Every year, a WNBA team or two loses its home arena during the playoffs: the time of year a team needs familiarity and consistency most. This season, the No. 5 Phoenix Mercury will play their first-round single-elimination game against the No. 8 New York Liberty at Grand Canyon University (GCU) Arena because of what the team is calling a “scheduling conflict” at the team’s home arena.
But WNBA teams getting booted from their home courts is nothing new.
A university arena is not the same as a professional one, especially for the Mercury, who pride themselves on the facilities they’ve installed for the team’s myriad working mothers.
GCU is only a 20-minute drive from the Mercury’s usual home court, at the Footprint Center, so their X-Factor fan base is likely to turn out in droves. But close proximity to a substitute arena isn’t always the case.
In 2018, the Washington Mystics were booted from Capital One Arena and forced to play three playoff games at Charles E. Smith Center at George Washington University, a roughly 20-minute haul from the Mystics’ usual home floor. Just days after their last playoff game, the arena’s jumbotron collapsed onto the floor.
Only maintenance workers were in the building at the time and, thankfully, nobody was hurt. But the accident would have been catastrophic had it occurred during a game. And it woke the WNBA-loving world to some of the inappropriate, unsafe conditions in which their favorite basketball players are forced to compete.
But it got worse for the Mystics that year.
BREAKING: The Charles E. Smith Center Jumbotron has collapsed onto the court. More information to come soon. pic.twitter.com/D9dIh3Ix3d
— GW Television (@GWTV) September 11, 2018
They had to travel even farther during their Finals series with the Seattle Storm — some 40-60 minutes westward (depending on traffic) to George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Va., to play their critical win-or-go-home Game 3. They were swept in the Finals, in Monique Currie’s last WNBA season, and she did not appreciate the disadvantage the arena move created.
“I think it’s ridiculous that teams have to move arenas at all, but especially during the playoffs,” Currie told me in 2019. “Having to leave the comforts of your home arena to play in places that are not professional-grade arenas causes a string of negative effects on everyone involved, from the players (and) the staff of the team and arena, all the way down to the fans who oftentimes are misinformed or not willing to make arrangements to attend a game outside of where they’re used to.”
In 2019, the Los Angeles Sparks were swept in their semifinals series with the Connecticut Sun. In an 0-2 hole after playing on the Sun’s home court, the Sparks did not benefit from the opportunity to play their critical Game 3 on their own, inside Staples Center, when the series swung west. Instead, they were moved an hour’s drive to Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid — a distance even the biggest fan would be unlikely to drive — and blown out, 78-56.
Teams are not just affected in the postseason, though. In 2021, the Sparks were 4-1 at Staples Center and 4-7 at Los Angeles Convention Center — just a short walk from Staples. And we know this would never happen to male athletes in any sport because it never has — not for “scheduling conflicts,” at least, though, the NBA’s New Orleans team was forced to play elsewhere following Hurricane Katrina.
For Currie, it comes down to the arenas not prioritizing and protecting teams’ schedules through the last possible playoff date. And it comes down to the WNBA not insisting that they do.
“I understand that more lucrative events may want to use (a team’s venue),” Currie said. “But if you are committed to the growth of women’s basketball and committed to making sure that (teams are) put in the best position possible to win a championship, we can start with allowing them to play in their own gym during the entire season.”