CHICAGO — The WNBA will use charter flights for all its league Finals games this year, increase bonus-pool money for the playoffs and move to 40 games for the 2023 regular season, commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced Sunday before the All-Star Game.
Engelbert addressed a variety of topics, including how getting Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner home from Russia — where she has been detained on drug charges since February — remains her biggest priority. Players wore Griner’s number on the back of their warm-up shirts Sunday and talked about her frequently throughout the weekend. Griner was named an honorary All-Star starter.
“Obviously we’re thinking of Brittney Griner,” Engelbert said. “She’s always with us.”
Engelbert also talked about the league’s future regarding broadcast and streaming opportunities, and how the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade may impact WNBA expansion plans.
The move to charters for the WNBA Finals is significant, as travel remains a consistent concern for the league’s players and coaches. All-Star Team Wilson and Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon mentioned it as a major issue in her pregame news conference.
In Engelbert’s first year as commissioner in 2019, 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. That was also implemented last year; there was no travel for the 2020 playoffs as the season was held at a single site in Bradenton, Florida, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Engelbert said the playoff bonus pool this year will increase to $500,000, which will double what each player winning the championship receives.
“I feel confident in how we’re doing at the league level,” Engelbert said of the decision to go to Finals charters, which was discussed with the players’ union, and the bonus-pool expansion.
The same goes, she said, for the increasing the regular season to a record 40 games. The league is at 36 games this year, the most it has ever played in a regular season.
The most recent collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2020, allows for a maximum of 44 games, which Engelbert would like to reach at some point. However, there are challenges every other year with either the Summer Olympics or the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup that impact the WNBA’s schedule. That could mean the league may not be able to stay at 40 (or more) games each year.
The World Cup is this September in Australia, necessitating a compacted WNBA slate. Neither of those events are scheduled for next year, making 40 games easier to accommodate.
Engelbert was asked as she often is about expansion — the league has 12 teams, and she is hoping to increase that by at least 2025 — and how the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision could impact which cities the WNBA might consider adding.
“Obviously, we continue to advocate for gender and health equity, especially in communities of color, and access and reproductive health care,” Engelbert said. “We certainly will continue to advocate for women’s rights, reproductive rights, choice and all of that. We’ll evaluate those kind of things when we’re looking at cities.”
As for media rights, Engelbert said that it is a top business priority.
“There’s a lot of disruption going on in the media landscape today,” she said. “We need to find the right package more broadly for the WNBA. We need to make it easier for fans to watch our games, to know where our games are.
“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?'”
Engelbert also addressed fans’ frustration that they were not allowed to watch the All-Star skills challenge and 3-point shooting contest Saturday in person. Engelbert said Wintrust Arena, where the Sunday game was held and the normal home of the Chicago Sky, was not available Saturday, so the events took place across the street at McCormick Place, where fans were not allowed.
They did get to watch on a big screen outside.
Engelbert said the hope for 2023 and beyond is to incorporate fans’ wishes more, and to be able to announce the All-Star Game location earlier. The league didn’t formally announce that Chicago would host this year’s game until late April.
“I think we will be announcing much sooner next year’s All-Star location,” Engelbert said. “We’re not going to announce it today. We’re not in a position yet. But we did go to all of our teams and cities and ask who wanted to host it over the next three years. It was the first time we actually had that ask out for ’23, ’24, ’25.”