The WNBA is trying to figure out how to play their season, keep everyone safe and capitalize on a surge in popularity. What scenarios are on the table?
For Cathy Engelbert, the chance to turn this crisis of global pandemic into a chance for a surge in interest in women’s basketball isn’t lost on her.
“We do find ourselves in a moment of challenge for the country for the world, but we also are looking at the different kinds of opportunities that could present to elevate more people watching,” Engelbert said in a phone interview earlier this month. “So I think it’s really important that we not just look at all the challenge and believe me, I recognize all the challenge, but look at the opportunity, too.”
Ultimately, it’s impossible to think about the return of sports, for anyone who has been part of the landscape and seen the way it tilts so significantly in the men’s direction, without imagining what it would be like for women’s sports to get there first, to alter in 2020 the chronological primacy that’s led to so many other inequalities that have followed.
The National Women’s Soccer League, it should be said, is doing just that. While the NBA is targeting a July 31 return date, the NWSL announced this week a return to play on June 27.
The NWSL is a nine-team league, which makes it dramatically easier to place teams in one place. The WNBA is 12 teams strong, but with only 11 or 12 to a roster, it makes for a comparable number of people to seal off, test and keep safe.
Even so, this is basketball, with players operating indoors, in close quarters, for long periods of time. That’s typically how the game is played.
It isn’t, however, ALWAYS how the game is played, and some of the versions of how this can shake out allow for variations that would both bring eyeballs on the WNBA’s elite players and avoid some of the pitfalls that could well sink other leagues attempting to return.
Cathy Engelbert said there are more than a handful of sites being considered. She stressed the need to think in terms of contingency planning.
“You don’t even have to set a date — you’re looking at all the data, and then the date will come based on the data that’s that’s emerging nationwide,” Engelbert said.”
So let’s think of this not in terms of ideal scenarios — playing sports amid a global pandemic is never going to be ideal — but rather, in descending order of thrills and emotional payoff from a season. The control variable is — has to be, for reasons both moral and legal — around player safety. With that understood:
WNBA season scenario 1: Full season
Remember, back in January, the new WNBA collective bargaining agreement called for an increase in games, from 34 to 36. That was going to be tough, given the Olympic break, but hooray, now the Olympics are cancelled! Still, a 12-week marathon, three games a week, beginning July 1 and ending October 1, would set up a regular playoffs with eight teams that could conclude by the beginning of November, or right around the start of a typicall college basketball season.
Then again, teams haven’t even returned to training yet, and let’s not forget that this is training from, in many cases, a largely full stop. There are a handful of different ways to address this, but you have three undesirable variables to contend with. You can increase the training camp time, shorten the season calendar, but that means more like 4-5 games a week instead of three. You can shorten training camp, lengthen the season, but that decreases your opportunity to ramp up safely and properly. Or you can expand the overall calendar for both training camp and the season, but that means a longer period for players and staff to be essentially quarantined.
As for where and how: I think the level of risk is such that the more dispersal there is, the better off the league and its players will be. If an outbreak comes to the centralized site, that threatens the entire league’s players and puts the entire season in jeopardy. Playing, for instance, in two locations, one Eastern Conference, one Western Conference, would disperse some of the risk, and if one site is fully compromised, well, there’s still a chance for folks to watch the WNBA play games at the other site.
Ideally, also, these games would take place in market, somewhere: a financial bounty for some of the hardest-hit WNBA owners, whether Las Vegas or Connecticut, would be in the long-term interest of the league as well. And given how much harder it is, it seems, to spread this disease outdoors rather than indoors, it is worth considering courts installed on open-air arenas. Remember, the New York Liberty played regular-season WNBA basketball at Arthur Ashe Stadium, so there is even precedent for this. (I’m not saying play the whole season at Rucker, but I’m not not saying that, if there’s a way to build a quarantine around it.)
WNBA season scenario 2: The Tournament
Another part of the WNBA’s new CBA called for something called The Commissioner’s Cup, which was a set of designated games within the overall schedule, 10 games per team. A far more reasonable timeframe to quarantine a league is possible if this becomes, in fact, the season — 10 games apiece, played over three weeks, following a 2-3 week training camp. A July 15 start would mean two full weeks before the NBA enters the picture, and would lead naturally to a championship around Labor Day.
Listen to how it was originally designed, from the league’s language back in January: “The team from each conference with the top record in designated ‘Cup games’ will then compete for The Commissioner Cup title and a special prize pool. Cup games will be the first home game and first road game each team plays against its five conference rivals, all completed from May 15 – July 10 before the WNBA takes a monthlong break while many WNBA players participate in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan, including the USA Basketball Women’s National Team, which will be competing for its seventh consecutive gold medal.”
Yeah, that would have been a good time, alternative timeline 2020.
But this is still more than possible, a set of round-robin conference matchups, and it even offers the dispersal safety I mentioned in Scenario 1, since the entirety of that schedule is intra-conference by design.
The lone bit of travel comes with that final, the Commissioner Cup title, and I certainly hope that can happen at a neutral site with a best-of-three, if not a best-of-five. This gives everyone an equal footing within each conference, a legit title to play for, and while it will differ enough statistically that it is worth wondering how to even count the games when entering them into the record books, there’s a lot to love about it. (Seeing the parallels to the NWSL plan, too, allows for this route to add or subtract protocols from what happens in Utah.)
WNBA season scenario 3: The Exhibition
There’s a long time, especially in COVID-19 terms, between now and whenever a WNBA product is unveiled. Could there be teams compromised? Could we be asking too much, having several hundred people in one place?
If so, there’s still an opportunity to allow for a television-friendly event: the exhibition, with whoever can make it.
Hypothetical scenario: there’s 60 players ready, willing and able to play, and one of the several venues Cathy Engelbert has identified is in a safe zone capable of hosting.
Would anything be more riveting than a one-time draft, with designated captains based on seniority, followed by a two-week tournament between those, say, six teams of 10?
Sure, a full season would be more riveting! But again, it’s time to get comfortable with contingencies, with our new reality. And it would make for some epic television. New rivalries formed! Alliances we’ve long wanted to see! And the most important part: high-level basketball played safely.
WNBA season scenario 4: Diana Taurasi, shooting and talking trash at holograms that have disrespected her in some slight way
We all understand that the safest way to fight COVID-19 is by isolating. Diana Taurasi, now healthy after a bad back sidelined her for most of 2019, also finds every edge she can, identifying and then amplifying slights that include things like, for instance, the Connecticut Sun clapping.
Engelbert has also expressed a desire to utilize virtual reality within the WNBA’s broadcasts.
The elegant solution: a clean gym, sanitized daily, cameras everywhere, and holograms. Holograms of refs, calling fouls on her. Holograms of opposing players sagging off her at the 3-point line. Holograms of centers telling her she can’t finish at the rim anymore. Holograms designed to wait for literally anything Taurasi says and then disagree.
Watching Diana Taurasi play basketball isn’t just about watching her shoot, or drive. It’s about watching her take ownership of the competitive moment. I don’t just want to see Taurasi sink a 3. I want to see her sink a 3 and then trash talk a hologram running the other way until a hologram ref T’s her up and then she argues with that second, ref hologram.
Whatever it takes to challenge Taurasi, get her competitive juices flowing, without the danger of multiple players in one place, or god forbid, anything that endangers Diana Taurasi.
It’s not perfect.
But nothing in 2020 is.