Why many WNBA players leave the U.S. to supplement their incomes

The news that basketball sensation Caitlin Clark will earn a base salary of $76,535 in her first year in the pros has shed light on why dozens of WNBA players travel abroad in the offseason to supplement their incomes.

Clark became the face of college basketball this season as viewers tuned in to nationally televised University of Iowa games to witness her stunning three-point shots and Steph Curry-like game, shattering viewer records.

After her selection as the No. 1 overall draft pick by the Indiana Fever this week, many assumed her mass popularity and skill set would lead to a multiyear contract worth millions.

That didn't happen for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the WNBA's broadcast deal. Clark will make most of her money off the court.

WNBA players earn only a fraction of what their male counterparts collect from the NBA, prompting many female players to travel to Europe and other basketball-obsessed locations around the globe for a chance to earn a heftier payday.

Although the reasons why foreign leagues can afford higher salaries than the WNBA vary, the overseas teams are not limited by salary caps, like those in the U.S., and many are owned by billionaires who can spend as much as they want on players.

Perhaps the most famous example of a player going overseas was Brittany Griner's trip to Moscow in 2022. The all-star Phoenix Mercury center was detained in Russia after customs agents said they discovered cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison but was released in a high-profile prisoner swap with the U.S. after 294 days. Up until then, Russia had been a top destination for WNBA athletes in the offseason, with some earning salaries of over $1 million.

“The whole reason a lot of us go [overseas] is the pay game," Griner told Just Women’s Sports last year. "A lot of us go over there to make an income to support our families, to support ourselves. So I don’t knock any player that wants to go overseas.”

Reasons for the wide pay disparity between the WNBA and the NBA are many, but basically, the women's league generates far less money. That's reflected in its TV rights deal, which is worth $65 million versus the NBA's $2.8 billion contract. It also plays 42 fewer games a season than the NBA.

In many cases, a WNBA player can earn three to four times her base salary by playing overseas when the four-month U.S. season ends.

Historically, many WNBA players find that extra income attractive, said Ketra Armstrong, a professor of sport management and the director of the Center for Race & Ethnicity in Sport at the University of Michigan.

"We have the best basketball players in the world," Armstrong said. "And they (other countries) show them how much they’re valued by giving them lucrative salaries.”

Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, Clark’s four-year contract will pay her $76,535 during her first season. That salary will increase incrementally to $97,582 in her final year.

By comparison, Victor Wembanyama, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NBA draft, signed a four-year, $55 million contract for which he’ll pocket $12.1 million this season, according to contract tracker Spotrac.

The Women’s National Basketball Players Association, the WNBA players' union, could not be reached for comment, and its NBA counterpart, the National Basketball Players Association, declined to comment on the pay disparity.

The WNBA has said Clark will receive more than $3 million in endorsements and partnerships. She also was reportedly in talks to sign an eight-figure endorsement deal with Nike that would include a signature shoe line.

But not every WNBA player will be as fortunate.

“It should come as no surprise that there’s such a huge gap between the NBA and WNBA,” said Rob Parker, a nationally syndicated radio host for Fox Sports and a sports media professor at the University of Southern California.

He said fans have not wholeheartedly supported the WNBA since its inception nearly 30 years ago.

“The attendance is low. The television ratings are low. So it’s no shocker that there’s no money there for the women,” Parker said.

Typically, when athletes go overseas, they compete against other Americans and foreign players for league championships.

Many players in recent years have also opted to stay in the U.S. in the offseason to take advantage of new financial opportunities in broadcasting, coaching and marketing ventures, experts said.

Some said WNBA players could earn higher salaries in coming years if the league is able to capitalize on the nation's newfound wave of enthusiasm for women's basketball.

The WNBA’s television rights deal expires after the 2025 season, and a sustained uptick in viewership could be used as a bargaining chip, Armstrong said.

“The new players coming into the WNBA coupled with the current stars of the league may be the catalyst the WNBA needs for more investment and better television rights,” Armstrong said.

She said some teams are already seeing sales spikes in tickets and jerseys.

“There’s been a dramatic surge in college basketball and interest, and I do believe some of the traction will carry over into the WNBA,” she said.

Parker said he doesn't think Clark can single-handedly turn the WNBA into a ratings juggernaut.

“Caitlin Clark to me will be like the Harlem Globetrotters," he said. "When she shows up to town, people will come to see her. But I’m not so sure that people will come to the WNBA when she’s not involved.”

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