WNBA streamlines Commissioner’s Cup format for ease of viewing, increased urgency

UNCASVILLE, CT - SEPTEMBER 17: WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks with the media before Game 2 of the First Round of the WNBA Playoffs between the Minnesota Lynx and the Connecticut Sun on September 17, 2023, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. (Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement Monday that changes to the Commissioner's Cup format were implemented to make the event "even more engaging." (Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The WNBA on Monday announced changes to the Commissioner’s Cup that will make it easier for fans to follow and build excitement around the league’s in-season tournament, which enters its fourth season. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a league release that it was time for a “new, streamlined format.”

Each of the league’s 12 teams will play five Commissioner’s Cup games against their in-conference opponents over a two-week period in June. Some teams will play three road games and two home games, while others will play two and three, respectively. All games remain part of the larger, 40-game schedule and will count toward overall record.

The teams in each conference with the highest winning percentage in Cup games will play each other in the Commissioner’s Cup championship on June 25. The title game will still be held on the home court of the team with the higher winning percentage.

“The newly designed, concentrated structure for this in-season tournament adds an increased sense of urgency and excitement as we place a particular spotlight on Eastern and Western Conference Commissioner’s Cup play in a two-week window near the tipoff of our regular season,” Engelbert said in a league release. “The focus is on making the Commissioner’s Cup presented by Coinbase even more engaging for all our stakeholders, including fans, teams, players and the community organizations that collaborate with our teams during the designated games.”

How the changes create increased ‘urgency’

The changes make it clear and easy for fans to denote which games count toward Cup standings and concentrate the attention to a specific time period. The lack of cohesion in previous iterations created confusion, which led to a lack of interest in the stakes of the tournament standings.

Under the old format, teams played a total of 10 games in the first half of the season that counted toward Cup standings. They were the first home and road games for each team against its conference rivals.

But it was difficult for even a highly invested fan to quickly discern if a game was a Cup game without looking for the icon on the league’s official schedule. The games could be on any day of the week and at any time in the first half of the season.

It was even more complicated to follow the 30 total Cup games within the conference and 60 overall. Even players were sometimes caught off-guard, especially in the first season, by what counted toward Cup standings. The TV broadcasts, which are often local productions, also were not always clear on which games were part of the Cup schedule and what was at stake.

Placing the tournament games in one two-week span makes it obvious to every entity involved that these are what go toward a chance at $500,000, a large prize pool players are heavily invested in winning. Any league should make it easy for fans to follow games and standings but especially a league still fighting for more investment.

The smaller window will also lend itself to better marketing plans, which the league has been focused on for the past few years as it tries to turn players into household names. The early June time period is right after excitement over the start of a new season might wane and avoids pushing the games too far back in an Olympic year.

The 2024 Paris Olympics take place July 26-Aug. 11, and the league will take a break while players are with their national teams. The first year of the in-season tournament was during the Olympics held in 2021, and the championship game was the first game out of the break. It was an odd placement that the WNBA is avoiding in 2024.

How it compares to the NBA’s in-season tournament

The NBA followed the WNBA’s lead and introduced an in-season tournament this season to bring excitement to the front end of its season. It was designed slightly differently than the Commissioner’s Cup to put more emphasis on the delineation of IST games and regular games.

The most notable difference was that the NBA made clear what games counted toward Cup standings by using stylized courts. Any viewer tuning into a game could see it immediately. It also placed games on specific “Tournament Nights” every Tuesday and Friday from Nov. 3 to Nov. 28. Although there were calls for a set week for the tournament, as the WNBA is now doing, the NBA’s decision for specific nights at least made for appointment viewing.

With 30 teams, the NBA opted to set up a group play stage and knockouts rounds. Each team played four designated group games against each of the opponents in its randomly selected group of five. The WNBA is leaning into recreating conference rivalries with its tournament because its playoff format hasn’t been based on conference results since 2015.

The team with the best standing in each of six groups advanced, as did two wild cards. The Los Angeles Lakers won the inaugural NBA Cup over the Indiana Pacers on a neutral court in Las Vegas.