The future of the WNBA? Commissioner, players weigh in on expansion, TV rights and more

·9 min read
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert talks to the media before the 2022 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert talks to the media before the 2022 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game.

As the WNBA heads into the second half of the 2022 season, players and fans alike are envisioning a new-look league for 2023 and beyond. Several news items emerged over the recent WNBA All-Star Weekend and chief among them were changes to the current and upcoming seasons, including charter flights for all 2022 WNBA Finals games, an increase in the bonus-pool total for this year’s playoffs and a 40-game schedule for 2023.

Prior to Sunday’s WNBA All-Star Game at Wintrust Arena, commissioner Cathy Engelbert addressed the media in her “state of the league” news conference, covering a wide range of topics and offering a glimpse into what the league’s future holds.

WNBA to charter flights for all 2022 Finals games

“We continue to work really hard on the transformation of the business to improve the player experience, so we’re going to implement a couple things … to help with the player experience for the rest of the season,” said Engelbert before announcing that the league would provide charter flights for WNBA Finals this season.

Travel has remained a consistent concern for WNBA players and coaches, and in March, the New York Liberty were fined $500,000 for providing charters during the regular season, which was technically against the league’s CBA. But Engelbert has been an advocate in certain playoffs situations, and in 2019 and 2021, she secured charter flights for playoff teams that had to cross multiple time zones with a day or less turnaround time before their next game.

Even with the news that teams will travel to WNBA Finals on charter flights, expect players to remain vocal about the topic of travel moving forward.

WNBA players eligible for increased income through marketing agreements, bonus pool bump

Engelbert said the bonus pool for this year’s playoffs will increase to $500,000, nearly doubling the bonus each player will receive for winning the WNBA championship.

“We’re just trying to chip away and find ways for the players and to lift them and to pay them more,” said Engelbert, also noting the league’s commitment to “really double down” on player marketing agreements.

“Probably spend about $1.5 million this year to help players grow their personal brand, elevate marketing, help the league market because it’s all-around exposure and marketing as we set forth on this transformation.”

Of note, this commitment to invest in player marketing agreements comes ahead of big changes for the 2023 season regarding the CBA policy of “prioritization,” which was designed with the intention of ensuring players participate for the entire WNBA season, thus prioritizing the league over overseas playing opportunities.

Starting next season, players will be penalized for missing the designated start of training camp or May 1, whichever is later. Players with more than three years in the league will be fined. Additionally, if players miss the start of the regular season, they will be suspended for the entire season. Prioritization rules will get even tighter in 2024, when players who aren’t available at the start of training camp or May 1 (whichever is later) will be suspended for the WNBA season.

While it remains unclear how players will weigh the financial benefit of playing overseas vs. the potential suspension for the WNBA season, Engelbert said she hopes the league’s targeted efforts to provide additional income opportunities will entice more players to eschew playing overseas.

“I think the more we can get [players] to partner with businesses and corporate sponsors and the more they can market themselves, the more endorsements they’ll get,” said Engelbert. “And now we’ll have players coming in with NIL deals who will have significant income in addition to their WNBA income. They love the game. So it’s all going to play out over the next couple years, but we’re really chipping away to make this a more economic decision for players to stay.”

WNBA expansion targeted for 2024, 2025 at latest 

Approximately 100 cities are on the WNBA’s radar for expansion, which Engelbert said were being looked at “through a lens of psychographics, demographics, arena, NCAA fandom, current WNBA fandom, merch sales, viewership.” However, she noted between 10-15 cities have expressed keen interest in hosting a WNBA team.

“We’re meeting here and there I’ll call it with interested ownership groups,” said Engelbert, adding that she hopes to see new teams in the league as early as 2024 and for sure by 2025. “We’re looking for the right ownership groups with the right commitment, the right arena situation, the right city to support a WNBA franchise.”

As for the idea of expanding to cities or states where women’s rights have been altered because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the commissioner said the league will take that into account when evaluating cities.

