Aari McDonald can’t stop committing to Adia Barnes.
First, it was to the University of Washington, where Barnes was an assistant coach, when McDonald was coming out of high school. Then to Arizona as a transfer when Barnes took the head job at her alma mater. And after three remarkably successful seasons with the Wildcats, culminating in the program’s first trip to the national title game in 2021, McDonald is back at Arizona and with Barnes, yet again. This time McDonald joins Barnes as part of her Wildcats coaching staff, serving as a director of recruiting operations.
Barnes had tried to lure her best player back to campus a year ago after McDonald completed her rookie WNBA season. But at that time, McDonald just needed a break.
Less than two weeks after losing the national championship, she was drafted by the Atlanta Dream and immediately transitioned into the professional game. She played in 30 games in her first WNBA season, then did what most women’s basketball players in her situation do and crossed the Atlantic Ocean for her third season in a calendar year. She went to Hungary to play for UNI Györ, but just three contests in, it was clear she was spent. Sixty-nine games of basketball over the previous 12 months with no end in sight was too much to handle — physically and mentally.
So even when Barnes offered an attractive coaching role last year, McDonald knew it was time to rest.
“I came back home early because I was kinda burned out on basketball,” McDonald says. “I talked to my parents, my husband about it, I prayed about it, and I’m just like, no. I didn’t have that good of a rookie season. I haven’t had a break in years from basketball, I haven’t got time to rest my body and my mind. And I was burnt out. So I thought it was in my best interest to come back home and just take a couple of months off and find myself again.”
The drain of having no time off is a feeling many WNBA players can relate to. The WNBA offseason has existed as a sort of choose-your-own-adventure exercise for the league’s players. The most popular path historically has been playing overseas in the fall and winter, where WNBA players earn the bulk of their income and get to play full schedules that mimic the length of college or NBA seasons, before returning stateside for the summer WNBA season. A year ago, league data estimated 77 players appeared in international leagues. This year’s tally indicates a change: Only 66 players (give or take) selected the overseas route, meaning more than half of the WNBA decided the overseas life isn’t for them, at least for now.
In recent history, international salaries have far outpaced those of the WNBA, driving players’ decisions to choose international competition over a restful offseason at home. Top players could earn seven figures in Russia, and China paid between $50,000 and $200,000 per month. Jonquel Jones, the 2021 WNBA MVP who previously competed in Russia and is playing in Turkey this offseason, told ESPN she earned the equivalent of her WNBA paycheck in one month overseas. Players are also often treated like first-class athletes overseas but continue to travel economy class in the U.S.
But the monetary gap is dwindling, and players are re-evaluating their offseason options. China and Russia — with COVID-19 and visa issues — are no longer options, depressing the market, and the WNBA nearly doubled its maximum salary in the latest collective bargaining agreement. In 2023, WNBA salaries will range from $62,285 to $234,936. It’s no secret the WNBA wants to keep its players at home. It’s also no secret the majority of players would prefer to play only in the U.S. With these changing financial and global circumstances, players are weighing other factors: more domestic playing options and endorsement opportunities, as well as safety concerns and — like McDonald is achieving by staying home this offseason — career development and rest.
Some players just want free time. For Jordin Canada, a free agent who just finished her fifth WNBA season, playing overseas meant she could never think about anything but basketball. Taking most of the winter off allows her to finally devote time to thinking about her future and her interests outside of the sport. She’s working with the Ronald McDonald House in Los Angeles as well as Wags and Walks (a nonprofit dog-adoption organization) to fulfill her passion for working with kids and with dogs. It’s a way for her to recharge mind, body and spirit.
Others don’t like missing important events with their families. Like many players, Sky star Kahleah Copper says she gets most homesick around the winter holidays. In a 48-hour break last year, she crammed in a trip to her home in Philadelphia from Salamanca, Spain. But she would rather just be home more often.
“People want to be home,” says Copper, who is the reigning EuroLeague MVP but stayed home this offseason. “We’ve been missing holidays, and I think that sometimes just having conversations with different people, it’s like, sometimes it’s just not worth it. You just want to be able to have that time with your family, not miss so many special moments.”
