Brittney Griner could be the last American basketball star in Russia

US government says player is wrongfully detained in Russia for drug charges

Brittney Griner playing for US in the Olympics Games in 2016. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Getty

Mike Cound had decided on a figure – a reasonable salary request, he said – for a client who wanted to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a professional women's basketball team in Russia. As an experienced sports agent, that was what he was supposed to do.

But when he doubled the request on a whim, the team accepted without hesitation. And when another client injured her knee and could not play, the team paid her anyway. For yet another client, UMMC Yekaterinburg offered more than triple the amount she could make in the WNBA in the United States – if she would agree to play only in Russia.

None of that was normal. But UMMC Yekaterinburg was not like any other team. "There's nothing like it in sports," Cound said. "The Yankees, maybe, in the old days with George Steinbrenner, when they would pay four times as much as somebody else."

That type of spending and largesse, fed by the Russian oligarchs who own teams for pride and political reasons, has drawn many WNBA players over the years to a country they barely know, thousands of kilometres from home, for a financial bounty generally unavailable in the United States.

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Griner's detention, the atrocities of the war and related economic sanctions have heightened the scrutiny of associating with Russian businesses

But those days may be over. Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, Russia's detention of WNBA star Brittney Griner on drug charges and increasing pressure from the WNBA to limit overseas play have forced an overdue reconsideration of the ethical and financial implications of playing basketball in Russia.

Griner, a centre for the Phoenix Mercury who was in Russia to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg when she was detained in February, was reportedly earning at least $1 million from the team – far more than the WNBA's maximum base salary of about $230,000. Similar paydays have lured other big-name stars, like Diana Taurasi and Breanna Stewart.

But Griner's detention, the atrocities of the war and related economic sanctions have heightened the scrutiny of associating with Russian businesses – including its basketball teams. The US State Department on Tuesday said that Griner had been "wrongfully detained" and that its officials were working to have her released. Griner could be the last American basketball star to play professionally in Russia, fracturing a lucrative pipeline that a list of renowned players has tapped for a generation.

"If you've got your daughter you're entrusting with me and listening to my counsel," Cound said, "I do not see where I can look you in the face and say, 'Yeah, this is a good idea,' if Vladimir Putin is still in charge."

As the Mercury prepare for the 2022 WNBA season, which begins Friday, Griner remains in custody with other women in Russia, where she has gone to play basketball since 2015. In February, Russian customs officials accused Griner of carrying vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. If Griner is convicted, she can face up to 10 years in prison. American officials have long accused Russia of detaining people on trumped-up charges.

In March, a Russian court extended Griner’s time in custody until at least May 19th. That hearing did not deal with the merits of the case. The State Department has not explained why or how its officials determined that her detention was wrongful.

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury celebrates with fans following Game Two of the 2021 WNBA Finals. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Getty

UMMC Yekaterinburg, based in the city of the same name and roughly a two-hour flight from Moscow, is controlled by oligarch Iskander Makhmudov and his business partner, Andrei Kozitsyn. Makhmudov and Kozitsyn head Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, which mines commodities like copper, zinc, coal, gold and silver, and is one of Russia's top producers.

They were part of a wave of oligarchs who amassed their wealth after the collapse of the Soviet Union by investing in industries like gas, oil and precious metals. Following Putin's ascent, oligarchs like Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov and Mikhail Prokhorov bought into prominent sports franchises, like the soccer teams Chelsea and Arsenal FC and the NBA's Brooklyn Nets.

While some owners had legitimate reasons for investing in sports, others who funded or purchased teams were doing so at least in part to seem more legitimate to American and British authorities, according to Karen Greenaway, a retired FBI agent who investigated international corruption and spent a part of her career in the former Soviet Union.

Makhmudov has been linked to criminal activity and has business associations with other oligarchs tied to organised crime in Russia, according to civil suits lodged in the United States and the United Kingdom by competitors and law enforcement officials.

Makhmudov was accused of being involved in a scheme to take over the Russian aluminum industry, according to a civil case filed in New York in 2000. In it, Makhmudov and two other oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska and Michael Cherney, were accused of a racketeering scheme which involved fraud, bribery and attempted murder. They contested the allegations, and the case was dismissed in the United States because the judge consented to move it to Russia.

“Organised crime was making the money, and Makhmudov and Deripaska were investing the money,” Greenaway said. Several attempts to reach Makhmudov and Kozitsyn for this article were unsuccessful. Proceeds from mining helped Makhmudov and Kozitsyn invest in women’s basketball and other sports in Russia, like martial arts and table tennis.

Another former FBI agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his current employer had barred him from speaking publicly, said oligarchs want to be associated with high-profile, legitimate businesses like sports teams to make it more difficult for Putin to severely punish them without anyone noticing.

