Despite low pay, WNBA still attraction to international players

PHOENIX — In a quest for better salaries, nearly half of WNBA players compete overseas in the off-season. The mindset for international players, however, is different.

They come to the United States for the competition.

The WNBA has 11 international players on its 12 teams this season. Brazil and Australia each have three representatives, with Belgium, Japan, England, Canada and Africa contributing one. The Mercury are tied for the most in the league with two.

“Coming here is always a goal,” said forward Stephanie Talbot, who grew up in Australia. “It’s the best league in the world, and if you want to be one of the best players in the world, I think you have to come here. It helps you get better. It helps you grow as a player.”

Still, the money overseas is tempting. What each country offers varies, but teams in Europe typically pay the most.

Mercury star Diana Taurasi will make the WNBA maximum this year: $113,500. By comparison, the Suns’ Derrick Jones Jr., who spent much of the season with the Developmental League’s Northern Arizona Suns, made the NBA minimum of $543,471. When Taurasi plays in Russia during the WNBA off-season, she earns approximately $1.5 million, a contract so lucrative she abided by UMMC Ekaterinburg’s wishes and sat out the 2015 Mercury season so her body could rest.

When the biggest paycheck in the WNBA is a little more than $100,000, many league players look elsewhere to make a substantial living playing the sport they love.

International players understand the pursuit of money in Europe, although many hope for career stops in the WNBA as well, despite the salaries. Both international players on the Mercury come from Australia.

The money there isn’t great either. Nearly 20 percent of Australian players make only make $5,000 a year, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Europe has better money than Australia in most situations, so I’ve just finished in Hungary and just got here two weeks ago,” Mercury forward Cayla George said. “The difference is quite significant.”

George and fellow Australian teammate Talbot played for their country in the 2016 Rio Olympics and were on Team Australia in the Women’s National Basketball League.

This past offseason, Talbot played in Poland.

Although Europe allowed them to make a substantial salary, their goals have always been to play in the WNBA.

Mercury coach Sandy Brondello is also from Australia and played professionally for 17 years. She represented her country starting in 1986 and then went to play in Europe. In 1998, she was drafted by the WNBA’s Detroit Shock and played in the league for five seasons. This is her fourth season as Mercury coach.

“I love playing ball and obviously I didn’t earn the kind of money they earn now, but it’s more about because I just love the game,” Brondello said about playing in the WNBA. “Now, obviously, the money that they can earn in Europe is fantastic, I think it’s great for women’s basketball and these women can go out there and earn a very good living from playing a game that we all love.”

Brondello knows that salary is not the motivation to make it in this league.

“It’s an opportunity for them to play against the very best players,” she said. “That’s what drew me to it and I got drafted in the fourth round back in 1998 and it was just this joy.”

Even in it’s 21st season, WNBA salaries have been a topic of debate. Many players believe, however, to be the best you have to play with the best.

“It’s the best (competition) in the world,” Talbot said. “It’s where you want to play and it’s where you earn your respect around the world.”