WNBA teams generally fly commercial, a cost-saving measure that players say cuts recovery and preparation time and increases fatigue and risk of injury. Several teams have experienced lengthy travel delays, including last year when the Aces decided not to play a scheduled game against the Mystics after a 25-hour odyssey put them in Washington just a few hours before tip-off. The league later ruled the game a forfeit that counted as a loss for an Aces team that was chasing a playoff berth. Before this year’s semifinals, however, the WNBA’s first-year commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, greenlit private flights for the Aces and Los Angeles Sparks, who both were set to play on the East Coast two days after advancing out of the second round.
“It’s great,” said Delle Donne, who later that week won the league’s MVP award. “It shows that the league is stepping up, they’re caring about player health, player safety. So that’s a great step forward.”
The WNBA began its 2019 season with an appreciable amount of uncertainty. Its players had opted out of the collective bargaining agreement the previous November in hopes of gaining a bigger portion of league revenue, greater financial transparency and better working conditions; Engelbert’s hiring wasn’t announced until shortly before opening day; and the absence of several top stars because of injuries and personal reasons cast a shadow. But as the WNBA Finals begin Sunday in Washington between the Mystics and the Connecticut Sun, several players and officials expressed optimism that small measures could signal bigger changes.
The health of the league is often discussed in sound bites by outside observers: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, whose league is the founder and majority owner of the WNBA, told the Associated Press last year in a widely repeated statement that the WNBA has lost an average of $10 million per year every year since its inception in 1997. Pay disparity between the WNBA and NBA, a difference of millions of dollars on average per year per player, is cited often without mention that WNBA players aren’t asking for NBA money but rather a more equitable slice of their league’s revenue.
Ultimately, the success of the WNBA is measured on a much larger scale than the number of private flights Engelbert allows. Revenue and the long-term fight for better pay for players remain the defining, overarching debate issues within the league. But narrow the lens, and those in the WNBA were encouraged by steps taken in 2019.
“I think we did a phenomenal job of weathering the storms throughout the season and staying focused on making the season an amazing season … so that’s a testament to us as players, the coaches and the organizations for holding it down while everything else was up in the air,” said Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, who was featured this season in the league’s new marketing campaign.
Both the league and the players’ union are optimistic about reaching a new labor deal. The current CBA expires on Halloween.
“Am I pleased with CBA talks? Yes, I am,” said Terri Jackson, the executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association. “But I’m a cautiously optimistic person. I remain reserved until I see the done deal.”
As for the rest of the shorter-term issues that led to some anxiety at the start of the season — missing players, no top executive — most within the league were pleased with their resolutions.
The feeling of reassurance starts with Engelbert, who previously was the first female chief executive at the accounting and consulting giant Deloitte and was brought on in large part for her experience in revenue generation. She was hired May 15, shortly before the regular season began, and started her tenure in July.
“We were so excited when Cathy was able to join us. … She is completely on board,” said Carley Knox, vice president of business operations for the four-time WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx. “We will continue to fight for this league and fight for these players to get paid more, and hopefully one day will not have to go overseas at all.”
Worries about missing players faded, too, once the season got underway. Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Sue Bird missed the season (or, in Taurasi’s case, the majority of the season) because of injury or personal reasons. In their absence, young players such as rookie of the year Napheesa Collier, Dallas’s Arike Ogunbowale, Chicago’s Diamond DeShields and Las Vegas’s Dearica Hamby shined. The Mystics drew headlines with their record-breaking offense, and play overall was competitive.
“It’s been a crazy year,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said. “Would I believe you if you had told me Chicago was going to be in the playoffs and one heave away from making a semifinal? No. I wouldn’t have guessed that Phoenix, with a lot of talent on the roster even without Diana Taurasi, would struggle the way that they have this year. Or how Minnesota’s kept things together with no Maya Moore, no Lindsay Whalen. It’s been an interesting season.”
Increased viewership, at least for the regular season, can be counted as another secondary victory. Television coverage expanded at the start of this season; ESPN bumped its order from 13 regular season telecasts in 2018, all of which were on ESPN2, to 16. ABC and ESPN aired five games, the most since 2008, and 40 games were broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
According to Sports Media Watch, the regular season averaged 246,000 viewers across the ESPN networks and ABC, a 7 percent increase from 2018. Viewership was up 31 percent at the all-star break but hasn’t sustained into the playoffs. Viewership for Game 2 of the Aces-Mystics series, broadcast by ESPN2, was down 37 percent from Game 2 of the Mystics-Dream semifinal series last year. This year’s game, however, was up against a Thursday night NFL game on Fox; last year’s playoffs, because of a condensed season, were played almost entirely before the NFL season kicked off.
Engelbert also said viewership for the WNBA League Pass subscription service increased by 11 percent and merchandise sales were also up this season.
Attendance across the league decreased by an average of 234 fans per game as teams such as the Mystics moved into smaller arenas for the sake of better game atmosphere, among other things. As a result, Engelbert pointed out, a greater percentage of available seats were filled — 81.7 percent of capacity, compared to 74.2 percent last year.
Said Engelbert: “I’m not worried about showing a down year this year. The women’s professional sports league that’s been around the longest, over 23 years, attracted 1.3 million spectators to its arena, pretty impressive. … And I do think the smaller arenas provide an amazing fan experience."
Those within the Mystics organization count the home-court advantage they gained by downsizing from 20,000-seat Capital One Arena to 4,200-seat Entertainment and Sports Arena, which comes complete with a practice facility and training amenities on site, as a sign of progress. The team loved that it no longer has to face the prospect of moving its playoff games off its home court because of scheduling conflicts, as happened at Capital One Arena and still affects several other teams.
“First of all, we have a victory right here in Washington: We had to prove that going to a new arena was beneficial, that it was good for our franchise, and that’s the first thing,” Mystics Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault said.
Those small steps — better game atmosphere, greater TV exposure and a commissioner who’s willing to charter a flight when it’s called for — are viewed as signs of progress as the league navigates through its larger battles.
“Is the league in a better place than when I came in? That’s hard for me to say,” said Asjha Jones, a Mystics assistant coach who entered the league as a player in 2002 and won a championship with the Lynx in 2015. “… But at the same time, it’s a big movement now; people are really focused and aware of the play. I think players right now have the most leverage they’ve ever had. So in that way, sure. It’s better.”