WNBA prioritization and overseas play: How they will impact the league and its players going forward

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Saturday, April 16, 2022

Training camps for the 2022 WNBA season begin Sunday, but dozens of players likely won't be on hand when camps open. It's an early start for a season that is compacted because the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup begins Sept. 21 in Australia.

And it's the latest example of how the WNBA's summer-time season has long been at odds with the global basketball schedule.

The WNBA season traditionally tips off in May, with playoffs ending in September or October. Most overseas leagues are based in the winter months and end anywhere from February to late April, sometimes going into May. Thus many WNBA players compete almost year-round to maximize their income, and sometimes arrive late to the start of WNBA camps or even the season itself.

That conflict came to a head in the most recent collective bargaining agreement, signed in January 2020, in which the league's owners and the players' union agreed to the policy of "prioritization," which pushes players to put the WNBA first.

The union believed it was a worthwhile concession for what it gained in negotiations, which included salary increases. But some players, including two-time WNBA Finals MVPBreanna Stewart, didn't support it. The Seattle Stormforward voiced her concerns Feb. 10, shortly after agreeing to a one-year deal with the team.

Stewart earns approximately $1.5 million per season overseas. The WNBA supermax salary for the 2022 season is $228,094, although with potential team and league marketing agreements, and bonuses, Stewart could earn closer to $500,000.

"Prioritization is, like, the biggest topic of conversation in the WNBA for me, especially in the next couple of years," Stewart said then on a video call with reporters. "To be able to play overseas at UMMC Ekaterinburg, where basketball is very valued, we're treated really well and able to make a lot of money, it's just hard for me. With the prioritization, you're cutting off one of my sources of income."

Later that month, however, the arrest ofBrittney Griner, Stewart's USA Basketball teammate, in Moscow and Russia's invasion of Ukraine both added layers of complexity to the topic of WNBA players competing overseas.

As the WNBA prepares for its 26th season -- with Griner still detained in Russia facing drug charges -- ESPN examines prioritization and overseas play, and how it might affect the league and its players in the coming years.

Why did the WNBA owners want prioritization?

Because so many WNBA players compete overseas, it has been commonplace every year for some to arrive late to WNBA training camps or miss them entirely. Others arrive late to the actual season. Last season, 35 players reported late to camp, and 12 missed games at the start of the season.

In the 2020 CBA, which runs through 2027, the WNBA's owners wanted to codify how crucial it is for players to be in training camp on time. Thus, prioritization became a big chip on the bargaining table.

"From the league's side, I think it was the most important thing to them," Seattle guardSue Birdsaid. "And that's what we were able to leverage against and get more money for salaries and for offseason opportunities. To get more for the league and team marketing opportunities.

"What's interesting about it is that it's very individualized. It's going to be so specific to each player and what they have going on in their lives."

Indeed, multiple factors influence where players compete. While most American players say that it is strictly a financial decision to go overseas, some prefer to play more than just the WNBA season, which is now 36 regular-season games plus playoffs.

For WNBA players from European or Asian countries or Australia, the WNBA is considered the "overseas" league. But most top players from around the world want to play in the WNBA because it is considered the highest level of competition.

Many players compete nearly year-round in their younger years but ease up as they age. Bird, for example, played many years in Russia but no longer goes overseas. She is able to supplement her income in other ways, which have included broadcasting, working for an NBA team and endorsement deals.

Many other players don't want to give up either the WNBA or overseas play because they believe they need to cash in on both to maximize income while they can. But prioritization might force the issue.

How long has this been an issue?

Pretty much since the league began. In 1997, the eight-team WNBA ran from June to August, because the inaugural season was 28 games with just three single-elimination playoff games.

But as the regular season and playoffs expanded, the WNBA season extended to May-September/October. And every other year, the WNBA also has a major international competition to deal with. The Olympics generally have prompted the WNBA to take a one-month break during its season, while the World Cup has forced the league to complete its season by around mid-September.

The World Cup -- formerly called the FIBA World Championship -- was a summer/late spring event from 1979 to 1998. Since then, it has been September-October. That's really the only so-called concession FIBA has made toward the WNBA's schedule.

Overseas leagues have kept their schedules largely the same as before the WNBA launched. They have at times paid top players bigger salaries to not play in the WNBA. That was the case with U.S. starsDiana Taurasi, who skipped the 2015 WNBA season, and Angel McCoughtryin 2017.

"We've adapted our schedule forever -- as long as I've been around the league -- to FIBA," saidIndiana Fevergeneral manager Lin Dunn, a former coach for the Fever and Storm. "How much has FIBA adapted to us? I feel like the owners, the teams, the fans want the WNBA to be No. 1."

