Brittney Griner Is Creating a New Normal, for Herself and the WNBA

On May 19, Brittney Griner will return to the court for her first official WNBA game in 579 days. The league is not the same now, in part because of her. (Jan Robert Dünnweller/The New York Times)

On May 19, Brittney Griner will return to the court for her first official WNBA game in 579 days. The league is not the same now, in part because of her. (Jan Robert Dünnweller/The New York Times)

PHOENIX — Brittney Griner embarked on a four-day itinerary that would disrupt anyone’s circadian rhythm.

First came the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington, where she was decked out in a sharp, black suit that Saturday night. President Joe Biden pointed to her in the audience and said, “Boy, I can hardly wait to see you back on the court.”

Soon she was rushing to catch a flight, landing in Phoenix at 4 a.m. for the start of WNBA training camp with the Mercury. Then she hustled back east, to New York, for her first Met Gala. She wore a sleek tan suit, and her wife, Cherelle Griner, was in a strapless white gown, both custom outfits by Calvin Klein. They mingled with A-list celebrities that night, but Brittney Griner needed to be back in Phoenix by Tuesday afternoon for more basketball and, she had hoped, a nap.

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The sparkling events, time-zone hopping and overall spectacle were overwhelming but perhaps also came as a kind of relief for Griner, who spent nearly 10 months detained in Russia and returned to the United States in December as a new symbol of hope. Ensnared in a geopolitical showdown between Washington and Moscow, Griner drew attention not only to herself and to the plight of other foreign detainees but also to the financial disparities facing women in sports that had brought her 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, in Los Angeles against the Sparks, Vice President Kamala Harris thanked the Mercury and Sparks players for supporting Griner while she was detained. The league is not the same now, in part because of Griner. The issues her detention spotlighted are not new and are unlikely to be easily resolved. But she has galvanized a potent fan base and sports workforce who are both eager to welcome her home and to use this moment to promote change alongside her.

“We have wanted change for a long time, but now we’re really starting to demand it,” Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier said. “We’re just getting a little more impatient with that and realizing that it’s an issue where we don’t have the money yet, but pushing so that really, really soon we do have the resources to be treated like the athletes we are.”

Why Griner Was in Russia

Russian customs officials detained Griner at an airport near Moscow in February 2022 after finding vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage as she returned to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a professional team that reportedly paid her at least $1 million. She was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony, but she was freed in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer, in December. The U.S. State Department said that she had been wrongfully detained.

The WNBA, now in its 27th season, has long watched dozens of its players go overseas each offseason in search of higher pay, though the league has been trying to offer them additional ways to make money stateside. The maximum salary in the WNBA is about $230,000, and was half as much just a few years ago. Top players such as Griner, a seven-time All-Star center, can command hundreds of thousands more from international teams. Many people were not aware of this dynamic until Griner’s detention and expressed shock and frustration on social media and on television shows.

“As much as I would love to, you know, pay my light bill for the love of the game, I can’t,” Griner said last month during her first news conference since she was freed.

The Associated Press reported that 67 of the league’s 144 players still played internationally this offseason, indicative of the strong pull of the opportunity to make additional income. But in light of Griner’s detention and the war in Ukraine, players eschewed the historically lucrative Russian organizations for teams in countries such as Italy and Turkey. About 90 players played internationally five years ago.

Collier, 26, who has played for international teams, said younger players gain important experience overseas in WNBA offseasons. But she said she doubted she would play abroad again after Griner’s experience and because she wants to spend more time with her daughter, who will turn 1 next Thursday.

Building Household Names

WNBA officials have attributed players’ modest salaries to its historically modest — and perhaps meager — revenue and media attention. Many WNBA players have become accustomed to entering the league with less media fanfare and, at times, playing before far smaller audiences than they experienced in college.

“I’ve been a part of it when I was 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 hottest ticket in the country for the best basketball players in the world in the WNBA.? That, to me, it only happens in women’s sports where the adolescents get more attention than the grown-ups.”

Griner, who joined the Mercury in 2013, has been a star since she became known for dunking at Baylor. At her first news conference since returning, Griner pleaded with the unusual swell of reporters to come and cover games during the season, too.

“The league is a league that needs celebrity,” said Candy Lee, a professor of journalism and integrated marketing communications at Northwestern. She added: “The league can take advantage of it. The Mercury can take advantage of it.”

