PHOENIX – Brittany Griner embarked on a four-day itinerary that would disrupt anyone’s circadian rhythm.
First she arrived at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, wearing a sharp black dress that Saturday night. President Biden pointed to her in the audience and said, “Boy, I can’t wait to get you back on the court.
Soon she was rushing to catch a flight, landing in Phoenix at 4 a.m. for WNBA training camp with the Mercury. She then headed back east to New York for the Met Gala for the first time. She wore a sleek leather suit, and her husband, Cheryl Greener, wore a fitted white gown, both custom-made by Calvin Klein. They mingled with A-list celebrities that night, but Britney had to return to Phoenix Tuesday afternoon for more basketball, and she hoped.
The glitzy events, the time zone jams, and the overall spectacle were overwhelming, but perhaps it came as a relief to Brittney Griner, who spent nearly 10 months in prison in Russia and returned to the U.S. in December as a new sign of hope. Trapped in the geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Moscow, Griner drew not only on the plight of herself and other foreign prisoners, but also on the financial disparities in sports that brought women to Russia in the first place.
On Friday, Griner returned to the court for her first official WNBA game in 579 days. Before the game against the Sparks in Los Angeles, vice president Kamala Harris thanked the Mercury and Sparks players for their support during Griner’s arrest. The league isn’t the same now, in part because of Greener. The issues her prison term has focused on are not new and not easily resolved. But she has enlisted a strong group of fans and sports personnel eager to welcome her home and promote change alongside her this time around.
“We’ve wanted the change for a long time, but now we’re really starting to ask for it,” Minnesota Lynx forward Nafisa Collier said. “We’re getting a little impatient with that and we recognize that the money is something we don’t have yet, but we have the resources to really, really soon be seen as athletes at a push. “
Why was Brittany Griner in Russia?
Russian customs officials arrested Griner at an airport near Moscow in February 2022 after finding vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage when she returned to play for professional team UMMC Yekaterinburg, who reportedly paid her at least $1 million. She was sentenced to nine years on drug charges, but was released in December in a prisoner exchange for Viktor But, a Russian arms dealer. The US State Department said she was wrongfully detained.
The WNBA, now in its 27th season, has seen dozens of its players go overseas each season in search of higher pay, though the league is trying to offer more ways to make money stateside. The top salary in the WNBA is about $230,000, and was about half that a few years ago. Top players like Griner, a seven-time All-Star center, can command hundreds of thousands more from international teams. Many people were unaware of this dynamic until Griner’s arrest and the shock and dismay expressed on social media and television.
“As much as I love to, you know, pay my light bill for the love of the game, I can’t,” Griner said at her first news conference since her release last month.
The Associated Press reported 67 Of the 144 players in the league, they still play at international level this season, indicating that the potential for additional income is high. But in light of Griner’s arrest and the war in Ukraine, players have fled Russia’s historically lucrative firms for teams in countries like Italy and Turkey. Five years ago, around 90 players played internationally.
Collier, 26, who played for international teams during the WNBA season, said young players will gain valuable experience overseas. But after Griner’s experience, she said she doubts she’ll ever play overseas again and wants to spend more time with her daughter, who turns 1 next Thursday.
‘This is how you build family names.’
WNBA officials have given player salaries historically modest — and possibly minimal — revenue and media attention. Many WNBA players are used to entering the league with less media fanfare and sometimes playing in front of much smaller audiences than they experienced in college.
“I was a part of that in college and it was the hottest ticket in the country,” said Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who starred at UConn before becoming the WNBA’s career leading scorer. She continued: “How do we make the WNBA the hottest ticket in the country for the best basketball players in the world? That, to me, just happens to be where the juniors get more attention than the older guys in women’s sports.
In the year Griner, who joined the Mercury in 2013, has been a star since she was known as Dankira at Baylor. In her first news conference since her return, Griner asked an unusual swell of reporters to cover games during the season.
“It’s a league that needs a celebrity,” said Candy Lee, a professor of journalism and integrated marketing communications at Northwestern. “The league could use it,” she added. Mercury can also use it.
The surge in interest in the WNBA, due to Griner, has seen a broader boom in women’s sports in recent years. The NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship game averaged 9.9 million viewers last month, according to ESPN.
