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How COVID-19 Is Changing the WNBA

The WNBA is back, with its season tipping off this weekend. But the road to get here hasn’t been easy.

Photo by Markus Spiske via Unsplash

As reopening continues in some states, live sports are starting to come back into view. With the WNBA’s season getting ready to restart in a single location and players getting tested so they may resume play, the future of sports continues to face many challenges, especially for women. But the WNBA has faced the challenges head on. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and Minnesota Lynx player Napheesa Collier recently joined Worth for our live event series The Next Normal to discuss how the pandemic has affected the WNBA.

“There’s no more challenging time than now to put on live sports, but I think now that the players are practicing and on the court and in training camp, we’re excited to get our 24th season tipped off,” Engelbert said. “As with any business trying to navigate the impact of COVID-19, we had to look at a lot of areas of our business to see where we could innovate and adapt. I’m a firm believer, having had over three decades of business experience, that a crisis, while it amplifies the weaknesses that existed going into it, it also is an opportunity to fix it.”

Prior to being named WNBA commissioner last July, Engelbert spent over 30 years at Deloitte, ultimately acting as CEO during her last four years with the company. This, she explains, prepared her for her career with the WNBA.

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“I had been doing some scenario planning when I was at Deloitte around economic downturns and economic crisis, but never that it would be caused by a global health pandemic,” Engelbert said. “So, think about how unusual the times that we’re in…and then the social justice movement and how important that was to our players all year around, not just in the recent times and how proud I am of our players around that. So, I think maybe my last 33 years were really training me for this moment.”

One of the scenarios Engelbert found herself faced with was how to put on a season—and if that would even be possible this year.

“We had to look at no season, full season, somewhere in between,” she said. “What would the playoffs look like? What would the health and safety protocols look like? What were the permutations all for those five or six scenarios? Where would we do it, in arenas without fans, not in arenas with fans, without? I just think that business background prepared me for the scenario planning that we had to do coming off of our first-ever virtual draft that we had in April. It was quite successful.”

The players recently moved into a housing site at IMG Academy (affectionally called “the Wubble”) in Florida, where this season will be played. And while this is surely different than the way professional basketball players are used to playing, getting to play at all is exciting right now.

“It’s definitely not something you would want every year, but we’re here. So, to make the most out of it, I think is really important,” Collier said. “We’re just having as much fun with it as we can within the safety protocols.”

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And when it comes to the health and safety of the players, the WNBA isn’t taking any chances.

“When we first got here, we were quarantined for about four days where you could really only leave your room or villa for essential things, like getting tested,” Collier said. “Still, every day, we get tested. You have to wear a mask everywhere. We have a MyHealth app where you have to input if you have any symptoms. You have to do your temperature. So, they’re taking really every precaution that they can in order to keep us safe. I think they’ve done a really good job with that. I’m excited to do that and then get to playing, to start the season.”

“Ultimately, we’ll open it up hopefully that teams can interact more socially.” Engelbert said. “But right now, it’s still all physical distancing, wearing masks as we settle [into] the site.”

Being able to actually play live sports and broadcast it on TV has been incredibly challenging for team sports right now, but being able to pay players 100 percent of their salaries for this year’s season has also become a serious challenge for major leagues. A serious challenge that the WNBA has managed to navigate successfully.

“We knew how important it was,” Engelbert said. “Players were going to be fired up about a 24th season. We ended up agreeing to pay them 100 percent of their salaries. It was important. It’s hard because financially think about just all the medical, health, protocols and the testing and everything. That’s why it’s great when partners step up. AT&T has stepped up, and some of our other partners continue to step up. But we need more. We need more corporate sponsors to step up and help us get through this year into the next.”

This should come as no surprise given that one of the first major feats Engelbert achieved as commissioner was negotiating the historic collective bargaining agreement, which included a 53 percent cash compensation increase for players.

“Our goals have remained consistent: Lead with a player first agenda. Drive a different way of looking at women’s sports. Drive new revenue models and get more coverage for the league. Market the league. Market players like Napheesa. Drive rivalries,” Engelbert said. “We’re still working on all that, but it is really hard in this pandemic because now we’ve shifted to the number one thing being the health and safety of our players. It’s pretty existential for women’s sports and certainly for the WNBA to have a league this year and to have a season. So, as we look to tip it off, this was still part of our strategy.”

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And the players are absolutely ready to be back on the court, come Saturday.

“As a player, we’re so excited to be here. This is what we love to do is to play. So finally, to have games right around the corner…it’s so exciting,” Collier said. “It felt so good the other day…when we had practice and we could all be on the court for the first time together because, before that, we were doing individual workouts. But to all come together and to practice and for it to feel like a season and we’re playing the sport we love, it was amazing. I’m just so excited for games to start to get our season going.”

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