We have a high level of competition, players emerge as stars, we build household names and we build these rivalries.
That’s how WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert will measure success of the league’s 25th-anniversary season.
Expected to tip off in mid-May, plans for the 2021 WNBA season signal an edging toward normalcy — as much as health-and-safety protocols and vaccination rollout will allow.
“Success, number one, is that we have a healthy season for our players, staff and fans,” Engelbert says during a phone call on Friday. “Number two is that we elevate the WNBA and the value of these professional working athletes in society.”
The players’ value, as the 2020 season of pandemic and social justice protest attests, is of leadership and transformation. A fight for justice for Breonna Taylor’s family in collaboration with the #SayHerName campaign branched into a fight against Kelly Loeffler’s bid for reelection in the Georgia Senate race. The “Vote Warnock” shirts players wore during the season amplified Rev. Raphael Warnock’s campaign. By winning, both Georgia Senate seats were flipped from red to blue and Loeffler, who had faced a barrage of calls to sell the Atlanta Dream following her vehement opposition to the WNBA’s alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement, ultimately did just that.
Renee Montgomery, who last played for the Dream in 2019 and who was one of Loeffler’s most outspoken critics, became a minority owner of the Dream after announcing her retirement.
But the WNBA in 2021 is about moving forward — ensuring success this season as an investment in the league’s future, while paying proper homage to the figures who wrote the early pages of the its history. Count It is the season’s motto. And without naming names, the WNBA is tallying the myriad adversity-destroying triumphs of its quarter-century existence, some of which are highlighted in the league’s 25th anniversary brand ad narrated by Lisa Leslie.
EXCLUSIVE: ‘Impossible shot after impossible shot after impossible shot’
“I thought of those that thought the WNBA couldn’t make the shots, couldn’t do all the accomplishments around social justice and everything else in the culture at-large,” Engelbert says. “I’m really proud that this is future-facing, but it’s to signify the tallies won’t stop coming. It’s a look back at the league’s history while counting on the future.”
And just how will the WNBA be keeping score?
The 2020 season was of “existential” importance, says Engelbert. Yet, due to the players’ activism and its results, a season meant merely to keep the league alive thrust it into the spotlight and furthered the momentum gained from the landmark CBA that was agreed to by the WNBA and WNBPA last year. Initiatives to celebrate the league’s achievements reach farther back into WNBA history, however, and include:
The W25 will select and honor the league’s 25-best athletes based on their on-court achievements, leadership on the court and off it, sportsmanship and contributions toward growing the women’s game generally. Fans will get a chance to vote on their favorite players and help shape this roster of exceptional, history-making athletes.
WNBA 25 Greatest Moments will rank from No. 25 through No. 1 the biggest and best moments of the league’s history and unveil them during the second half of the season and playoffs. (The season’s second half begins following the Olympic break, mid-July to mid-August, during which the USA Basketball Women’s National Team will seek its seventh-consecutive gold medal).
WNBA Commissioner’s Cup, intended to debut during the 2020 season before the pandemic thwarted its plans, will finally get its debut. This “competition within a competition,” comprises 10 regular-season games per team and “culminates in a championship game between the two teams atop the standings in each conference.” The Cup’s championship game will mark the season’s resumption of play following the Olympic pause.
WNBA 25th Season Advisory Council, made up of the legends who built the league, will share a historical perspective of the WNBA in effort to help shape future business objectives. The council includes iconic Hall of Famers Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes and Teresa Weatherspoon; retired champions Fran Harris, Lauren Jackson and Lindsey Whalen; Rick Welts, president and chief operating officer of the Golden State Warriors, who was integral to marketing the league in its early years; and Val Ackerman, the first president of the WNBA. The council is meeting periodically to develop ideas for growing the game and its fan base.
WNBA Justice Movement was founded in the runup to the 2020 season as a platform through which the league and the players’ union — united through the Social Justice Council — could work together and in the community to “combat racial and gender inequality, promote advocacy for LBGTQ+ rights, and champion reform in systems where injustice persists.” The Justice Movement in 2021 will honor the league’s legacy of advocacy on a variety of social issues.
EXCLUSIVE: Game ball of the 2021 WNBA season
A new game ball by Wilson, and uniforms by Nike, provide a sharp new look for the 2021 season and — through exquisite, intentional detail — further tell the WNBA story and the league’s place not just in women’s history and sports history, but history.