Why are overseas salaries often higher than those in the WNBA?

If the WNBA is universally acknowledged as having the best talent, why doesn't it have the top salaries?

The simplest explanation is that the WNBA and overseas leagues generally operate with different business models. The WNBA's salaries and structure are collectively bargained between the league and the union, with a hard salary cap and the goal of establishing competitive equality among the teams. The league also hopes to reach a point where all franchises are profitable.

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.

So while the WNBA fined the New York Liberty $500,000 for using private jets for its team on some occasions last season -- because that's in violation of the CBA and competitive balance provisions -- overseas teams for the most part stockpile talent because of the salary and perks they can offer.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, whose 30-plus-years business background was in finance and accounting, often talks about continuing to build the league's sustainability. She is looking at it from the perspective of making the WNBA a business that can stand on its own and generate profit. Fundamentally, her goal is different from that of some overseas owners who aren't concerned about that.

Where are the main countries in which players compete?

Russia, Turkey and China have been among the top bidders for the best players for many years. There are also leagues/teams in many other places, including France, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Israel and Australia.

Over the years, several countries have put limits on the number of American players allowed on rosters, because they ostensibly take spots from natives of that country or continent. The work-around, however, has been American players getting dual citizenship, either through their family heritage or by agreeing to play for a country's national team. When that's the case, they don't "count" as Americans on their team rosters.

And when they play for another country's national team, like theChicago Sky's Courtney Vanderslootdoes with Hungary, that is another obligation that potentially can take them away from the WNBA season, such as to compete in the European championships.

How will the WNBA's prioritization rules change in 2023?

Starting in 2023, things change dramatically in the WNBA. It will become punitive to miss the designated start of training camp or May 1, whichever is later. Players beyond their third year in the league will be fined. If they miss the start of the regular season, they will be suspended for the entire season. Then in 2024, the mandatory arrival stretches to the designated start of training camp or May 1, whichever is later. If players aren't there by then, they will be suspended for the season.

In short, players can miss training camp next year and still play the season, but as of 2024, if they aren't there by the start of training camp, they are out for the season.

There are some key exceptions, such as for players' obligations to their national teams. Also, things like college graduation and other significant events would be exceptions.

The other exception regards experience. As mentioned, players can compete overseas and not be fined or suspended for a late arrival to camp after their rookie and second years in the WNBA. Once they are a three-year vet, they face those penalties.

Stewart said prioritization is "not my favorite part of the CBA." She missed the 2019 WNBA season after tearing her Achilles tendon while playing overseas. Still, Stewart is one of the players who says she doesn't compete in other countries solely for the income.

"I like to play overseas; it's a great experience," Stewart said. "To be able to see basketball and the different cultures all over the world, it's something I don't take for granted. The average person, they're not able to travel the way that I am. And you don't know how long it's gonna last."

Some other U.S. players, though, either grudgingly go overseas to play or avoid it entirely, finding other sources of income.

"Last year, I didn't go overseas,"Minnesota Lynx guard/forward Aerial Powerssaid. "I did something with Team Liquid, which is an esports organization, so that allows me to stay home and get healthy.

"I think what more players should do is find something else besides basketball that they're passionate about. If they're not passionate about anything else, find what ways they can do something with basketball that brings in revenue. That could be a lot of things."

One of those things, starting this year, was the Athletes Unlimited league, which ran for five weeks in Las Vegas during January and February. Athletes Unlimited also has women's volleyball, softball and lacrosse leagues that are all based in one city to eliminate travel expenses.

The WNBA also has put more money into team and league marketing deals that can provide compensation for league players who stay in-market during the winter months. Engelbert said in her pre-draft address to the media Monday that there are 29 current marketing agreements between teams/the league and individual players, with more expected to be created.

"Today we have flexibility in how many we pay, how much we pay," Engelbert said. "We have minimums that we have to meet under our collectively bargained league and team marketing dollars, and obviously the teams have to be careful. But teams can give other opportunities to players [such as] internships. So can we. I think if you put the whole package together, we're giving them more and more opportunities."

Starting in 2023, the WNBA's supermax salary will be $234,936 and the max $202,154. The minimum salary for players with two years or less experience that season will be $62,285. By the last season of the current CBA, 2027, those numbers go $264,423 for the supermax and $227,527 for the max, with $70,103 the minimum.

Even with marketing deals, some players will still opt to go overseas. And if they don't get back to the WNBA in time, they won't be able to play that season.

"I think [prioritization] is gonna be painful, in the beginning," Dunn said. "That's my perspective. It's a big change, so it will be interesting to see how that goes. We've raised the salaries. And they're going to continue to go up. If you want to go overseas and it still fits in the WNBA's schedule, do it. But it's time to really put the focus on the league."

