Brittney Griner, the W.N.B.A. eight-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, remains in a Russian jail, nearly 200 days after she was arrested on Feb. 17 for possessing less than a gram of hashish oil.In spite of global calls for Ms. Griner’s release, she may be there for a while. On Aug. 4, Ms. Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was sentenced to nine years in prison. While efforts are underway to exchange the arms dealer Viktor Bout for the release of Ms. Griner and Paul Whelan, another American imprisoned in Russia, Russian officials say that will not be possible until all legal avenues are exhausted, a process that may take months.But what Ms. Griner was doing in Russia in the first place reveals an inconvenient truth: that for more than a decade, Russian oligarchs have valued American women star athletes more than U.S. executives have. Ms. Griner, like roughly 70 of her fellow W.N.B.A. athletes, has supplemented her income by playing overseas during the W.N.B.A. off-season. While American fans are supporting the W.N.B.A. — filling up arenas, donning jerseys, following players on social media — in many ways American executives do not.“Russia was so far ahead of the U.S. in terms of paying female basketball players because attracting foreign — and especially Western — talent is a matter of national prestige for Russia,” Stanislav Markus, a business professor at the University of South Carolina who studies oligarchs, said. “Until the recent geopolitical standoff, it was tacitly encouraged by the state and generously financed by the oligarchs who often own the teams.”The economics stateside for female hoopers are abysmal. Top male college basketball stars may pursue multimillion-dollar careers in the N.B.A. Women who possess comparable talent fare differently. The maximum W.N.B.A. base salary for the 2022 season was about $228,000. The salary of Stephen Curry, the highest paid N.B.A. player last season, was almost $46 million, which means the highest paid man earned roughly 200 times what his woman counterpart did for a similar job.That isn’t a glass ceiling — it’s a glass stratosphere. In one of the most public workplaces in the world.Enter the oligarchs.“They want to win,” Mike Cound, who played overseas and now represents about 60 women basketball players as an agent, said of Russian team owners. Mr. Cound said that throughout his career he’s placed roughly 20 basketball players on UMMC Ekaterinburg, a longstanding Russian Premier League team based out of Ekaterinburg that had Ms. Griner on its roster since the mid-2010s. “There were private jets, business class tickets, cars and drivers, luxury apartments, salaries that are double, sometimes triple what they could be anywhere else,” Mr. Cound said. “They wanted to send the message: We can do this. That made it a destination.”UMMC Ekaterinburg is controlled by Andrei Kozitsyn and Iskander Makhmudov, the billionaire co-founders of a mining company. The team was built into a powerhouse in part by Shabtai von Kalmanovic, a convicted K.G.B. spy who was murdered in a contract killing in 2009.In addition to paychecks, for decades Russian teams have also provided venues for players trying to hone their craft, both as developing athletes and in the off-season, according to Katia Clanet, a professional basketball player from France. Ms. Clanet’s mother, an Olympian who played for Russia’s national team, coached in Russia, and Ms. Clanet trained there as a teenager and maintains dual citizenship.“Russia for a long time was a land of basketball,” Ms. Clanet said. “The quality of the coaches was good, more technical.”One of the common refrains to explain away the American basketball pay gap is that the W.N.B.A. is a newer league than the N.B.A., founded in 1996, compared to the N.B.A.’s origination in the 1940s.Yet by crunching the numbers for pay between the N.B.A. and the W.N.B.A. at the same period in their life cycles, the professors Nola Agha of the University of San Francisco and David Berri of Southern Utah University found that W.N.B.A. players were paid less even after accounting for the age of the league.“It can sometimes explain systems in place that cause completely different outcomes,” Professor Agha said in an interview. She added: “You have a century of people not used to spectating women’s sports because in so many ways it was belittled and shut down and questioned. And then we go to the current time frame and you see underinvestment.”The real cash infusion in sports has come from television. The W.N.B.A.’s television deal with ESPN pays about $25 million per year, compared with the N.B.A.’s total combined $24 billion for its deals with ESPN and Turner Sports, which wrap after the 2024-25 season.Consider also the literal space in which people watch women’s sports. There is only one — one! — sports bar in the country, perhaps in the world, devoted exclusively to women’s sports, the Sports Bra in Portland, Ore.Limited television exposure in the United States not only makes it hard for fans to follow the games, or find them in the first place, but also fuels the pay gap. Smaller TV contracts mean smaller paychecks for players. Creating a culture of fandom around women’s sports can’t happen overnight and needs effort from fans, leagues, sponsors and media stakeholders.The opportunity for an investment of more American money and attention couldn’t come more quickly for W.N.B.A. players, as the pipeline of Russian cash into the sport is likely narrowing.In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ms. Griner’s team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, along with other Russian teams, was suspended by the EuroLeague. While some players will hop on planes in the coming weeks to compete in countries such as Spain and Turkey, it’s hard to see how any W.N.B.A. stars will compete in Russia anytime soon.Yet in some ways, the choppy landscape is nothing new for W.N.B.A. players, who have been no strangers to handling controversy, be it dedicating their season to Breonna Taylor or helping to flip a U.S. Senate seat.And, no surprise, they’re bringing activism into Ms. Griner’s case, wearing “We are BG” shirts and tweeting at the White House daily. From detention, Ms. Griner herself penned a letter to President Biden.Now it’s on fans to pay attention.Mary Pilon is a producer of HBO and The Athletic’s forthcoming documentary about the Bishop Sycamore High School football scandal and the author of “The Monopolists” and “The Kevin Show.” She previously covered sports at The Times.The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. 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