Jun 15, 2020
- Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
The WNBA officially announced Monday that, in agreement with the players’ union, it plans to have a 22-game regular season starting in late July. The league is finalizing an agreement with IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, to host all the games, including the postseason in October.
The playoff format will remain single-elimination games for the first and second rounds, and then five-game series for the semifinals and WNBA Finals.
Details for the season had previously been reported by ESPN, but the union had to vote to accept the proposal. Terri Jackson, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, said 77% of the players voted in favor of it.
One key element of the proposal is that players will receive 100% of their salaries despite playing 22 games instead of the 36 originally scheduled before the season’s May 15 start was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s not just about the money, it’s symbolic in a lot of ways,” Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, president of the players’ executive committee, said of the salary commitment. “It’s a symbolism that carries on from our CBA. We asked our league and others to bet on women, and our league has shown they are doing that. It’s huge on an individual level for players, but also on the grand scheme.”
In January, the league and union came to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement that elevated the salary structure and then in February had the most active free-agency period the WNBA has had. There seemed considerable momentum heading into the season before the sports world was shut down in March by the pandemic.
The league still had its draft on April 17, and Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu was the top pick by New York. As the WNBA continued to consider possibilities for the season, teams had to cut their rosters to no more than 12 by May 26, despite having no training camp. That allowed players to receive their first paychecks on time, June 1.
“We’ve been working on various scenarios,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said of the 2020 season. “Ultimately we believed the best competitive season that we could provide — with health and safety protocols being the No. 1 priority — is this one. I think the owners and league stepped up and said, ‘We want to support women in the workplace.’ The players had strong voices on what that means to them. I think it came together with a very strong narrative for all of us.”
Training camps will be held in July at IMG, according to the league, although an exact starting date wasn’t given. The league also did not give the full testing protocol, other than saying all who come on-site will be tested on arrival and throughout the season. But a source told ESPN that the executive committee had a chance to talk with NBA and WNBA medical personnel to learn more details about testing and other safeguards.
Engelbert, who lives in New Jersey, said she will relocate to be on-site in Florida for the season. She said details on how the league would deal with any positive cases are in place. But she added the league will have to continually monitor advisories from local and national medical experts on all aspects of dealing with coronavirus.
“There’s so much involved in that,” Engelbert said. “We’ll have to continue to communicate and answer questions about the medical and safety protocols and all the contingencies we have right up until we crown a WNBA champion this year.”
Players’ lodging would include multiroom villas, which have kitchens, and hotel rooms. Players with children would be allowed to bring them in, along with a caretaker. Also, all players with at least five years’ experience can bring in a “plus-one” — such as a spouse or significant other — to stay on-site for the season, but they will need to pay for that person’s lodging, testing and meals. Once the playoffs reach the semifinals, all players would be allowed to bring in a plus-one.
There will be a provision for players to opt out of the 2020 WNBA season if they are medically certified as high-risk if they were to contract the coronavirus; these players would still get their full salary. Other players may opt out for any other reason with no penalty, but they wouldn’t continue to receive a salary. Players must let their teams know by June 25 if they aren’t playing this season.
Specific details about coaching staffs, referees and other support personnel on-site have not been revealed. Engelbert said those conversations are ongoing, but the league first had to get agreement from the players. Now, it has that.
Jackson and Ogwumike said some players expressed various reservations about having the season, ranging from concerns about the coronavirus to wanting to focus instead on social justice issues, such as Black Lives Matter. Both said that there is an understanding by the league and the union that some players might opt not to play.
But they also stressed that speaking out on social issues is a big part of wanting to have the season.
“The league has said to us, ‘You guys are at the wheel; whatever you want to do, we’re going to try to make it happen,'” Ogwumike said. “That was incredibly encouraging for us to hear.”
Engelbert echoed that: “Amplifying the voices of our players is really important. They do it all year round, and I think they can use this opportunity to be together to enhance what they’re doing. We’re going to work with them on that and support them in it.”