“We continue to advocate for gender and health equity, especially in communities of color and access and reproductive healthcare. …So we’ll continue to be leaders on that, and we’ll evaluate those kind of things when we’re looking at cities.”

WNBA rights undervalued as ESPN contract end nears

Future media rights already are a top business priority, for the league, whose current contract with ESPN runs through 2025.

“In my mind, when the TV deal is up in two years, that to me, that’s the moment,” said 13-time All-Star Sue Bird. “I think we just have to continue down this path, keep doing what we’ve been doing, and then when they start negotiations for that, that could really break things open and change the entire trajectory of our league.”

“We need to make it easier for fans to watch our games, to know where our games are,” said Englebert, who noted she’s already doing legwork on the league’s next deal. “We have 160 games on national platforms this year, a record for the WNBA, which is great. We’re getting exposure, but I think our fans get frustrated: ‘Where do you find those games?'”

Players echoed the same empathy for frustrated fans, including All-Star Game MVP Kelsey Plum: “For me personally, it’s so interesting when people are like tuned in, ‘Where can I watch the game?,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, you’ve got to download this app, then you got to put this in and oh, it’s blacked out, so you’ve got to go to this place’ I would just like — see easier and more accessible to fans. We understand that the product is great and when we get people to watch the game, they love it, but the hardest part is getting people there.”

Howard Megdal of the The IX recently reported that the WNBA’s current ESPN deal paid the league $27 million in 2021. According to Medgal, the WNBA has set an internal target of $100 million per year for the new rights deal, a number that is still well below a comparable league: Major League Soccer, which recently signed a 10-year deal with Apple TV that pays the league $250 million per season. Given MLS’ similarities in league size, schedule, and ratings, that deal could serve as a blueprint for what the WNBA should fight for in negotiations.

Jerseys, merchandise availability remain work in progress

A clunky media package wasn’t the only frustrating issue for fans that Engelbert addressed. She acknowledged plans are in the works for more robust merchandise and retail offerings, and Engelbert pointed to last year’s partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods as a move in the right direction. She noted that the league is working to “transform” into more of a destination site, where fans can watch, play, bet and buy all things WNBA.

“We never rest on merch because we know how important it is to the brand, but we’re still working on opportunities and then partnering with small and medium-sized businesses like Playa Society and others to come up with different merch,” she said.

“I feel like we shouldn’t go into an airport where a WNBA team is and you don’t see any WNBA gear,” countered A’ja Wilson. “There’s people plenty of times tweeting at us and they’re like, ‘We’re in Vegas, where I can get some Aces gear?’ And it’s like, well, they only open the store on game days, and it shouldn’t be like that. Yes, you can go to Nike, but we all know, you can into an airport and they have every sport on demand right next to a magazine.”

Near-term focus remains on Brittney Griner

Bringing Brittney Griner home from Russia, where she’s been detained since February, remains a top priority for the WNBA and its players, who honored her in multiple ways during the All-Star Weekend festivities.

“She remains a huge priority for us, continues to have our full support,” said Engelbert. “Fully focused on getting her home safely and as soon as possible.”

During the All-Star Game, where Griner was named an honorary starter, players wore her No. 42 on the backs of their warm-up jerseys, and in a surprise move, they all donned uniforms bearing the No. 42 during the second half of the game, where Team A’ja Wilson beat Team Breanna Stewart, 134-112.

“We just wanted to make sure at some point that we were able to — on national television, obviously in front of a sold-out crowd — put Brittney’s name in the forefront,” said Team Stewart co-captain Sue Bird. “Hopefully at some point she sees a picture or something, letting her know that she is always on our minds and in our hearts.

“It’s also a way to have other people see her name. Maybe someone turned on the TV and doesn’t know about the story and is like, ‘Oh why are they all wearing the same jersey number?’ In those moments it brings awareness, and it constantly reminds the Biden administration that we are supporting them and whatever they need to do to get Brittney home.”

WNBA regular-season action continues through Sunday, Aug. 14.

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