The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For WNBA, return is more about ‘data’ than ‘dates’ — but a plan is starting to take shape

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league is finalizing plans for a return from its shutdown. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
Placeholder while article actions load

Cathy Engelbert is keeping a wary eye on the leagues around her. The WNBA commissioner sees the NBA entering discussions with Disney to possibly restart its season near Orlando. She has taken note of the NHL’s plan to return with a 24-team tournament.

The WNBA’s season was set to start May 15, but like the rest of the North American professional sports landscape, the league is in a holding pattern. As it has worked through numerous scenarios, Englebert said Wednesday in an interview with The Washington Post, the league has started to formulate a plan to get to the starting gate.

“[Scenarios] were changing every other day,” Engelbert said. “Whether it was medical protocols, the operational logistics, how many courts do you need, etc. That’s starting to settle a little bit. I would call them now a few base scenarios and then permutations off of those.”

The WNBA was ascendant before the coronavirus changed everything. What happens now?

About the only thing known at this point is the games, whenever they start, will likely be fanless. The league has not determined whether the season will be at one site. The location could be in a WNBA city or at a neutral site.

Further complicating the situation is that parts of the country are reopening under different guidelines. Engelbert remains hopeful of a full 36-game season.

“You’re always evaluating the environment [players] are in versus the environment you can provide them,” Engelbert said. “We’re working hard to have a very competitive season with competitive playoffs. Those are kind of two must-haves from my perspective to keep the momentum going.”

So Engelbert keeps a close watch on other leagues. There has to be a medical plan for testing everyone when they report and then regularly afterward. Players will be arriving from all over the world, so that dynamic has to be taken into consideration. What happens if someone tests positive midseason?

“One of the conditions for tipping this season would be to make sure we have the right protocols if there’s a positive test,” Engelbert said. “And that there aren’t restrictions that make it impracticable if there’s one positive test. So I think that’s kind of evolving as well.”

Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon’s star guard, goes No. 1 in WNBA draft to the Liberty

Engelbert said she prefers to think about “data” instead of “dates.” There needs to be time for a “prelaunch” that provides for testing, monitoring and a stretch for players to get back in the gym. Many of the league’s players haven’t been able to so much as shoot on a hoop. Facilities for a training camp atmosphere to allow teammates to mesh are also key.

The focus, Engelbert said, is to put out the highest quality product as soon as possible.

“We’re getting closer to a plan that’s not changing so much,” Engelbert said, “that we can now engage on a more detailed level on what this all would look like. … Now that things are starting to settle, I think over the next few weeks, we’ll have more to talk about.”

The league did wrap up one uncertainty recently when it mandated teams get down to a 12-player roster May 26 so they could start paying players June 1. Whether those checks would be in full or prorated has yet to be decided, but how to handle salaries has been something every league has had to address.

“We thought it was important that they would receive their paychecks on June 1,” Engelbert said. “But as we get some clarity on what the season structure looks like, we’re still talking to [the players’ union].”

More WNBA:

Mystics waive both of their 2020 draft picks before WNBA’s roster deadline

NFL draft was first live event ‘in what feels like forever.’ The WNBA has a beef with that.

Mystics trade for former WNBA MVP Tina Charles

The Mystics already are WNBA champions. Tina Charles could turn them into a dynasty.