WNBA teams will play a record 40 regular season games this year, and the league has signed a multi-year deal with Scripps to televise Friday night games on Network ION. Griner’s first two regular season games, Friday in Los Angeles and Sunday in Phoenix against Chicago, will be televised nationally on ESPN. Viewership is up in the 2022 regular season. 16 percent Last year made it the most watched season in 14 years, according to the league.
Skate through the NBA playoffs and you might find a WNBA player like Candace Parker of the Las Vegas Aces or Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings. Puma soon announced Breanna Stewart’s second signature shoe for Liberty. In the year A spokesperson confirmed that Griner, who became the first openly gay athlete to sign with Nike in 2014, will continue with the brand, but did not respond to questions about whether the company plans to market her this season.
A few weeks before Griner’s arrest, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league had raised $75 million from investors to rebrand and revamp the league’s business model.
Stars like Louisiana State’s Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers of UConn and Caitlin Clark of Iowa are set to enter the league in the next few years, bringing their dynamic games, name recognition and national television exposure.
“That’s why we’re putting so many marketing dollars behind some of our star players,” Engelbert said. “That’s how you build a household name,” she added.
Since Griner’s arrest, security concerns about travel have added to a heated debate about travel in the WNBA.
Unlike the NBA or many top men’s and women’s college teams, WNBA players fly to games on commercial airlines. It has long been a sore point for players who have to sleep in airports or rush to games due to delays. This year, it is widely believed that Griner will need to travel privately, although neither the Mercury nor the WNBA have disclosed her plans.
“I definitely want to make all those flights private,” Griner said. “It was really cool. Not just for me and my team, but for the whole league. We all deserve it. We work really hard. We work a lot and it would be nice to finally get to that point.”
The WNBA says it can’t afford more than $20 million per season for charter flights, though some owners may be willing to provide them for their teams. Charter flights are prohibited by the collective bargaining agreement between team owners and the players’ union as an unfair competitive advantage. The WNBA fined the Liberty $500,000 for using secret charter flights to travel to some games during the 2021 season.
In April, the league announced it would provide charter flights for teams playing on consecutive days during the regular season and all playoff games. The WNBA has done similar situations before.
“We’ll eliminate this as we continue to build this model,” Engelbert said. Because once you do it, you basically have to do it forever, so we want to make sure we don’t jeopardize the financial viability of the league.
On Thursday, the WNBA Players Association announced it had agreed to a priority pass that would allow players to get airport accommodations. Los Angeles forward Neka Ogumumike, president of the players’ union, said in a statement that she hopes other “partners” will see the deal as a “call to action.”
The union’s executive director, Terry Jackson, called the deal “a big step in the right direction” in a statement.
‘Impacts the World’
Mercury president Vince Kozar cast a shadow of dread over the franchise at every practice, media session and game without Greener last season. Short video clips of her in Russia show her handcuffed or tied up. On the day Griner was sentenced, the Mercury players gathered and cried – then they had to play a game. “You carry that weight of doubt and fear,” Kozar said.
Finally, it suddenly broke up when Greiner was released in December. Kozar didn’t expect Griner to announce immediately that she would play in the WNBA, but said she will play when she returns to the United States.
Griner may have been the most-plugged WNBA player last season. The only way players around the league communicate with her is to send her letters. In his correspondence with Kozar, Griner did not ask for information about the organization and its organizations.
“It was a reminder that basketball was one of the things that was taken from her, how she impacted the world that was so central to who she was and that so many of her relationships were built around it,” Kozar said.
Griner leads the league in touchdowns this season. She wrote and posed for selfies in the dugout during a preseason game against the Sparks in Phoenix last week. It was her first step after returning. During Griner’s pregame introduction, a modest crowd cheered more than expected. Mercury coach Vanessa Nygard sent chills down her spine.
Griner towered above everyone else on the court, scoring her first bucket on a quick layup in the first quarter. Well, here we go, Greener thought to herself. A lot of things seemed unfamiliar to her recently. Jet setting for a living? She’s not, she said, laughing. But that first shot, she thought she felt that discomfort.