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American basketball players in Europe worried about fewer jobs, lower pay following coronavirus

Denver Nuggets Media Day 2015

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 28: Devin Sweetney #34 of the Denver Nuggets poses for a portrait on September 28, 2015 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Devin Sweetney knew nothing was guaranteed when it came to getting paid for playing overseas.

The 32-year-old American said the Greek basketball team he played for this season still owes him “thousands of dollars.” And with sports shut down around the world because of the pandemic, Sweetney is thinking more about his long-term future.

“Now is the time to get your plan together, because you never know,” the 6-foot-6 small forward said. “It’s an eye-opener for everybody.”

American players have been able to earn livings by infusing European basketball teams with scoring and ball handling, but now they’re worried there will be fewer jobs and lower salaries in the economic fallout of the coronavirus.

“You’re going to see some teams fold or not be able to pay as much,” said 25-year-old Mehryn Kraker, who played in Spain this season. “Clubs rely on multiple benefactors and sponsors, so with companies being hit, the funding is going to be affected, especially on the women’s side.”

The United States is by far the world’s biggest exporter of basketball players, both male and female, and Europe is the top importer. Nearly as many Americans as Germans, for example, played in the men’s Basketball Bundesliga in 2018-19, according to FIBA’s 2019 Migration Report.

Jobs had been on the rise. Americans accounted for one-third of total roster spots in the top men’s leagues of Germany, Greece, Italy, France and Spain, the FIBA report said. That’s up from about one-quarter of roster spots in those leagues in the 2011-12 season.

Further, they typically averaged more points and minutes per game than their teammates, the report added.

“We take on more responsibility,” said 27-year-old Aaryn Ellenberg, whose 15 points per game led her French team, Saint Amand. “The role I’ve played on most teams is to come in and score and lift the level of the team.”

The exodus back to the United States followed leagues stoppages and travel restrictions. It could be a much different landscape when they return. Will Voigt, hired in February to coach Baskets Bonn, said some clubs struggle even in the best of times.

“In all these top leagues, there’s always a handful of teams that are right on the brink financially,” said Voigt, who also coaches Angola’s national team.

That’s true in smaller leagues, too, which is bad news for the hundreds of Americans who eke out livings on teams from Iceland to Cyprus.

“Any way you look at it, it’s not going to be positive for imports,” Voigt said.

Real Madrid, which plays in Spain’s domestic league and the regional EuroLeague, reacted by reducing player salaries by up to 20% for this season. Meanwhile, EuroLeague president Jordi Bertomeu said he is “100% sure” Turkish Airlines will maintain its sponsorship.

Uncertainty is a given for overseas players. They rarely land multi-year contracts, are quickly replaced if injured, and sometimes must go to arbitration for their money. Perks include free housing and the team handles taxes, so pay is net.

Veterans can fetch $10,000 or more per month, but others might accept less than half that amount. There’s no public listing, but Kraker said she has seen huge variations on the women’s side, from a player earning $800 per month in the Czech Republic to WNBA players getting $15,000 per month in bigger leagues. Shane Larkin reportedly earns $2 million on a men’s team in Turkey.

“The average player that comes home from overseas has a second job or a side hustle to bring in money,” said Rashad Whack, who most recently played in the Czech Republic.

The 29-year-old Whack signed to play in the NBA-affiliated Basketball Africa League but stayed in Los Angeles when the inaugural season was postponed. The 6-foot-3 guard, a newlywed, said the pay would have covered rent and other bills.

“We still have to have money coming in, so I went back to doing my security job,” Whack said of his work with a property management company.

Clubs replace players throughout the season. Sweetney, for example, signed with Athens-based Panionios on New Year’s Eve. He has a young son and wanted to parlay his time in Greece into a lucrative contract next season.

Several Panionios players said they are owed two months’ salary. Sweetney, who played the 2015-16 preseason with the Denver Nuggets, hoped to buy a house, but now it’s on hold.

“It doesn’t seem smart to make big purchases with no job,” said Sweetney, who last year joined the NBA’s Career Crossover Program.

Panionios said it hoped to resolve disputes internally.

“We cannot confirm or reject any rumors or statements made by any of our past athletes,” the team said.

Tyreek Duren left Panionios and discovered that his sister and his mother, who is a nurse, tested positive for the virus back home in Philadelphia. Duren, 28, then experienced similar symptoms but said they are all recovering. He said he’s invested his money well but hopes to play soon.

“You get to spend a lot of time with your family, but nobody’s working,” Duren said. “It’s basically putting life on hold.”