Going overseas also brings safety concerns, an especially pressing issue now that Mercury star Brittney Griner, who competed for years in Russia as one of the EuroLeague’s top players, is serving a sentence in a Russian penal colony after detainment in February that the U.S. has determined to be unjust. Concerns also exist outside of Russia, which is banned this year from EuroLeague play. Istanbul — which has become a hub for prominent women’s basketball players and where about a dozen WNBA players are scheduled to suit up this offseason — was the site of a recent terrorist attack. The Next Hoops confirmed the safety of all WNBA personnel in the area, but concerns remain.
“There’s a lot more opportunities now I think for us to stay in the States and be able to do things that we want to do and allow us to make money in other ways that doesn’t allow us to go overseas,” Canada says. “And it’s a lot that’s going on with the BG situation, and it sucks that she’s in this situation right now, and hopefully she can come home soon. But I feel like that may have also played a part in players deciding to stay home. I think (there are) probably more reasons and I can’t speak for everybody.”
As Canada alluded, there are a lot of options for players to remain in the United States if they aren’t interested in going overseas. Not everyone can find reliable and well-paying gigs like co-hosting ESPN’s “NBA Today” like Chiney Ogwumike or joining the coaching staff of an NBA team like Kristi Toliver, but there are reasonable paths for players stateside.
Copper has a WNBA marketing deal, which has become a lucrative option for the league’s bigger stars. Players can be paid up to $250,000 during the offseason (the WNBA is mandated by the CBA to annually spend at least $1 million total on its player marketing endeavors) to represent the league during the fall and winter. Copper says there is a great deal of flexibility about what events and partnerships she participates in on behalf of the league, and the two parties work together to figure out what makes sense for each individual player.
Last week, Copper led a WNBA-hosted basketball clinic at a North Carolina high school. It was something Copper wanted to do to help give back to her friend and WNBA advocate Ari Chambers’ local high school, and it tied in with the league’s overall goal of increasing basketball participation among young girls. “We kinda work together, but they give you a pretty good say in the things that you like, and I think it ends up working well when we work together,” Copper says about the marketing arrangement. “I think that it helps you also grow your personal brand and see the things that you like and are also passionate about outside of basketball.”
That opportunity is open to Copper as an All-Star, a World Cup gold medalist and a former WNBA Finals MVP. Copper previously worked as an assistant coach at Purdue Northwest University in the 2020-21 offseason, the path McDonald chose this year. The Lynx’s Rachel Banham (Minnesota), the Sun’s Natisha Hiedeman (Penn State) and the Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu (Oregon), among others, have also taken paid positions on college staffs during part of their offseason. Canada decided to join Athletes Unlimited, a professional league in its second season in which players run the show, draft new teams every week and earn points on a play-by-play basis, eventually producing an individual champion. Of the 31 athletes signed on for AU Season 2, 11 of them played in the WNBA last season. AU athletes were paid a base salary of $20,000 last year with bonuses reaching up to $50,000. CEO John Patricof told Forbes the league also covers housing, transportation and “most meals.”
“I watched the first season actually in Hungary, I was playing overseas at the time, and I just loved everything about it,” Canada says. “It just seems extremely fun. I can tell from watching the players that they were having a great time, and it felt like they were getting back to how it was when you were younger, you know, you’re just playing for fun. It wasn’t necessarily feeling like so much of a job. And I feel like, at least for me, I kind of lost sight of that as I’ve gotten older. Being in the league sometimes, I’m just thinking of it as a job and not something that I really love to do. And I could just see from the players that they were just having a great time.”
Canada noted that the Athlete Causes program was a big plus, as each of the athletes can fundraise for an initiative that is special to them during the season. They all donate a portion of their end-of-year bonus to those causes as well.
Another draw for AU? The five-week timeline, allowing players to not only get in shape but also save their bodies from what’s required of a much lengthier European campaign. WNBA players want to be at their best during the domestic season but are often physically unable to do so, given the rigors of year-round play. Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, who partners with AU and is one of its loudest advocates, says the WNBA should support a league like AU that provides a balance between domestic play and rest during the offseason.
“To have another league here in the States, that’s only five weeks of play, it’s an elite level of play, you get to be conditioned and get in game play right before the W season,” Cloud says. “It’s a protection of the W’s investment. So my hope is that they support it more moving forward because again, we’re keeping players home. They don’t have to go overseas, be out of market. They can play here and play at an elite level, protect their bodies and protect the team’s assets. And I think that’s the most important thing.”
