Chicago Sky guard Kahleah Copper broke a finger on her shooting hand in March while playing basketball for Orman Genclik Ankara in Turkey.
Now restricted to playing with her left hand, Copper said she plays seven months overseas because she doesn’t earn enough money for living expenses during the WNBA season. Last year, Copper’s WNBA salary was $52,552. According to Forbes.com, the average WNBA salary is $65,000 a year.
That’s one of the problems with playing overseas. Players such as Copper put themselves at risk of injury, which can affect their ability to play in the WNBA.
“We’re just wearing our bodies down," said Copper, 24, a Prep Charter graduate. “We have no real downtime. It [stinks] that we have to play overseas and that we have to deal with these things just to make a living.”
The 2019 WNBA season opens May 24. It stretches to early October, and each team plays 34 regular-season games. European stints for players usually last about seven months.
Copper is one of about 144 WNBA players, 56 percent of whom opted to play overseas this past offseason. Players such as Copper can often earn double what they make in the WNBA. In 2016, Phoenix Mercury stars Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner told ESPN they made $1.5 million and a little under $1 million, respectively, playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia.
Few players said they want to play in Europe, and Copper said she misses hanging out with friends and family when she leaves home.
“I have nieces and nephews,” Copper said. “I have my mom and my sisters, so I like to be home. But it’s the financial part. It’s about making the money playing basketball.”
Officials from the WNBA did not return calls for comment.
The Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart ruptured her Achilles tendon last month while playing for her Russian team during the EuroLeague championship game. The injury will take at least a year to heal and rehab, so she won’t play this season. That could be a factor when her contract expires in August.
Injuries like those to Copper and Stewart have the players paying more attention to the medical staffs of the European teams.
“Yes, the money is great, but I need to make sure I have a great trainer and great options as far as taking care of my body,” Copper said. “I need to have an ice tub, have some recovery, have a good trainer, and stuff like that.”
According to the collective bargaining agreement, salaries for WNBA players account for 20 percent of the league’s $60 million in revenue.
Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the WNBA Players Association, wrote in The Players Tribune in November that the players’ decision to opt out of the CBA after the season is about fairness.
“This is not purely about salaries. This is about small changes the league can make that will impact the players,” Ogwumike wrote. "This is about a 6-foot-9 superstar taking a red-eye cross-country and having to sit in an economy seat instead of an exit row.”
The WNBA has contracts with Twitter and ESPN and last month agreed to a TV deal with CBS Sports Network. Copper and others hope the revenue-generating deal will help players negotiate better salaries.
“If I didn’t have to go overseas I wouldn’t," Copper said. “And I’m sure 90 percent of the league would probably say the same thing. We don’t make enough.”