Making too much money outside Russia could upset Putin, the agent said, as could seeming to interfere with his political agenda. “When oligarchs have stepped into the fray, then he comes after you, full guns a-blazing,” the agent said.

Brittney Griner of UMMC Ekaterinburg in action during the EuroLeague Women’s Final match against Perfumerias Avenida in Istanbul. Photograph: BSR Agency/Getty

The Russian Basketball Federation governs several men's and women's basketball leagues – including the women's Premier League, with about a dozen teams. UMMC Yekaterinburg has dominated the Premier League, where most of the teams are bankrolled by government municipalities. Makhmudov lists the team on his website among his charitable endeavours.

"There's this vision that this is happening all over Russia," Cound said. "No, no. It's this team. You probably have three players on Yekat that's more than the whole budget of the next team down." Right before UMMC Yekaterinburg's run of sustained dominance began in 2008, Taurasi and Sue Bird, two of the world's most famous women's basketball players, won several EuroLeague championships for Spartak Moscow. In 2006, the average WNBA salary was only $47,000 a year, with the league maximum at $91,000 for veterans.

In Russia, Bird and Taurasi were treated like celebrities. Shabtai Kalmanovich, Spartak Moscow’s owner, lavished players with high salaries, cash bonuses and gifts. Kalmanovich once told ESPN that he lost millions every season. The team paid to have its games broadcast in Russia and did not charge fans to attend, hoping to first get spectators invested in the sport before charging admission.

Kalmanovich, who made his fortune in the diamond trade, was murdered in 2009. "The tendency to spend a lot on women's basketball and bring in expensive players was largely laid by him – along with bosses of UMMC," said Dmitry Navosha, a founder of the Russian sports website Sports.ru.

Bird joined UMMC Yekaterinburg in 2011-12. Taurasi did so in 2012-13 after two seasons in Turkey. After Griner won a championship with Taurasi and the Mercury in her second WNBA season in 2014, she went to play for China and then Yekaterinburg as well.

It can be taxing physically to compete year-round, and many players miss WNBA training camp and early-season games as they finish their international seasons

The WNBA season typically runs from May to September. Then dozens of players go overseas – to Russia, China, Italy and other countries – to supplement their incomes by playing for international leagues. This past offseason, 70 of the league's 144 players went abroad. In the 2017 and 2018 offseasons, 89 players did so.

WNBA rookies can make as little as $60,000 in base salary, with top veterans like Griner and Taurasi able to earn up to $228,000. The figures are a fraction of the multimillion salaries that men can earn in the NBA; WNBA officials tend to dislike such comparisons, saying that the women’s league brings in far less revenue.

"The outdated view is essentially that the only choice for WNBA players in the offseason is to go overseas and play," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. "And it's not the only choice. They have numerous choices to make lots of additional money."

Under Engelbert, who became commissioner in 2019, the league has added new revenue streams and ways for players to earn more through marketing deals, an in-season tournament and bonuses. A league spokesperson said players could earn more than $500,000 total in base salary, bonuses and marketing deals. Practically speaking, few players are able to approach that level of compensation because of the team salary cap and limited cash pools for marketing and other bonuses.

This offseason, three players had marketing deals with the league (which can pay up to $250,000 per player) and 26 had deals with teams (up to $100,000 total per team). Some players, like Candace Parker, Chiney Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith, have entered broadcasting on the side. The push for additional earning opportunities for players comes as the league is trying, with both incentives and penalties, to limit overseas play.

It can be taxing physically to compete year-round, and many players miss WNBA training camp and early-season games as they finish their international seasons. Starting in 2024, players will be ineligible in the WNBA season if they do not report to their team on time, although there will be exceptions to this “prioritization” policy.

"Prioritisation is, like, the biggest topic of conversation in the WNBA for me, especially in the next couple of years," Stewart, the Seattle Storm forward, said during a February video interview with reporters. "To be able to play overseas at UMMC Yekaterinburg, 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 prioritisation, you're cutting off one of my sources of income and not substituting it."

Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA players union, said she appreciated the strides the league had made in improving players' overall compensation, but her focus is on improving salaries because outside opportunities aren't an option for everyone.

“As the league and the teams have sought to get the players to make the W a priority, with their prioritisation rules, we seek the same of them,” Jackson said. “The opportunities to maximise the business have to come from investing intentionally in the business.”

The business of women's basketball is undergoing a shift, both in the United States and abroad, because of the war in Ukraine and Griner's detention. Griner's American teammates in Yekaterinburg – Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Jonquel Jones – all returned safely to the United States after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

It is unclear if those players – or any others – will go back. Jones, who was the WNBA's Most Valuable Player last season with the Connecticut Sun, posted messages on Twitter about how stressful it was to flee when the war began. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.