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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Brittney Griner: Why she could be the last American basketball star to play in Russia

UMMC Yekaterinburg is a professional women’s basketball club in Russia, and Mike Cound had agreed on a number — “a realistic pay request,” as he put it — for a client who wanted to play for them. That was what he was expected to do as a seasoned sports agent, and he delivered.

However, when he increased the request on the spur of the moment, the team agreed without hesitation. And when another customer had a knee injury and was unable to participate, the team nonetheless compensated her. Another client, UMMC Yekaterinburg, was given more than treble the amount she might earn in the Women’s National Basketball Association in the United States if she agreed to play only in Russia.

As a result of this type of spending and generousness, which is encouraged by the Russian oligarchs who own teams for national pride and political reasons, many World National Basketball Association players have relocated to a country they barely know thousands of miles away from home in order to benefit from a financial bounty that is not available to them in the United States.

When set against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Russia’s detention of World National Basketball Association (W.N.B.A.) star Brittney Griner on drug charges, and growing pressure from the W.N.B.A. to limit overseas play, it has forced an overdue reexamination of the ethical and financial implications of participating in basketball in Russia.

Judith Griner, a centre for the Phoenix Mercury who was in Russia to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg when she was apprehended in February, was reportedly earning at least $1 million from the team — significantly more than the Women’s National Basketball Association’s maximum base salary of about $230,000. Other big-name athletes, including as Diana Taurasi and Breanna Stewart, have been attracted by similar payouts.

However, Griner’s arrest, the horrors of the conflict, and the economic sanctions that have resulted have increased the attention placed on firms that do business with Russia – even its basketball teams. On Tuesday, the State Department said that Griner had been “wrongfully imprisoned” and that its personnel were trying to get her freed as soon as possible. Griner might be the final American basketball star to play professionally in Russia, putting an end to a lucrative pipeline that has been tapped by a long list of recognised players for more than two decades.

The oligarch Iskander Makhmudov and his business partner, Andrei Kozitsyn, run the UMMC Yekaterinburg, which is headquartered in the city of the same name and about a two-hour flight from Moscow. UMMC Yekaterinburg is a teaching hospital with a campus in Yekaterinburg. In their role as CEOs of Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, Makhmudov and Kozitsyn oversee a mining operation that mines commodities such as copper, zinc, coal, gold, and silver and is one of Russia’s largest producers.

Those who made their fortunes following the fall of the Soviet Union by investing in businesses such as gas, oil, and precious metals were referred to as oligarchs. Following Putin’s rise to power, billionaires like as Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov, and Mikhail Prokhorov invested in renowned sports franchises such as the soccer clubs Chelsea and Arsenal F.C., as well as the National Basketball Association’s Brooklyn Nets.

Karen Greenaway, a retired FBI agent who worked on international corruption cases and spent a portion of her career in the former Soviet Union, says that while some sports owners had legitimate reasons for investing in sports, others who funded or purchased teams were doing so at least in part to appear more legitimate to American and British authorities. According to legal lawsuits filed in the United States and the United Kingdom by rivals and law enforcement authorities, Makhmudov has been connected to criminal behaviour and has commercial relationships with other billionaires associated to organised crime in Russia.

Because of the conflict in Ukraine and the incarceration of Griner, the business of women’s basketball is experiencing a transformation, both domestically and internationally.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Griner’s American teammates in Yekaterinburg — Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, and Jonquel Jones — were all able to travel home to the United States without incident. It’s unknown whether or not those guys — or any others — will return. Jones, who played for the Connecticut Sun last season and was named the W.N.B.A.’s most valuable player, wrote comments on Twitter about how hard it was to depart the country when the conflict started.

As a result of predicted penalties connected to the invasion of Ukraine, according to Navosha, the journalist who launched a Russian sports website, Russian billionaires would have less money to spend on sports teams. Their revenue might plummet as a result of the sanctions. According to him, the “increasing toxicity of Russia” might dissuade international athletes from participating in the country’s sports.

When asked whether he could see himself sending a client to Russia as long as Putin is in control, Cound said that he couldn’t see doing so — and that maybe he should have ceased doing so even before the conflict and Griner’s incarceration. “We’re all hypocrites,” Cound said emphatically. “It’s all of the agents. “It’s all about the players.”

It is unknown if the proprietors of UMMC Yekaterinburg have attempted to intercede on Griner’s behalf, but Greenaway, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation investigator, believes Makhmudov may be able to assist if he so desires.

Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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