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It's an in-season competition that has players eyeing a big prize and fans more involved in the first half of the season.
The WNBA is launching its inaugural Commissioner's Cup on the first day of the 25th anniversary season, and though it may feel new to viewers in the states, it's a common format in European sports leagues.
A portion of the games in the first half of the season will be labeled Commissioner's Cup games and count toward Cup standings. At the Olympic break, the top team in the Eastern and Western Conference standings will play each other in a final game for the Cup championship.
"I think for the players, it's actually going to be pretty normal," Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird told Yahoo Sports. "We're used to playing in that system. And hopefully for the fans, it's just going to generate excitement. You know, everybody loves watching games that mean something. So not only is this, like, a little bit of midseason bragging rights, there's also money on it. I mean, you can't get more meaningful than that."
Yahoo Sports has the exclusive details of exactly how the tournament works, the prize money involved and the rivalries that will fuel the Cup for years to come.
WNBA Commissioner's Cup: How it works
Each team has 10 intra-conference games on the first half of its schedule designated as Commissioner's Cup games. They are the first home game and first road game each team plays against its five conference opponents. The team with the best winning percentage of those 10 games in the Eastern Conference will play the winner of the Western Conference in a championship game.
With so few games counting, there are a list of tiebreakers if teams are tied. The first is head-to-head, followed by point-spread differential.
The 60 games in total will be played between season tipoff on May 14 and the last day of games before the Olympic break on July 11. The championship game will be Aug. 12 in Phoenix, days before the second half of league play resumes.
"To see that as the first game post-Olympic break, you know it’s just gonna carry over into the second half of the season and the playoffs," Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields told Yahoo Sports.
Amazon Prime Video, a new media partner with 16 games each season, will air nine Cup games and will have the championship game.
“The WNBA is one of the premier professional sports leagues in the world and serves as an inspiration to millions of young and aspiring athletes everywhere,” said Marie Donoghue, vice president of Global Sports Video at Amazon. “I am delighted we are bringing these outstanding athletes and games to Prime Video.”
The prize pool will be $500,000 and the winning team will take home a custom designed cup that is passed from champion to champion every season. There are also bragging rights, particularly in the inaugural season.
"When you’ve got money and bragging rights on the line, I think players are gonna be turnt up and ready to play," Atlanta Dream co-owner and former player Renee Montgomery told Yahoo Sports.
Why host a Commissioner's Cup?
The idea came out of the collective bargaining talks in 2019 and was supposed to launch during the ensuing 2020 season until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
"One of the things we promised in the collective bargaining was increased player compensation through special competitions," commissioner Cathy Engelbert told Yahoo Sports. "So the Commissioner’s Cup is a reflection of that promise we made and the idea to create a special in-season tourney actually came from the players themselves."
The $500,000 prize is significant. Most of the league's players are on rookie-scale contracts, making between $58,710 and $70,040. Players on winning teams would make, at minimum, $30,000, more than half of what Minnesota Lynx Rookie of the Year selections Napheesa Collier (2019) and Crystal Dangerfield (2020) make in a season. Members of the runner-up team can earn $10,000 per player, and the game's MVP will receive an additional $5,000.
It also means more sponsorship opportunities, league visibility and coverage. The first half of the season will feature more meaningful matchups for every team before the playoff push heightens competition down the stretch.
"It's also motivating just as a competitor to have another championship to go for," Washington Mystics forward and 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne told Yahoo Sports.
The WNBA moved away from conference standings for the playoffs and into overall league standings for the top eight teams. The intra-conference games and rivalries will now take a more exciting flair.
Rivalries take center stage in Commissioner's Cup
Some of the more anticipated matchups are Cup games this season. The New York Liberty, featuring Sabrina Ionescu's return to the court after an ankle injury, take on the Indiana Fever as one of four Cup games on opening night.
The Saturday WNBA Finals rematch of the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces is also for the Cup standings, as is Candace Parker's Chicago Sky debut.
The outsized rivalries include:
Sparks vs. Lynx (historic rivalry): June 12, July 11
Aces vs. Storm (WNBA Finals rematch): May 15, June 27
Mercury vs. Storm (Diana Taurasi vs. Sue Bird): July 9, 11
Sky vs. Mystics (Candace Parker vs. Tina Charles and Elena Delle Donne): May 15, July 10
Liberty vs. Mystics (Tina Charles vs. her previous team): May 21, July 3
Social justice focus for Commissioner's Cup
The Cup games will focus on a theme of equality and racial justice with each team activating that in its own ways in home markets. It was important to Engelbert and the players to continue the work they put in during the 2020 season and the continuation of the social justice council launched last year.
"That's who we are as a league. That's what we represent," Sue Bird, a four-time WNBA champion and WNBA Players Association vice president, told Yahoo Sports. "You know, that's where our focus is and has been for a really long time. Last year was kind of the pinnacle of it all. But it's something that we've — we've always — it's just been in our blood. It's been in our DNA for a really long time. And so this is just another, like, arm of that, another way to continue conversations, to get work done. It's really just a vehicle. Like, all of these little things are just vehicles for us to get our message out."
The council has spent the offseason working on health equity in communities of color, shown in a COVID-19 PSA released last month. It has also continued its work on civic engagement and voting rights.
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