The W.N.B.A. Is Out to Reclaim ‘Tremendous Momentum’ in New Season

Although athletes who say they’re “in the best shape of their life” after a long off-season aren’t usually to be trusted, the oft-overlooked W.N.B.A. had a solid claim on the cliché heading into its 24th year.

Following a hard-fought five-game finals in 2019, the league saw one of its most dramatic free-agency periods ever as the shuffle of A-listers like Skylar Diggins-Smith and DeWanna Bonner created an almost entirely new field of competition. The W.N.B.A. welcomed point guard Sabrina Ionescu — a triple-double phenom and one of its buzziest prospects in years — and most notably, players secured a new collective bargaining agreement that allowed the average W.N.B.A. player to earn six figures for the first time, including base salary and incentives. It’s common for players to compete year-round by going overseas in the off-season to make additional money.

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“It was long overdue progress,” said Dawn Staley, a Hall of Famer who spent eight seasons in the league and now coaches the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team. “It’s not like playing in the W wasn’t a real profession before, but you don’t have to supplement your income in the same way anymore. You have choices.”

“We were just seeing tremendous momentum for the W.N.B.A. and women’s sports over all,” W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The New York Times. “Obviously, then we hit the pandemic.”

Suddenly, that optimism — already rare in a league that is still too often compelled to defend its very existence — evaporated. Players, scattered across the globe with their overseas teams, scrambled to find a way back to the United States, and league officials started questioning whether they could stage a season at all.

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“It’s like damn, we came so far this year and this happens,” said Aerial Powers, a forward for the defending champion Washington Mystics. “Not having a season would have been awful — we don’t want to go backwards.”

But by mid-June, the W.N.B.A. had announced plans for an abbreviated 22-game season starting with three games Saturday, played exclusively at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The league would operate in a so-called bubble: Players and staff were to remain isolated full time for three months — from training camp to the postseason — and play without crowds.

Preparing to play in what’s now being called the “Wubble” while quarantined, though, had its challenges. Often, players didn’t have space to work out; unlike some of their peers in the N.B.A., most can’t afford lavish home gyms and courts, a disparity illustrated by an interleague remote HORSE competition in April.

Many W.N.B.A. players don’t have a hoop at home, which meant they hadn’t shot a basketball in weeks by the time they were able to start preparing for the season last month. “Going from zero to 100 after three months off … it’s different,” Powers said. “Today was like the first day where I was like, ‘OK, this feels a little bit better. I’m ready to play.’”

The W is seeing some surprising advantages from the unorthodox setup, though. The fact that players were forced to rest by circumstance gave many players accustomed to playing professionally year-round a much-needed break. Because of the current dearth of live TV programming, almost 50 percent of the W.N.B.A.’s regular-season games will be nationally televised on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 or CBS Sports Network. This is a win for a league that has long had to jockey for TV time with the men’s pro leagues — and often lost.

The teams are often not together for training camp because of players’ overseas schedules, but this year they have spent an unusual amount of time playing together and socializing. Their conversations have often centered around the social justice movements and protests happening around the country since the killing of George Floyd; this W.N.B.A. season is dedicated to Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name.

“Being able to have these kinds of conversations with everyone in the same place — getting all these different perspectives — is so unique and cool,” Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams said.

Making the most of the season’s early promise, though, is still only possible on the court, where thanks to extraordinary measures, the players have finally been able to return. “There was just a calming sense of being back on the floor,” Williams said. “So much of what happened has felt like a loss of control, but that space was safe.”

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