How many players will prioritization impact?

That was hard to gauge before everything that has gone on in Russia in the past few months, and even harder to say now, because the overseas women's basketball market is obviously affected by Russia's war on Ukraine. WNBA players other than Griner, who was detained, all left Russia not that long after the invasion. With both the conflict and global economic sanctions against Russia, how much professional women's basketball will be played there in the coming year remains to be seen. If the Russian basketball market dries up, even for a brief period, that has a domino effect on other countries.

Plus, Griner's detainment -- which has no immediate end in sight -- might frighten players about returning to Russia even if they have opportunities there. Stewart said she has talked to her wife about the possibilities of playing elsewhere overseas, even if the salary doesn't match what she has been getting in Russia.

"Who knows what's going to happen," Stewart said. "But EuroLeague is going to keep happening. Maybe it would be nice to play in a city that is super touristy, being in Spain or something like that. We'll just have to see where this takes us."

Stewart was asked if she could see herself sitting out a WNBA season if she couldn't abide by the prioritization rules and was suspended. She said she really doesn't want to do that but is up against certain financial realities.

"As players, we want to continue to help grow the league on and off the court. But it has to be right for us, too," Stewart said. "The marketing around women's basketball is getting much better. But it's going to continue to take more than that.

"It's hard when you have a family. You don't want to be moving all over the place, but our basketball window is relatively short and we want to make sure we capitalize on it."

And things will continue to evolve as NCAA athletes with name, image and likeness (NIL) deals join the WNBA.

"I don't know that a Paige Bueckers -- and all the kids coming up behind her -- will ever need to go overseas," Bird said. "Why do we go? Mostly we go because there's a ton of money. Some people go to work on their games. But some people also go -- and Diana (Taurasi) will tell you this -- she went because of the money and because she's a basketball player. And that's what basketball players do: They want to play.

"But now we have Athletes Unlimited, 3x3 is getting bigger, so there are more ways to play at home. If I'm 25 and I can make anywhere close to the same money playing at home, I stay home. But everyone is different."

What more can the league do?

Griner's detention prompted a similar reaction to Stewart's Achilles injury three years ago, with fans saying, "If the WNBA paid better, the U.S. players wouldn't be overseas in the first place."

But significantly better pay would almost certainly mean an expansion of the season, and there's not much give on either side of the schedule. It seems very unlikely the WNBA would start before the men's and women's college basketball seasons were over, and an April launch would give rookies even less time between being drafted and starting pro play. As it is now, with a May 6 start to the season, the draftees had less than a week between being selected and reporting for training camp.

The end of the WNBA season conflicts with college and pro football and playoff baseball, and it's around the time the NBA and NHL seasons launch. The availability of television windows and venues in the summer were primary reasons the WNBA was developed to be held when it is.

The league has faced the "why don't you expand the schedule" and "why don't you play in traditional basketball season" questions countless times over the past 25 years, but the obstacles to both remain the same.

Meanwhile, the WNBA answers that it has raised salaries and, along with the marketing agreements, that has made it more appealing for players to stay home.

"I think one of the narratives -- that the players have to go overseas -- is a little bit outdated actually, I think, and inaccurate," Engelbert said. "Everybody two years ago hailed our progressive CBA, where we're giving a lot more opportunity to pay the players, and obviously we're building an economic model to support that even more so.

"I think players have a lot of options. I never want to shut the door on the opportunity for players to either make more money or build their brand globally. So I don't want to say I don't want players to go overseas. While, absolutely, we're going to give players options, we do want them to prioritize the W more."

Many players will disagree with Engelbert about the financial necessities of going overseas -- "We go over there to make a living," Powers said -- and not a lot of people in any occupation could afford to leave $1 million on the table. But the other way to look at this, as Dunn suggested, is that it's the WNBA's way of finally throwing down more of a gauntlet toward FIBA, the international sport governing body, and overseas leagues themselves.

When the union agreed to prioritization and the new CBA in January 2020, it was before the global shutdown from the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the social-justice surge of summer 2020, the WNBA's season in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida, and a changed market now in Russia. It has been an eventful two years.

Union executive committee presidentNneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparkssaid of prioritization shortly after the CBA was signed, "It occurred to us that in order for the league to grow, we have to do something a little different. We figured out how to phase it in. The majority of players agree we have to change this business model, and if that means us being around more frequently, then we're OK with that."

That was probably a bit easier to say then, when the reality of prioritization was a few seasons away. But it's an important part of the CBA that will be put in practice starting next season, and we'll see how ready the league and the players are for it.

ESPN's Kevin Pelton and Alexa Philippou contributed to this report.