The surge in WNBA interest because of Griner has dovetailed with broader momentum for women’s sports in recent years. The NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship game last month shattered records with an average of 9.9 million viewers, according to ESPN.

WNBA teams will play a record 40 regular-season games this year, and the league signed a multiyear deal with Scripps to televise Friday night games on the network ION. Griner’s first two regular-season games, on Friday in Los Angeles and Sunday in Phoenix against Chicago, will be nationally televised by ESPN. Viewership during the 2022 regular season rose 16% over the previous year, according to the league, making it the most-watched season in 14 years.

Flip on the NBA playoffs and you’re likely to spot a WNBA player, like Candace Parker of the Las Vegas Aces or Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings, featured prominently in a commercial. Puma recently announced the second signature shoe for the Liberty’s Breanna Stewart. Griner, who became the first openly gay athlete signed to Nike in 2014, remains with the brand, a spokesperson confirmed, but the company did not answer questions about whether it planned to market her this season.

A few weeks before Griner was detained, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league had raised $75 million from investors that she planned to use for marketing and revamping the league’s business model.

Collegiate stars such as Angel Reese of Louisiana State, Paige Bueckers of UConn and Caitlin Clark of Iowa are poised 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. She added: “That’s how you build household names.”

The Travel Debate

Concerns about Griner’s security while traveling since her detention have added to the fiery debate about travel in the WNBA.

Unlike in the NBA or on many top men’s and women’s college teams, WNBA players fly commercial airlines to games. It has long been a sore point for players, who have had to sleep in airports or rush to games because of delays. This year, it is widely believed that Griner will need to travel privately, though neither the Mercury nor the WNBA have disclosed her plans.

“Would definitely like to make all those flights private,” Griner said. “That would be nice. Not just for me and my team, but for the whole league. We all deserve it. We work so hard. We do so much, and it would be nice where we finally get to the point where we get to that point, too.”

The WNBA has said that it cannot afford the tab of over $20 million a season for charter flights, even though some owners might be willing to provide them for their own teams. Charter flights are prohibited in the collective bargaining agreement between team owners and the players’ union as an unfair competitive advantage. The WNBA fined the Liberty $500,000 for secretly using charter flights to travel to some games during the 2021 season.

In April, the league announced that it would have charter flights for teams playing on consecutive days during the regular season and for all playoff games. The WNBA had made exceptions in similar situations previously.

“We’re going to chip away at this as we continue to build this model,” Engelbert said. “Because once you do it, you have to do it essentially for perpetuity, so we want to make sure we’re not putting the financial viability of the league at risk.”

On Thursday, the WNBA players union announced a deal with Priority Pass to give players access to airport lounges, which could provide food, spa treatments and places to sleep. Nneka Ogwumike, the star Los Angeles forward who is president of the players union, said in a statement that she hoped other “partners” would see the deal as a “call to action.”

In a statement, Terri Jackson, the union’s executive director, called the deal a “significant step in the right direction.”

‘She Impacts the World’

Vince Kozar, the president of the Mercury, described an ominous cloud over the franchise last season at every practice, media session and game without Griner. Brief video clips that emerged of her in Russia showed her handcuffed or caged. The day Griner was sentenced, Mercury players came together and cried — then had to play a game. “You carried that weight of the uncertainty and the fear,” Kozar said.

It finally, suddenly, parted upon Griner’s release in December. Kozar did not expect Griner to announce immediately whether she would again play in the WNBA But when she returned to the United States, she said she would play.

Griner may have been the most plugged-in WNBA player last season. Players from around the league sent her letters, their only means of communicating with her. In letters with Kozar, Griner was not asking about the organization and its going-ons as much as informing him about them.

“It was just a reminder that basketball was one of the things that had been taken away from her, this thing how she impacts the world that’s central to her identity, that so many of her relationships are built around,” Kozar said.

Griner will lead the league in hugs this season. She scribbled autographs and posed for selfies in the tunnel of a preseason game against the Sparks in Phoenix last week. It was her first action since she’d returned. A modest crowd cheered louder than it seemed capable of during Griner’s pregame introduction. Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said chills ran down her spine.

Griner towered over everyone else on the court, securing her first bucket on a quick turnaround a minute into the game. All right, here we go, Griner thought to herself. So much had seemed unfamiliar to her lately. Jet-setting for a living? That’s not her, she said with a laugh. But that first shot, she thought, that felt comfortable.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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