The Whiteboard: 3 big questions for the WNBA’s 2020 season plan

Elena Delle Donne, #11, Washington Mystics, A'ja Wilson, #22, Las Vegas Aces, (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Elena Delle Donne, #11, Washington Mystics, A'ja Wilson, #22, Las Vegas Aces, (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

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On Monday, the WNBA announced their plan for conducting the 2020 season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The plan, which was developed in collaboration with the WNBPA, has every team heading to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida for a 22-game regular season. The plan did answer a few big questions — games will continue to air with existing broadcast partners (ESPN, CBS Sports and NBA TV), players will receive their full salaries despite the shorter season, there will be a traditional playoff format.

However, the initial press release also left some enormous questions unanswered. There were statements of a commitment to health and safety but no real specific about health and testing protocols, as well as the procedures players and staff will need to follow for sheltering in place and preventing exposure from the surrounding community. In addition, seeing the formalized WNBA plan leaves these other big questions:

What does the WNBA have planned for social justice activism? 

A coalition of NBA players has pushed back on that league’s plans for a season restart at Walt Disney World, at least in part because of concerns about how the ability of players to participate in and lead the push for addressing police violence and larger social justice reforms. That coalition reportedly includes some WNBA players. However, with the benefit of running roughly two weeks behind the NBA, the WNBA had an opportunity to address some of these concerns in their plan. According to the league’s press release:

"Throughout this unique season format where all players will be at the same place, at the same time, a first in the league’s history, the WNBA will build on its commitment to social justice and will support players in launching a bold social justice platform as a call to action to drive impactful, measurable and meaningful change.  The WNBA 2020 season will include a devoted platform led by the players that will aim to support and strengthen both the league and teams’ reach and impact on social justice matters.  As recently announced, this began with the WNBA making donations from sales of its “Bigger Than Ball” women’s empowerment merchandise to the Equal Justice Initiative.  “The WNBA opposes racism in all its forms, and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are the latest names in a list of countless others who have been subject to police brutality that stems from the systemic oppression of Black Lives in America, and it is our collective responsibility to use our platforms to enact change,” said Engelbert. “In our discussions with the league, we emphasized and they agreed that a strong commitment to a 2020 season will give the WNBA the chance to show the world that it’s taking the steps needed to secure our livelihood and well-being, while also providing the opportunity to amplify our collective voice,” said WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike.  “We have always been at the forefront of initiatives with strong support of #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, the LGBTQ+ community, gun control, voting rights, #MeToo, mental health and the list goes on.  This is not only necessary from a humanitarian perspective, but it may be one of the biggest opportunities that this league has and will ever have.”"

The WNBA has arguably been ahead of the NBA on issues of political activism for a while and it’s reassuring to hear the league being proactive, both in using their own platform intentionally and explicitly and for making clear how it important it is that players voices are amplified individually. However, the plan here is light on specifics and it will be interesting to see what concrete elements evolve over the next few weeks.

What will it mean to have the WNBA and NBA playing concurrently?

The NBA and WNBA seasons usually have a small amount of overlap — the 2019 WNBA season began on May 24, the day before the Toronto Raptors eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. But, if everything goes according to the plans that have been announced, the 2020 WNBA season will begin in “late July” with the NBA season resuming July 30.

The fanbases of the WNBA and NBA are not a perfectly overlapping Venn diagram, but they cover a lot of the same territory. The normal schedules allow the two leagues to complement each other and now they’ll be competing for many of the same eyeballs and page views. The WNBA has made so many inroads in growing a national fanbase and commanding a larger share of the national sports media attention span, it feels horribly unfair to throw up another enormous barrier to continued growth. The core of their audience will be there, but it may not be as easy to grow it at the margins.

What does a 22-game WNBA season mean for favorites and underdogs?

Statistically speaking, shaving more than a third of a season’s games off each team’s schedule should increase variance. Each win or loss, flukey or otherwise, takes on a larger significance in determining the final standings and playoff seeding. A compressed season leaves less time for a key player to recover from an injury and return to the lineup. Teams won’t be playing in home arenas, or in front of fans. And they’ll be doing it all against the backdrop of an international pandemic and national protests.

It’s a recipe for unexpected outcomes, which could make for all sorts of incredible stories, or crush them. Does this all help or hurt the Washington Mystics, as they try to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the L.A. Sparks in 2002? If this is the last hurrah for Sue Bird or Diana Taurasi, does chaos carry them to one last title? Or rob them of a chance to write a perfect closing chapter? For a young team like the New York Liberty, with a future star in Sabrina Ionescu and an incredibly young roster, is this situation at all conducive to player development? Or is it a lost season in the rebuilding process?

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