The novel coronavirus pandemic that has shut down professional and amateur sports around the globe has hit the WNBA at an especially crucial moment. The league seemed ascendant as it readied for its 24th season. A year ago, the WNBA announced a brand “refresh” complete with major partnerships with AT&T and CBS Sports, the latter of which expanded its TV footprint. In May, it named Cathy Engelbert, a groundbreaking former CEO at Deloitte, its first commissioner. (Previous league leaders were called presidents.) And in January, the WNBA and its players association reached a new labor deal that raised average player compensation beyond six figures for the first time.
Now, there is worry that momentum could be lost.
“When most of your revenue’s condensed to a few months in the year and those months get taken away from you … the negatives are kind of simple,” said Andrew Kline, managing director of sports-focused investment bank Park Lane. “ … There’s sort of tangible items like revenue. The intangible is momentum. Whether you’re playing a sport or you’re in the business of sport, that momentum is so important.”
Last week, the league announced the season would not start on time. The opening of training camps, set for April 26, and the May 15 season openers have been postponed indefinitely. The WNBA will go forward with its April 17 draft but do so virtually, without a crowd or players in attendance.
Engelbert remains confident the league can regain its footing whenever play resumes by doubling down on its strongest selling point — its players. The WNBA has been aggressively marketing itself as a socially conscious league of diverse, professional women with taglines such as “Make Way,” and the unofficial slogan used around the time of the new labor deal was “Bet on women.”
Internally, a player-first strategy means communication has been key with players scattered across the country during the pandemic.
Ticha Penicheiro, a player agent and a 2005 league champion with the Sacramento Monarchs, said the WNBA set up a texting service to distribute updates. Harrison, who was playing in Italy before flying home to Dallas in mid-March, got in touch with the league to see if she could get a coronavirus test upon landing in the United States. (Without showing symptoms, she was told she could not.) Mystics players have access to a team app that lets them view workout and nutritional directives from the training staff.
“In my experience in past crises — nothing like this pandemic, but past crises — the investment you make while you’re in the middle of it serves you well afterward,” Engelbert said. “We’ve got to focus on continuing to transform the league, invest more with the players.”
Externally, the league and its players association are pursuing a digital and social media strategy to stay engaged with fans. The Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne, the reigning league MVP, and Phoenix Mercury star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith have hosted chats on the WNBA’s Instagram page.
“We’re not necessarily worried but … just reformulating how we can continue with that momentum,” union president Nneka Ogwumike, a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks, said. “Our players are certainly looking to remain engaged digitally in ways that we can speak to our relevance and also speak to our community engagement.”
Part of the reason the WNBA will hold its draft as scheduled is to gain exposure and endorsement opportunities for incoming prospects such as Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu. Penicheiro and other agents aren’t expecting shoe and apparel companies to offer much in the way of endorsements with so much uncertainty surrounding the season, but Engelbert wanted to set up the incoming players as best she could.
“Because of the volatility in the capital markets and the economic markets, I’m sure some of that [tightening of marketing dollars] is coming,” Engelbert said. “But that’s why I think we have this advantage of being professional women in a league that’s been around over two decades. … We’ve got this narrative we’ve been selling around investing in women and diversity and these socially conscious individuals. That’s not something you walk away from in the middle of a crisis.”
On a leaguewide scale, Engelbert said she has seen no indication of corporate partners backing off their investments.
“The WNBA is not alone when it comes to having lost its momentum,” said David Carter, associate professor of sports business at the USC Marshall School of Business. “ … Unlike the major sports leagues and events underway well into in the summer, the WNBA has to be concerned about being out of sight, out of mind. Fortunately, the league’s refined focus on the game and storytelling should help.”
Not knowing what’s next
While Engelbert remains sanguine, players and prospects are in a holding pattern.
For many current players, their economic worries are twofold. Concerns about taking an economic hit with an altered WNBA season are compounded by lost wages during the offseason; most WNBA players spend the fall and winter months playing in overseas leagues that were canceled or suspended.
When Harrison scrambled to get home, she missed out on her last check from her Italian team, Virtus Segafredo Bologna. The 26-year-old spent about $2,500 out of her own pocket between her ticket home and the Dallas hotel room she booked to self-quarantine for two weeks.
“That’s still my job, no matter what I do,” she said. “That’s how I get paid. So not even knowing the next time I’ll get a paycheck, it really alters how you operate in life.”
Prospects, too, are fretting over their futures. The incoming rookie class already lost the end of their college careers — including the NCAA tournament, often a stage for players to garner national attention — and now aren’t sure what happens after they get drafted.
Baylor forward Lauren Cox — the Big 12 player of the year and the No. 2 prospect behind Ionescu in many mock drafts — has been trying to stay in shape for whenever training camps begin. She runs sprints with her sisters in her Dallas neighborhood and uses outdoor courts for workouts.
“Just not knowing what’s next is definitely the hardest part,” she said. “A lot of players that don’t go to the WNBA go overseas, and even that, we have no idea if that’s even going to happen. We thought we had a job lined up after college, and now we have no idea what’s going to happen.”
The league declined to comment on whether players under contract will be paid during periods when games aren’t being played. Likewise, the players’ union is unsure of what happens next. Ogwumike is seeking input from other players.
“Our league is different and, right now, I think we’re advocating what that means for our league,” she said. “We have a different business structure. So how things are affected in the market and how things are affected in terms of the number of players that we have, and all those different variables, really matter.”
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