The Times: Daily news from the L.A. Times

Why U.S. women's sports stars play abroad

Episode Summary

The arrest in Russia of WNBA superstar Brittney Griner made worldwide headlines. But few asked why was she playing abroad in the first place.

Episode Notes

The arrest in Russia earlier this year of WNBA superstar Brittney Griner made worldwide headlines. But few dug into why she was playing abroad in the first place.

Today, we hear how Griner is just one of many female athletes who find themselves abroad year after year to play the games they love, geopolitics be damned. All because they can’t get a fair wage in the United States. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guest: L.A. Times sports editor Iliana Limón Romero

More reading:

Brittney Griner’s arrest in Russia: What you need to know

WNBA to honor Brittney Griner with decal on teams’ floors

Commentary: Why Brittney Griner was in Russia, and what it says about women’s sports in the U.S.

Episode Transcription


Gustavo: As the WNBA season begins, courts throughout the country are going to have decals with the initial BG the number 42. 

The reason? 

AP TAPE GRINER: Brittney Griner was arrested in February at a Moscow airport with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. According to Russia.
AP TAPE GRINER: Russian news agency TASS reports a court has extended Griner’s pretrial detention to May 19th.
AP TAPE GRINER: The consular officer who visited with Brittney Griner was able to verify that she is doing as well as can be expected, uh, under these very difficult circumstances.

Gustavo: It's a story that's gotten international media attention. But beyond all those headlines about Griner, there's one point that really hasn't been hit on as much. 

Why was she playing in Russia in the first place?


Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. It's Thursday, May 12th, 2022.

Today, we hear how Griner is just one of many female athletes who find themselves abroad year after year to play the games that they love, geopolitics be damned. All because they can't get a living wage in the United States.

Mux Fade out

Gustavo: Iliana Limón Romero is the sports editor for the LA times, and she also sits as chair of the association for women in sports media. Iliana, welcome to THE TIMES.

Illiana: Thank you. 

Gustavo: For the people who don't follow sports. What should they know about Brittany Griner?

Illiana: Wow. That's a complicated question.


Illiana: Mainly, she is a superstar women's basketball player, one of the best in the game, one of the best at what she does.

AP TAPE GRINER: What she showed in this tournament just shows you what level she can go to and how she can dominate a game. And I always tell her, I don't even think, you know how good you are. But that also is the best thing about her. She's the ultimate teammate.

Illiana: She's very tall, which naturally makes her very good at basketball because of this unique skill set that she has in addition to her athleticism, just her height differentiates her. And she is among many, many basketball players who have to play overseas in the off season, in the WBA, in order to really realize their true revenue potential and in order to be able to really live off of their craft.


Illiana: So she played in Russia and she was in Russia at the time that Russia invaded Ukraine. And that really changed everything for her because there was heightened scrutiny for Americans who were pushing back against the Russians. She was detained for having vape charges in her luggage, that, there was some question as to whether that was really accurate, if that was really the case. And she has been in custody for months now.

Gustavo: Yeah, you want to talk about one of the greatest? She was an All-American college, multiple time, all star, two-time Olympic gold medalist. So clearly had a successful career here in the United States. So why would someone of her caliber have to go play abroad during that WNBA off-season instead of resting?

Illiana: We don't pay enough. Female athletes in the United States depend entirely upon their sponsorships and their individual relationships with their fans in order to make the majority of their revenue. And for WNBA players, there's a lot of them, and there's not as much sponsorship money that tends to go to them. // As a result, there is a big drive to go play overseas. And the most lucrative league to be in, generally, are in the Russian leagues because there are oligarchs who enjoy funding and // seeing basketball played at a high level and played in this competitive way. And so the wages are just so much bigger. There's just such a huge opportunity for them to make so much more.

Gustavo: And what other differences are there, then, between playing abroad and playing in the WNBA? I think of American sports fans, you know, we believe in American sports triumphalism – that our leagues are the best in the world. Except soccer, of course. So I think it really surprises folks that someone would want to play in Russia or Turkey or elsewhere.

