Monday, August 8, 2022

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announces league will expand to 40 games in 2023 season

CHICAGO — Prior to Sunday’s 2022 WNBA All-Star Game, league commissioner Cathy Engelbert addressed the media during her lengthy and wide-ranging press conference. Engelbert touched on a number of topics facing the league in both the present and the future. 

Here’s a look at some of the most important notes: 

Season expanding to 40 games in 2023

This summer, the WNBA expanded the regular season to a record 36 games. That mark will last for just one year as Engelbert announced that in 2023 the regular season will expand again to 40 games. 

“We’re seeing tremendous interest in the game, evidenced by viewership, and everything from draft on to today,” Engelbert said. “Our response to that also is to continue to try to grow, and we want to grow our footprint. Beginning next season, we’re going to play 40 games. … We need to have a more substantial season, so we’ll do that next year.”

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The current collective bargaining agreement allows for up to 44 games in a season, and Engelbert would like to get there at some point. However, the amount of games the league is able to play in a given season will depend on the Olympics and FIBA Women’s World Cup. The league is able to expand to 40 games in 2023 because neither event is happening; however, in years with major international tournaments, that may not be possible. 

“On the 40 games, I would love to do that consistently every year,” Engelbert said. “I’d like to go to 44 at some point when we have a good footprint to do that. We’d like to do it, but we’re going to have to make decisions with our owners around the Olympic break. … Again, we have to be respectful of all the National Team commitments, not just of the USA team.”

Expansion by at least 2025

Earlier this year, Engelbert said in an interview with The Athletic that she wanted to add up to two teams by the 2024 season. While that is still her goal, she walked back those comments a bit on Sunday by stating it may not happen until 2025. 

“We’re working hard on data analysis,” Engelbert said. “We have about 100 cities through a lens of psychographics, demographics, arena, NCAA fandom, current WNBA fandom, merch sales, viewership. … I’m hoping that it’ll be a couple teams by no later than ’25, but I’d love it in ’24, but probably looking out to that kind of timeline, and again, lots of cities interested. That’s the good news, and now we have to find the right ownership groups with the right commitment and financial wherewithal to really be committed to standing up a WNBA team in their city.”

Engelbert acknowledged that Philadelphia was one of the cities under consideration, but declined to go into further details about which teams are on the list. She was also asked about whether the league would take local politics — in particular, gender and reproductive rights after the recent Roe v. Wade decision — into account when making a decision about where to expand. 

“Obviously, we continue to advocate for gender and health equity, especially in communities of color and access and reproductive healthcare,” Engelbert said. “Really important. You saw our strong statements we put out, both on the leak of the opinion and the final issuance of it, so that’s an important aspect of that.

“When we do our analysis of those hundred cities and run it through our psychographics and demographics, that comes through as a very important element as to how diverse the city is, what the support is around the city and state. That’s why the players were so smart this year is they picked their Social Justice Council pillar of voting rights, and more importantly to me, civic engagement, because we need to be more civically engaged, not just at the federal level but at the local and state level of who our elected leaders are in the states in which we play and certainly in every state.”

Charter flights for Finals, increased prize pool for playoffs

Player travel has been a major talking point over the last few years. All teams are currently required to fly coach due to competitive balance rules; some team owners are either not able to afford charter flights, or not willing to pay the price. Prior to the season, the New York Liberty were handed the biggest fine in league history, $500K, for breaking those rules and flying private anyway in 2022. 

Seeking to improve the player experience, Engelbert announced that the league will be providing charter flights during the Finals. Furthermore, the playoff prize pool will see a substantial increase. 

“For the WNBA Finals we’re going to provide charter flights to our players, so for all Finals games that’ll happen,” Engelbert said. “In the spirit of finding other ways to compensate our players, we’re planning to increase the postseason bonus pools by almost 50 percent to a half-million dollars. That would almost double the bonus for each player who wins the championship, so we’re just trying to chip away and find ways for the players and to lift them and to pay them more.”

New TV deal a focal point

The league’s current TV deal with ESPN expires in 2025, and Engelbert said that negotiating the next one is her “top business priority.” In addition, Engelbert is focused on making the league easier to watch and access. 

“We need to find the right package more broadly for the WNBA,” Engelbert said. “We need to make it easier for fans to watch our games, to know where our games are.”

As of this season, there are games on ESPN and ABC platforms, CBS Sports Network, NBA TV, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon Prime and League Pass. With games spread out across the digital and linear landscape, it can be confusing at times for fans to figure out where and how they can watch. 

To this point, it’s worth noting the MLS recently agreed to a ten-year deal with Apple TV that will pay the league $250 million per season to broadcast every single game. Engelbert said the league is open to exploring a digital deal of that nature, but offered no further specifics. 

COVID, security concerns cited for lack of fan access

All-Star Saturday was not held at Wintrust Arena because it was already booked. Instead, the league held the event at McCormick Place, a giant convention center next door. The Sky’s floor was brought in, and temporary bleachers were set up around the court, but the setting made things seem amateurish. 

In addition, there were no fans allowed; family members, media and youth players from the Nike Nationals event were the only people allowed inside. There was a small outdoor space where fans could gather and watch on a big screen, but the lack of access was understandably frustrating to the fans who had made the journey to Chicago. 

In addition to the lack of Wintrust Arena availability, Engelbert cited COVID and security concerns for how things went down. 

“There’s also a lot going on around security, and even having an outdoor festival at this very crazy time, as you see shootings and people driving into restaurants with outdoor diners and things like that,” Engelbert said.

“Cobbling together everything that’s going on, coming off two tough COVID years and not having Wintrust available yesterday, it just wasn’t possible to have a fan event. We didn’t have an arena to have it in here in the city of Chicago. But understand the fans are frustrated not attending that, but again, last year we didn’t have it, the year before we didn’t even have an All-Star Game, so we’re kind of just trying to build what All-Star Weekend will look like.”

Engelbert made similar remarks when asked about ancillary events such as a Chance the Rapper concert being closed to the public. 

“Yeah, we would have loved to have opened that up to the public,” Engelbert said. “Because of security concerns given dating way back to Mandalay Bay, dating back to other things that have happened here in Chicago and Uvalde and Buffalo and there’s a lot of concern about outdoor events right now unfortunately in our country, so we were just trying to do the best we could. We always wanted to have WNBA Live be music and basketball and music and culture and food and art, things that bring culture and pop culture together. This has been planned for quite some time. It was just because of all the security concerns across this country that we couldn’t open it totally to the public.”

“But again, understand the frustrations that the general public couldn’t be invited, but next year hopefully we’re in a different time. We’ve got a different perspective around how to secure everything. But this year because we wanted to do it right across the street in McCormack Place, consulted with security experts, Chicago PD, our WNBA security experts, that was what we decided to do this year.”

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