WNBA set for July restart in Florida

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Women’s National Basketball Association has finalized a 2020 restart plan, settling on a 22-game regular season and playoffs that will be played beginning next month at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

The deal, done in cooperation with the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, will see the implementation of the abridged regular season following a prior suspension due to the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by the league’s typical playoff format of single-elimination games in the first and second rounds and five-game series for the semifinals and WNBA Finals.

Exact dates have not been set, but teams will report to the IMG Academy in early July with an eye toward beginning games late in the month. Games will be played without attending fans. The 2020 WNBA season had originally been due to start last month, but was delayed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Playing at the IMG Academy is operationally similar to the plans the WNBA’s sister operation, the National Basketball Association, has to play the rest of its 2019-20 season in Orlando, Florida, in a similarly quarantined environment. Florida had previously been identified as a strong candidate for the WNBA’s restart.

WNBA players will receive their full pay and benefits for 2020 despite the abridged campaign.

“We are finalizing a season start plan to build on the tremendous momentum generated in the league during the offseason and have used the guiding principles of health and safety of players and essential staff to establish necessary and extensive protocols,” said Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner. 

The 2020 WNBA Draft in April enjoyed a significant ratings boost thanks in large part to the event’s place of pride on the main ESPN network and the dearth of any competing sports broadcasts amid the Covid-19 shutdown. Earlier this year, the WNBA and WNBPA also struck a landmark eight-year labor deal containing a wide range of improvements in pay and working conditions for players. 

The league and union also said they will use the upcoming season in Florida as a public platform to spotlight social justice issues, particularly in the wake of last month’s death of George Floyd while in police custody.

“We have always been at the forefront of initiatives with strong support of #BlackLiveMatter, #SayHerName, the LGBTQ+ community, gun control, voting rights, #MeToo, mental health, and the list goes on,” said Nneka Ogwumike, WNBPA president. “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 NBA, meanwhile, is facing a growing number of dissident players who are openly concerned about playing in that league’s restart plan in Orlando, either from a health and safety perspective, or questioning whether working to spotlight social justice issues would be a better use of time than playing games in the amended format. 

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, speaking on the ESPN primetime special “The Return of Sports,”, acknowledged there may not be a “uniform view” as the league seeks to finalize plans with the National Basketball Players Association, and said the quarantined nature of the plan will involve “enormous sacrifice on behalf of everyone.” 

But Silver remained confident of completing the NBA’s restart plan and said the only other choice was the highly unattractive one of not playing at all.

“A lot of people pointed to the financial component of this,” Silver said. “The incremental difference between, at this point, playing and not playing isn’t nearly as great as people think, especially given the enormous expense of putting this on. Really, it’s more a sense from the entire NBA community that we have an obligation to try this, because the alternative is to stay on the sidelines and, in essence, give in to this virus. For us, we feel that this is what we do. We put on NBA basketball. We think that for the country, it’ll be a respite [from] the enormous difficulties people are dealing with in their lives right now.

“And in terms of social justice issues, it’ll be an opportunity for NBA players in the greater community to draw attention to the issues because the world’s attention will be on the NBA in Orlando if we’re able to pull this off,” Silver said.

Silver’s attitude toward restarting is notably different than that of Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, who said he is now “not confident” of that league being able to resume play this year.