Illiana: I think it's a really important point to know that like, yes, they go and play for the money, but it's not really a miserable experience. I mean, there's some culture shock. You miss home. But generally they are paid extraordinarily well. They are taken care of in terms of their housing. They are provided food // and just a lot of high-end things and treated like the celebrity athletes that they really are. And the quality of play is good. The quality of play is really excellent. They get better. They improve in their game because they're challenged by other athletes who are really strong. They're not the only Americans there. It's not as though Brittney Griner was the only WNBA player that needed to be hustled out of Russia as international relations changed. There were many, but this is just a highly competitive experience. So it's not just like they're going for a money grab. They have to tolerate. The money is very important. It's the driving force, but the quality of play is really strong.

Gustavo: There's been deep discussions in recent years, here in the United States, over that pay disparity gap between men and women in both the pro leagues and the national teams. Recently, the U.S. Women's soccer team even sued their own governing body on the issue..

AP tape 1: So for us, this is just a huge win and ensuring that, we not only right the wrongs of the past, but set the next generation up for something that we could only have dreamed of.

Gustavo: That's soccer player Megan Rapinoe back in February talking about a deal that the women players reached with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which promised to pay women players $24 million plus bonuses that match those of the men....But Iliana, are low salaries the only issue that WNBA players face?

Illiana: No.

MUX in

Illiana: We're coming up on the 50th anniversary of Title IX here this summer. And I think that's something that // obviously was designed to provide equitable access for women in sport. And there's been many successes and the fact that the WNBA exists owes itself in part to this flood of women being able to play, that being an acceptable thing. 


Illiana: But no, it's not just limited to the wages.The wages are informed by what the market provides. And there has been such a drive against television exposure. 


Illiana: Television contracts, and sponsorships are the two biggest sources of revenue for any pro league. It's not just ticket sales. Although ticket sales can have // a factor and it's long been an uneven playing field for women. 


Illiana: The pattern of the audience. You know, some will tell you, well, it's, it's a business decision. The audience is there, it's just like more people want to watch men, that's it. That doesn't necessarily translate every time that men and women are afforded the opportunity to watch women's sports, that that doesn't necessarily translate. But we have trained them that they will not see that we have trained them, that they should not expect to see them in all of these spaces. They don't look to it. And so they don't engage with it. And so as a result, yeah. Initially, unless you signal, we think this is of value, we think this is of importance, then people just don't come and look for it in the same way.


Gustavo: Brittany Grinder's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas. She wrote an op-ed piece for the LA Times. Who's she?

Illiana: She's a really influential agent who's probably, all of the highest profile women's athletes that you know of, are possibly represented by her //  in addition to Brittany, //  she's got Sue Bird and numerous others, highly recognizable WNBA athletes. And she also is very proud of representing Olympians and Paralympians. 

LINDSAY YOUTUBE CLIP:  As we renegotiate deals for so many of the women that we represent who led through the stool.To actually show particularly to people who Harbor a lot of bias against the value of women that where the bar was set before is actually not the threshold. We start negotiating that because their immediate value and their engagement value is actually so much richer and so much more robust and so much more powerful than perhaps people might guess.

Illiana: She's struck a number of truly innovative deals. Paige Buckners, who's a college athlete, when the name image and likeness opportunities came along, the very first, really big, really official one through Gatorade was secured by Lindsey for Paige. So these are some big opportunities and things that she's been able to execute for people. The other big thing that she did that she's very proud of is maternity protections and inclusion writers for her athletes. And what that means is you do a lot of this, maternity protections were not included, even when we think of the US Women's National Team being one of the spaces that has had some outspoken athletes who are really supported. Those were only things that were included very, very recently. And the latest round of the WNBA contract also was one that did not include this automatically. And you would think from a space of, you know, female athletes being able to take maternity leave to have children in the course, in the prime of their careers, it was just not a thing that was factored into. And she was one of the really huge advocates for this and the one who was able to secure the rights to help make this a more consistent thing.

