested in February, arrested and later convicted on drug possession charges amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Greiner was sentenced last month to nine years in prison.
Now, Stewart and other WNBA All-Stars, including Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot — who also made millions of dollars playing in Russia — are going elsewhere this winter. All three played for Yekaterinburg, the same Russian team as Grenier. This club has won five Euroleague titles in the past eight seasons and has been dominant for nearly two decades as former greats Delisha Milton Jones and Diana Torassi have played there.
Nearly a dozen WNBA players competed in Russia last winter and none of them have returned this year.
After the World Cup, Stewart will head to Turkey to play for Fenerbahce. Top players can make a few hundred thousand dollars playing in Turkey, much less than their salaries in Russia. Playing in Turkey also allows Stewart to be closer to her wife’s family in Spain.
“You want to have a better lifestyle, a better experience off the field, and continue to appreciate other countries,” Stewart said.
Like Stewart, Vandersloot also did not return to Russia, choosing to play in Hungary where she was granted citizenship in 2016.
“I’m Hungarian. I thought it would be special because I haven’t played there since I got citizenship,” Vanderslot said.
The 33-year-old goalkeeper said a lot must change before she considers returning to Russia to play even though she has many fond memories of the Russian people.
“The thing about it is that we’ve been treated so well by our club and have built strong relationships with these people, and I’ll never shut the door on this,” she said. “The whole situation with BG makes it really hard to believe that it’s safe for anyone to go back there now.”
Jones will join Stewart in Turkey, playing for Mersin. The 6-foot-6 Jones said she would consider returning to Russia if things changed politically and Greiner returned to the United States.
Griner’s status also weighs heavily on the minds of young WNBA players.
Ryan Howard, the 2022 WNBA New Player of the Year, is playing in Italy this winter – her first overseas experience. She said she was careful when deciding where she wanted to play.
“Everyone is going to be a little wary seeing this situation,” she said.
It’s not just American players who no longer go to Russia. Emma Meesemann, the Chicago Sky striker, the star of the Belgium national team, played in Russia with Stewart, Jones and Vandersloot. It also heads to Turkey in the off-season.
The WNBA is also trying to make staying home in the off-season a better option for players. Commissioner Kathy Engelbert said at the WNBA Finals that top players could make up to $700,000 this year between base salary, marketing agreements and bonus awards. While only a select few players have access to that amount, nearly a dozen players have decided to get league marketing agreements this off-season.
Associated Press writer Jay Cohen contributed to this story.