McDonald echoed that sentiment, even if her offseason training is taking place in Tucson rather than Dallas. The collegiate facilities are better than what she would have working out on her own. The Dream also sent a player development coach to Arizona to run drills with their former lottery pick and set up a training plan, and McDonald doesn’t expect that to be a one-time visit. When Barnes asked her to work for Arizona, she insisted McDonald’s WNBA preparation should take precedence over any recruiting work.
“I appreciate her for understanding that this is my main job,” McDonald says.
Those words have to be music to the league’s ears. The topic of prioritization looms large over the 2023 season and future years. This year, players on non-rookie contracts will be fined for missing days during training camp and must report by the start of the regular season. In 2024, players have to report by the start of training camp, or they will be suspended for the season. Hearing players already prioritizing the WNBA is exactly what commissioner Cathy Engelbert and the architects of the recent CBA were hoping for.
Most players haven’t cited prioritization as their impetus for staying home during the offseason, but that calculus might change as the penalties become more severe. They’re rooting for the success of the league and a sustainable financial model that keeps them in the U.S. year-round, but if the pay for playing overseas continues to far outpace domestic salaries, the league could find itself losing talent to European clubs.
McDonald says money isn’t why she loves the game, and she was willing to give up her Hungarian salary for the time off. Not everyone would make that choice. Her teammate Rhyne Howard is in Italy after a full college season, a rookie campaign and Team USA camp before the World Cup. Canada acknowledged the only reason she played overseas after her first WNBA season was for the money. In the previous iteration of the CBA, her rookie salary of $48,368 (still about $7,000 more than the league minimum) simply wasn’t enough to support her for a full year. She’s cut down to half-seasons in Europe over the last two years, but switching to the AU required a financial sacrifice.
“At the end of the day, it’s our life, and you know, maybe we’re thinking beyond basketball in terms of the future financially and things that we might be able to do further down the line,” Canada says. “Having that money from overseas is a really great boost and it allows us to do more, have more opportunities to do more things. So like I said, it really just depends on the person. I mean, who knows, I might go back overseas next year and have that same issue, and I’ll see how I deal with it at that point. But yeah, I think it just depends on the person and what they value to be important.”
As players debate the economics, one thing they can agree on is the value of making connections with a younger generation of players while they’re stateside. Aces star A’ja Wilson recently hosted a weekend of community events in Columbia, S.C., that included refurbishing an outdoor basketball court and hosting two camps. Copper has an initiative in her hometown of Philadelphia, where she’s providing 400 pieces of new equipment to kids. Players could theoretically make donations from a distance, but these types of occasions are much more impactful when players are in town to interact with the beneficiaries.
Players acknowledge there’s a strange phenomenon in women’s basketball where young girls who play idolize professional men’s players instead of WNBA players. Think back to Wilson calling Blake Griffin her favorite player at the 2018 WNBA Draft, and just this week, Copper says she met girls at the Raleigh basketball clinic who didn’t watch the WNBA. (Her response: “How? How don’t you watch the WNBA? Like, that makes no sense.”) Perhaps exposure is one method of addressing that.
Now that she’s on a college coaching staff, McDonald has direct access to players who could soon be joining her in the WNBA. Canada also regularly journeys back to UCLA, her alma mater, to provide informal mentoring.
“When I was young, I didn’t necessarily have a lot of WNBA players coming back to my communities and being able to speak to me and be that role model. I feel like a lot of them were overseas, so it was kinda hard to have somebody to come back and talk to,” Canada says. “So I think it’s super important now, things are starting to shift, it’s all about women empowerment now. We’re getting way more opportunities than we’ve ever had before. And I think that allows us to stay in the States and be there and go back to our colleges and talk to the players and build those relationships, because it is super important for the future of the game and just in general with women’s sports. … I think it’s a really great thing to see that shift from people, not necessarily feeling like they have to go overseas. They can stay here, do things that they’re passionate about besides basketball, but also staying in contact with these players that are the future of the league.”
The WNBA hopes the future of its league stays stateside. The relative newness of the college path, Athletes Unlimited and WNBA marketing agreements indicates that this battle is far from over. Still, this offseason is the biggest data point yet that players are willing to eschew the overseas option if the incentives are right.
In its effort to keep players home, the league might finally have a compelling recruiting pitch.
The “No Offseason” series is part of a partnership with Google. The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photo: Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images)