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Brittney Griner's imprisonment in Russia drew attention to WNBA salaries

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

While WNBA star Brittney Griner enjoys her return to the U.S., there is a conversation worth having about why Griner was in Russia in the first place. All right. Now, long story short - female basketball players have an opportunity to get paid substantially more overseas than they do here in the U.S. But in the nearly 300 days since Griner's detention, how has the conversation around women's pay equity in sports advanced? Here's NPR's Andrew Limbong.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: According to the experts I talked to, there have been more conversations about pay and the WNBA since Griner's imprisonment. In fact, just recently, Kelsey Plum from the Las Vegas Aces went viral for comments she made on "The Residency Podcast" talking about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE RESIDENCY PODCAST")

KELSEY PLUM: We are not asking to get paid what the men get paid. We're asking to get paid the same percentage of revenue shared.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Got it.

PLUM: You know what I'm saying?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Got it. Got it. So that's a huge misconception.

PLUM: That's a huge misconception.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Got it. OK, cool.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: For sure, 'cause everybody is like...

LIMBONG: But have these conversations directly translated to dollars and cents for female athletes?

ALICIA JESSOP: I wish that was the outcome.

LIMBONG: That's Alicia Jessop, associate professor of sport administration at Pepperdine University and the founder of Ruling Sports, a website that covers the intersection between business and sports.

JESSOP: But if my Twitter account shows anything, a lot of people are really digging their heels in on these women being paid enough in the WNBA and that - what else could they ask for?

LIMBONG: To back up a bit, even before getting caught in the middle of a massive story with huge geopolitical consequences, Brittney Griner was a star with some name recognition. She was the first openly gay athlete to be signed to an endorsement deal by Nike and an Olympic gold medalist. And even she felt the need to play in Russia.

JESSOP: Wherein a person like Brittney Griner was earning over a million dollars per season compared to her WNBA salary, which is just over $200,000 a season.

LIMBONG: And it's not just Griner. For decades, WNBA players have found massive financial opportunities in Russia that they couldn't find here. NPR has reached out to the head of the WNBA Players Association, but we haven't heard back yet. But Jessop says that the players did have some factors going for them when they last negotiated their collective bargaining agreement. And since then, WNBA viewership has gone up, with 2022 being its most-watched regular season in 14 years. But with the war in Ukraine still ongoing, many players have lost that option of going to Russia to play.

JESSOP: So these athletes have lost their greatest source of income. And that should be damning to the WNBA. It should be damning to the owners of these teams. It should be damning to every corporation in America who says it's investing in women and believes in women and wants to empower women.

KETRA ARMSTRONG: We have to make the choice that we're going to do better. How dare us let other countries treat our own citizens in the sport realm better than we do.

LIMBONG: Ketra Armstrong is a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. She says it'll take a deeper cultural shift for there to be any significant move in on the question of paying female athletes in the WNBA.

ARMSTRONG: So we need strategic marketing. We need strategic business plans, comprehensive business plans that will grow the market, that will grow their fan base, that will engage them with corporate partners that would allow them to get extra moneys. All of these things is what the NBA has been doing for years, and we need to have the same type of intentionality for the WNBA.

LIMBONG: And Armstrong says that we don't points to some still deeply held beliefs as to where we think women belong.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.