“Fire orange on the last mark (of the logo) suggests another tally is coming next, because we’re not done,” Engelbert says. “We’re counting, and the Roman numerals are a little bit of a nod to Title IX, and a little disruptive to what you would expect of two-five, so we’re doing the Count It with the tally.”
But even a season of historic significance is not without challenges. First, the league is in “hyper-planning” mode, Engelbert says, as it weighs the various scenarios by which a somewhat normal season can be carried out that prioritizes protecting the health and safety of players, staff and fans.
Following the “Herculean” efforts of planning and executing the 2020 season, Engelbert says things are a little different in 2021, though not exactly easy yet.
“I have a lot more confidence that the vaccine distribution and supply and availability is out there for both our players, staff and fans,” she says. “And, hopefully, in commemorating the 25th season, we will be able to pull it all together and really launch the W to its next 25 years.”
This springboard of an anniversary season is expected to tip off in mid-May and will include fans, with the number of fans allowed in arenas determined by the pace of slowing the coronavirus through vaccination and health-and-safety protocols.
“Some of our arenas will start with fans,” Engelbert says. “It’ll be reduced capacity because we’ll want to kind of pilot bringing fans back for the first time in almost two years.”
“So, let’s see how things go in the first half of the season, into the (Olympic) break, and maybe more of our arenas will be opened up in more of our cities and in greater capacities,” Engelbert adds. “And fans have to feel comfortable coming back and, again, that’ll have to be about the vaccine and any other spread or trajectory of the virus and its variants so, yeah, we’re looking at all of that and taking all of that into consideration.”
A return to quasi-normalcy as society emerges from a deadly pandemic is a monumental, but hopefully short-lived challenge. Gaining and retaining interest in the WNBA, however, remains a persistent one.
“Certainly, once again, we’re going to be in a very crowded sports landscape from a viewership perspective, but we’re going to try some things like we did last year, like innovating around second-screen experience,” Engelbert says. “We know if people come and people watch, they come back, so we just have to get more fans and to draw them into the game. So these are all the efforts around this 25th-season marketing that we’ve been working on, and there’s a lot of buzz.”
A cloud of dread descended on fans new and old when, in 2018, Lisa Borders announced her resignation as WNBA president soon after the Seattle Storm — in one of the most competitive seasons in league history — was crowned champion. If such a mind-blowing season could not inspire top leadership to say, what would? And what, exactly, did her departure say about the state of the league and its viability for the future?
Instead of the death knell many had feared, Borders’ departure and Engelbert’s arrival as commissioner signaled a transformation that was evinced by her decision to charter cross-country flights for the teams that advanced, via wins on the West coast, to the 2019 WNBA Semifinals, where the Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics held home-court advantage on the East. A groundbreaking CBA, announced in a Good Morning America interview, with Engelbert and WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike looking regal in deep-hued blues. The first-ever virtual draft followed, with resounding success. And the 2020 season amid pandemic and social justice protest further inspired public confidence in the league’s ability not only to survive, but to thrive.
All of these are wins the commissioner can count, but are they enough to return the WNBA to its rightful throne?
“This isn’t just about me,” Engelbert says. “It’s about the players, the teams, the owners, all being committed as we led up to that historic CBA last year, and building trust together. We continue to have a lot of interest in the WNBA and the players and, obviously, coming off the huge national attention and international attention that they got last year. So, I’m just coming in, setting a vision, building trust and executing a transformation plan, which we really needed, by the way, and we still have a lot to go, and if we just didn’t hit this pandemic, I feel we would have gotten a lot more done.”
But, the rousing success amid unforeseen and unimaginable obstacles last year suggests even greater strides can be taken in the best of times, whether an anniversary season in 2021 or in what will hopefully be a post-pandemic season in 2022. Either way, the commissioner is counting on the league’s five-year business transformation plan to steer the WNBA to stability, and she is counting on the exceptional talent and leadership of the players on and off the court to catapult the league further into the mainstream.
“When I took this job not even two years ago, I knew the players had such a strong voice, but I think, in the last year, millions and millions of people know who they are (now) and what they stand for,” Engelbert says. “I’m so impressed with the players and proud of them and we continue the important work.”