Mux in 

Illiana: She's really an innovator in this space, and has really advocated for trying to get what she believes is the true value for athletes given their success and their appeal among fans..

mux beat

Gustavo: We’ll have more, after the break.

Mux out


Gustavo: So Illiana, obviously Brittney Griner story has been big because of the geopolitical concerns going on there. But I also think it has brought up this issue of the pay disparity for female athletes. So what can be done to increase the pay for them? So they don't have to play abroad?

Illiana: Lindsey has outlined numerous points within her opinion piece that she shared with us, that we had the privilege of publishing in the Los Angeles Times, that really highlights a multi-step process. One, definitely the television revenue is very important. And opening up those opportunities consistently, putting athletes and teams in a space where people can see them and giving fans a chance to consistently view them, and then having that return and investment for that audience is important. Sponsorships are a huge thing. And they've started to come around. We've seen a lot of really big companies understand the direct relationships that players have developed with their fans. In the absence of these really more formal structures. This didn't just wither. They didn't just like, you don't know this person who's an amazing athlete. No, these are names that, you know, you know, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird and, and others, Megan Rapinoe stands out.

AP tape 1: I think we are really in the midst of an incredible turning point in women's sports. I think we're all going to look back on this moment with incredible pride, but if you're not paying attention to this right now, and what's happening in women's sports, you've, you're sleeping on the whole thing.


Illiana: These people have platforms and they've learned how to leverage them and use them on one-on-one relationships.

AP tape 1: Contrary to what the scoreboard might tell you. It's really not that easy. I mean, it can be stressful at times, you know, trying to come together with, with these other players and figure it out and make it work.

Illiana: They've used social media.

We do want to send a message, you know, because there are players from different teams watching these games, coaches are scouting and, and we need to, to send the right message to them about what we stand for. 

Illiana: They've built bonds with their fans 

I think over 20 years, there's this trust factor that goes beyond playing the game of basketball. And you don't get that with a lot of people in life where you can trust someone with everything. Um, and I'm just happy. I have someone like that beyond the game of basketball for the rest of my life. 

Illiana: And a substantial followings so that their individual sponsorships are huge. They've gotten these major deals that they'd been able to secure on their own. And now in order to really lift the opportunities for the entire league and for all players, you have to figure out how to extend that. And many companies are catching on. They want to become the “feel good, right side of these things.” It's empowering, it's encouraging. And the audience has really responded to it. So more and more, we've seen more sponsorships.


Illiana: The WNBA had some advantages spinning off of the NBA and having a direct partnership that has helped it. And some challenges that have come with that partnership that have been a hindrance because there was this perception that they were only floated and funded by the NBA. But still, they had some sponsorships that came along. The explosion of sponsorships in pro women's soccer in the United States for the national women's soccer league is really kind of the clearest sign of going from almost nothing to a lot for each individual team. And nationally just kind of shows you which way the trend is going, but still Lindsay argued more is needed. More buy-in from individuals who have a chance to decide how they spend their money and more support. Specifically, the biggest thing in basketball, aside from the television revenue that goes to the entire league, the sponsorship opportunities, the shoe deals are the single biggest revenue driver for the NBA side, and comparable or better athletes on the WNBA side, are not always getting those opportunities. They have the fan following. There's not really a substantial reason they shouldn't get that. We've seen merchandise like with world cup jerseys when the women were sure to win the world cup where Nike didn't produce enough jerseys.

Gustavo: Not even for Megan Rapinoe? 

Illiana: Not even for Megan Rapinoe. And not in men's sizes, not in boys sizes. And those are big audience drivers. Those are big opportunities for them. So that is really like you're leaving money on the table. Your audience wants it. They're showing it. They're following these athletes. They're buying into everything that they individually have. It's time to catch up in all of these ways. And the things holding them back are subtle, but significant. The US Women's National Team is going to play for a gold medal soon. And that's the next thing in their cycle. And then for another women's world cup and they have the opportunity to push in those areas, you know, that they're going to be highly competitive, but there will be more US Men's National Team jerseys available for this fall's World Cup, where they will not go as far, then there will be for the women and that's another hindrance.

