WNBA's Cathy Engelbert Looking for Ways to Pay Players More to Avoid Another Brittney Griner Situation

"We need to do a better job from the league of placing them in internships, in apprenticeships, in skill sets," Engelbert said on Thursday

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks to the media during the 2022 WNBA Draft on April 11, 2022 at Spring Studios in New York, New York.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Photo: Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert says the league is continuing to explore ways to financially compensate players enough so that they won't have to play overseas.

Engelbert held a press conference following the news that Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner was released from Russian custody on Thursday, and was asked how the WNBA can prevent a similar situation from happening again.

Engelbert said she talks "a lot" about "the economic model" the WNBA is trying to build in order to further compensate its' players. "A top player can make up to $700,000," said Engelbert.

She emphasized that the league's young age in comparison to the NBA or other professional sports leagues holds them back.

"We're not 75 or 100 [years old] like some of the men's leagues. So we're working on that and studying history, we're building rivalries, we're building household names." Engelbert added that it's "part of the player marketing agreements" that the league is putting $1.5 million towards.

Brianna Turner #21, Skylar Diggins-Smith #4, Kia Nurse #0 and Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury
(L-R) Brianna Turner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Kia Nurse and Brittney Griner. Ethan Miller/Getty

Engelbert said the agreements are "something that we negotiated in collective bargaining to do more around player marketing."

The goal is to "build more household names in this league," by attaching players to brands and endorsement deals in an effort to keep them from needing to play overseas — as Griner was doing when she was arrested in Moscow in February — to make ends meet.

"So not just we pay them to stay here in the U.S., but also that they get to build their brands and they get to connect with, whether it's media brands or corporate brands and get endorsements. So that's the purpose of, then they can make more money, they'll stay here, they'll rest their bodies in the off-season, they'll still train," said Engelbert.

While the WNBA is growing, players struggle to make enough money from the league's short seasons (they will expand from 36 games to 40 next year — in comparison, the NBA plays 82). Players typically make the bulk of their yearly salaries by playing fall and winter seasons overseas, and enjoy it — Griner has played for her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, since 2014, and her teammates there emphatically testified on her behalf during her trial this summer.

Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart usually plays with Griner on UMMC Ekaterinburg, but opted to take a far smaller salary to play in Turkey after Griner's arrest. Still, Stewart told the Associated Press in September, WNBA players want — and need to — play overseas. "You want to have a better lifestyle, a better off-the-court experience, and just continue to appreciate other countries," she said.

Phoenix Mercury players bow their heads in prayer at a rally for WNBA basketball teammate Brittney Griner Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Phoenix. Griner has been detained in Russia for 133 days, charged in Russia for having vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
Phoenix Mercury rally for Brittney Griner on July 6. Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

In addition to the financial bonus, Engelbert said the players choose to go overseas during the off-season "because it's such a passion" for them to be able to "play year-round."

She continued: "The game is such a passion for these players and they're elite athletes, so I understand why they want to play wherever, out overseas, here in the U.S., but I think the more and more opportunities we can give them here at home, I think the better off we'll all be."

Engelbert said Thursday that the league is exploring any path to additional money for players, including expanding its internship program and giving players a look at different career paths after they retire from the court.

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"So, we need to do a better job from the league of placing them in internships, in apprenticeships, in skill sets," Engelbert said on Thursday. Specifically, she named Nike as "a great one to take WNBA players and former WNBA players into their training ground."

Engelbert became commissioner in July 2019. Upon her arrival in the role, she said "it's a three to five-year transformation" to get the league to new heights. "We hit the pandemic that put us a little behind. We raised the capital in February. We're deploying that against a lot of things, bringing new fans in, building out our digital footprint and our digital products, and hiring human capital to help us grow the league even more."

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