The Best WNBA Team That’s Not In the WNBA

Where else can you see Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot, Emma Meesseman, Satou Sabally, and Kayla McBride team up?

By Elisha Gunaratnam

If you were to stop a Turkish person in the street and ask them who their favorite player on Fenerbahce is, they would probably respond with the name of a soccer player. Until recently, that’s what the club was known for—its soccer team. However, with Turkey becoming an increasingly popular offseason destination for WNBA players, Fenerbahce has started to carve out a name for itself in the world of women’s basketball.

Breanna Stewart attempts to block Courtney Vandersloot’s pass. The two are now playing for Fenerbahce (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Not many teams can say that they have had Penny Taylor, Angel McCoughtry, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles, Allie Quigley, Candace Parker, Kelsey Plum, Natasha Howard, Chelsea Gray, Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot, Emma Meesseman, Satou Sabally, and Kayla McBride don their uniform. But when they have the resources to offer basketball players hundreds of thousands of dollars to suit up for them for just a few months of the year, it’s easy to see why so many WNBA stars sign to play for them in their off-season.

Why Is Fenerbahce So Special?

In a Bloomberg article, Mike Cound, president and owner of Cound Group Global, revealed that said a women’s basketball salary in Turkey could top out at around $350,000 or $400,000. As one of the biggest clubs in Turkey, Fenerbahce can afford to pay several of its players salaries in this range. Additionally, it can offer its overseas signees team-compensated flights back to their homes for holidays or other special events.

Fenerbahce isn’t the only team in Turkey that has the finances to do this. Mersin, the other Turkish team competing in the EuroLeague this year, has signed stars like Tiffany Hayes, Chelsea Gray, and DeWanna Bonner. Given that Chelsea Gray just won a WNBA championship and competed in the FIBA World Cup immediately afterward, it is likely that Mersin was able to put together a very lucrative deal to entice Gray to spend her offseason playing more basketball. Even Briann January—who retired from the WNBA after the 2022 season, chose to play a few more months of basketball in Mersin before officially retiring from basketball.

What other clubs can’t offer, however, is the experience of playing in one of the biggest cities in Europe in front of thousands of passionate fans. When Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor joined Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe on their podcast “A Touch More” in 2020, Taurasi, Taylor, and Bird spent almost an hour speaking about the time they spent overseas, and a great deal of that time was spent discussing the intensity of Turkish basketball fans. Two of Turkey’s biggest sports teams—Galatasaray and Fenerbahce—are located in Istanbul, and when the two teams compete, regardless of what sport they are playing, fans fill the stands and often need police to keep them from clashing with each other. Supporters are invested in their teams and they quickly fall in love with the athletes who play for them. While women’s basketball is growing in popularity around the world, there are not many places that can give WNBA players the experience that they get playing in Istanbul for what is quickly becoming one of the biggest teams in Europe.

Will It Last?

As the 2023 WNBA season approaches, so too do the implications of the prioritization clause in the league’s CBA, which will go into effect this season.

The WNBA’s prioritization clause means that players with more than two years of league experience must return from overseas play by the time the league opens its season—otherwise they will be ineligible to play in the 2023 campaign.

The problem with this is that many overseas leagues do not wrap up their competition schedule before the WNBA tips off. Satou Sabally, a forward who played for Fenerbahce last year, missed the few weeks of the Dallas Wings’ 2022 season

With the prioritization rule getting even stricter in 2024 and forcing players to report to their teams by May 1, it may be more difficult for teams like Fenerbahce to entice WNBA players to join their ranks for a few months during their off-season. However, if the WNBA doesn’t see continued increases in its salaries, players might still decide that it’s worth their while to play international basketball. Plus, going to a team like Fenerbahce allows players to form “superteams”—something that is incredibly difficult to do in the WNBA.

Executives from several WNBA teams are currently in Turkey trying to convince Breanna Stewart and other free agents to sign with them. Perhaps they’ll roll out some major changes within their organizations after taking in a few weeks of EuroLeague games and seeing how players are treated on top Turkish teams.

If you’re looking to see WNBA stars in action before the start of the WNBA season, you can watch all of the EuroLeague’s matches on YouTube for free. 

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