Gustavo: What's the big difference between American men who play abroad and women?

Illiana: For American men, it's largely driven by the competitive opportunity. Within basketball, it's more often because there's been a struggle to get on an NBA roster and it's an opportunity to gain experience, to work harder, to be pushed and to make money. In other sports like soccer, as you say, they're going to play because it's an elevated level of competition typically. It's going to make them better, hone their skills. And typically it is more money, but it's more about getting better. The women's seasons are notably shorter in the U.S. But also it's because they need the opportunities.They need the revenue opportunities and then the player and the opportunities are not afforded here. For the men, it's typically like this is a step up. This is a way to improve myself, this is better. For the women it's like I have to do both in order to be able to reach that full potential of both revenue and skill. More competition consistently makes you better.

Gustavo: Yeah, training for the men versus training and livelihood for the women. And I think that's what gets people a lot when they realize why Brittany was in Russia in the first place. So what can the public do to push for that change in pay inequities that female athletes face?

Illiana: it's a supply and demand situation. So it's really pushing for supporting the things that you think are interesting and exposing yourself to things that you want. This is an environment where people respond to the way the money goes. So how you choose to spend your money or how you choose to spend your time and what you choose to engage with is an active vote that is being realized and recognized. So if it's something that you believe in a curious about; reading articles about Brittney Griner. I know that seems so simple, but the fact that anytime she's written about that people are curious about it and go in and read about her, it drives the conversation in the interest in continuing to follow up and to continue to keep pressure.

MUX Fade in

Illiana: If American media continue to ask questions about Brittney Griner and her status, it is very hard for her to get lost in detainment and to not have a presence there. If people continue to ask and engage, then there will be opportunities.

Mux beat

Illiana: On a bigger scale. If you're in a much bigger position to sponsor or endorse, that's a whole different thing, but also buying tickets. The Sparks are in season and you know, there's also Angel City FC. There are college teams that play UCLA softball and USC softball and other opportunities all around the region. There are opportunities to go support high school sports. If you want to be part of that, and it's important to you, then there are a variety of ways to show your support. And some of them cost you nothing.


Gustavo: You talked about tickets, now of course companies want to sponsor winners. Do you think if you have the demand for women's sports, the companies will follow through on doing these sponsorship deals for both the teams and the players?

Illiana: Absolutely. And I think a really good example is the women's soccer team that has just launched in Los Angeles, Angel City FC.

ANGEL CITY FC Clip: The 22 degree angle at the top of the crest representing 2022, our inaugural season and the 22 players, 11-11 on the pitch….It's naturally causing some momentum within the community. Some momentum within culture where people are saying, “Hey, this thing is kind of cool and oh, by the way, // these women have been playing for how many years without pay equity.” Something has to be done.

Illiana: There are millionaire investors who have moved into soccer, and they're women's soccer and they're not doing it just because it's the right thing to do or a feel good thing, or because it's good for their daughters or whatnot. This is entirely, Alexis Ohanian is a tech investor who's invested in a ton of different companies. He's a co-founder of Reddit. His wife is Serena Williams and yes, for his daughter, it meant a lot to be an original Angel City investor. But he also told Kevin Baxter, the Los Angeles Times, like, this is a business and this is a business decision entirely. And there is absolutely a belief that this will happen and he doesn't have to look much further than his wife, who her U.S. open draw, for example, far out draws the men's matches anytime that she's on television or moves through, he's seen how people respond and how they think things are there. So there is an expectation of return on investment. They have celebrity lineup behind this Los Angeles team, but they also have expectations of how do we grow this? How do we build this? We're here committing, but we fully expect there to be a return on this investment. And I think it's really interesting. Also a lot of former players have been involved, and Abby Wambach is one of them and she said, this is a league that we never had that we want to be supported. And Abby is one of the best soccer players to ever play the game in the United States. 

AP TAPE ABBY: When somebody says you throw like a girl, you run like a girl, I'm kind of like, “Yeah, you're damn right I do.”


Illiana: She is hustling. She is doing book deals. She's doing TV deals. She does speaker engagements. She's on the road all the time.

AP tape 1: We want to be proud of being female. We want to be proud of having 25 million people watching that game. And we want to be proud of pushing the sport forward, not just on the field, but also off of the field. 

Illiana: She's doing all sorts of things. And she has to do that as a retired athlete, because she didn't make enough during her career. So her drive and her hope is that her support through Angel City is forming a new path for athletes coming through, so that if there is a superstar who bursts onto the scene and absolutely explodes, somebody who's coming out, who's probably 17 or 18 right now, I'm going to come through that system. She wants to provide an opportunity that they don't have to struggle as much as she did.

Mux beat

Gustavo: We'll have more after the break



Gustavo: So Illiana, back to Brittany Griner. How do you think her situation is going to change people's perception of sort of the dilemma that WNBA players face, especially since their season just started? Do you think the situation has got to cause hesitancy for players to play overseas?

Illiana: No. Ha. It's interesting. Um, there's been a lot of interviews with athletes who are definitely… there's… in addition to Russia, there's China, there's leagues in Japan, there's opportunities in Australia. There's other parts of Europe. I think those are still very much game. We've heard from athletes in the WNBA preseason who said, yeah, I'm still going. Russia is another question. If Vladimir Putin is still reining in Russia,// their agents are gonna strongly dissuade them. The state department's not gonna support it. It's not going to be possible. We don't have a relationship with Russia right now that would allow for that. But if it were to soon be resolved, how long would it take before athletes would go back? I don't think very long. And that's not necessarily like a knock on them. I just think that they feel like the competitive atmosphere and the revenue is still great.

Gustavo: What's Brittany's current status?

Illiana: Well, it has switched. When we first heard about this, this is something that we and other media outlets were eager to get more information on and report on. And there was a lot of sensitivity around trying not to inflame the situation. So there were limited interviews that were granted by her family, friends, her agent and those working on her behalf. They've slowly started to say more and more. Obviously Lindsay's op-ed included much more detail about her personal relationship with Brittany and how all of that went. But we've switched where it has been recognized by the state department that she has been wrongfully detained. And so now they are continuing to advocate for ways to bring her back. A former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is now involved. He is really well known // as a former UN ambassador for really working to get people out of difficult situations. He's negotiated for prisoners’ releases out of the Middle East and out of // North Korea, he's been very successful in that space. So that might be among the most encouraging things for those who care the most about Brittany is that the state department has shifted its tone, and he is very actively involved in that process.

Gustavo: Finally Illiana, what do you think this entire deal changes? 

Illiana: I think it changed the way people pay attention.I think it's really unfortunate for Brittany and her family. And it's a situation you wish never would be repeated, but she did do something revolutionary by amplifying how many people know and pay attention about these issues.

TWITTER TAPE: Been 78 days since our friend teammate, sister Brittney Griner has wrongfully been detained in Russia. It is time for her to come home. No that we are watching. We are paying attention. We are BG.


TIK TOK TAPE: The WNBA has announced that this logo will be on every single court in the league.They will also pay Brittany her full salary and full as well as grant the mystics,  some salary cap relief so that they're able to build out a full team 

Gustavo: Iliana. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Illiana: Thank you




Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of THE TIMEs daily news from the LA Times.  Ashlea Brown was the jefa on this episode and our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo, Ashlea Brown and Angel Carreras. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin.

Gustavo: Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilar and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

Thanks  to Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and their panel sponsor Wasserman for letting us use  some of their audio, and thanks  to raynerreport on Tik Tok for letting us use some of their audio.

 Like what you're listening to? Then make sure to follow the times on whatever platform you use. As Radioactive Man,once said “Up and atom,” so we're not the Pootchie of podcasts.

Gustavo: And me? I’m Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.