Basketball, Bargaining, Bubbles and Black Lives Matter: WNBA in 2020

Photo Credit: WNBA

The year 2020 may have (finally) drawn to a close with a 2021 season (the WNBA’s 25th looming), but even with all of the negative that took place in said year, there was still plenty that the WNBA was in the midst of even with a raging pandemic, a renewed conversation around social justice and a critical presidential election.

Early on, it was a year of loss for the basketball family. This was seen when two of the NBA’s most revered figures had lost their lives in 2020.

Former NBA commissioner David Stern, who was credited by many with the establishment of the WNBA with the 1997 season, lost his life at the age of 77. He suffered a brain hemorrhage and was taken to a New York City hospital. ESPN reported he was at a Manhattan restaurant prior to him collapsing.

If David Stern was the W’s patriarch, then Kobe Bryant was setting himself up to be a global ambassador for the WNBA. Until a fateful day on January 26.

On that day, he, his daughter GiGi and several others lost their lives in a helicopter crash in southern California. The news sent shockwaves around the sports world – and the world at large.

NBA All-Stars in Chicago wore Nos. 24 and 2 in honor of Kobe and GiGi. Diana Taurasi and Sabrina Ionescu were among those who spoke at the public memorial at Staples Center. At the virtual WNBA draft, commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced GiGi as an honorary draftee.

That same draft – a star-studded draft – saw a former Oregon Duck trade her emerald green for seafoam green as Ionescu was, as expected, drafted first overall by the New York Liberty.

The Liberty drafting of Ionescu was not just a team taking another top overall selection – it was viewed as the WNBA’s flagship franchise drafting its new face of said franchise, one undergoing a full-scale transition out of the James Dolan/MSG years and into the Joe Tsai/Brooklyn Nets/Barclays Center era.

The year 2020 was such an out-of-control year with so much else that happened that we almost forgot one of the signature moments of the WNBA’s 2020 calendar – the ratification of its historic collective bargaining agreement.

WNBA players have rightfully had its issues with the league on a number of fronts – from marketing to salaries to travel to mental health and motherly services. In the early portions of the calendar, the league and its players apparently agreed on many of these issues … and felt it was time to “Bet on Women.”

Typically, when CBAs are announced and ratified, they become announced via a simple press release that typically gets posted on the league and team websites. Both the WNBA and WNBPA decided this was too big of a moment to simply go that route.

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and union president Nneka Ogwumike went on ABC’s Good Morning America to talk about the deal and its significance to women in sports. Good Morning America and Robin Roberts also had a hand in another important matter involving the W this year. More on that later.

A release stated that all players would have the opportunity to earn six-figure salaries with the top of the top players earning around $500,000. Others would have the chance to earn $200,000-$300,000. And for the first time in league history, average salaries will be in the range of $130,000.

Three signature sponsors were also announced – AT&T, Deloitte (the accounting firm Engelbert was part of prior to becoming the league’s first-ever commissioner) and Nike. Known as the WNBA Changemakers, the aim is to level the playing field on the issue of sponsorship dollars going to women’s sports.

It also calls for what was referred to a “prioritization” of the WNBA as opposed to going overseas where teams have historically agreed to pay its players a lot more than they earn stateside.

Prior to the pandemic, there was a plan for the 2020 season to include two additional games – part of the Commissioner’s Cup. Engelbert mentioned this was an idea the players themselves brought up. The minimum amount of prize money for the Commissioner’s Cup is $750,000 and its modeled after similar Cups in soccer.

It also declared that the 2021 season would be the first of a 50-50 revenue sharing model based on reaching growth goals from television sponsorships. A cash bonus increase also resulted from awards such as Rookie of the Year and WNBA MVP.

The deal also created a floor of $1.6 million in offseason marketing – resulting in possibly $300,000 in cash compensation for top marketed players.

As Ogwumike talked about in her tweet thread, players will get Premium Economy status plus individual hotel accommodations. This was in response to previous travel issues involving teams such as the Las Vegas Aces and Indiana Fever. The agreement also provides for players receiving full salaries while in maternity leave plus a childcare stipend of $5,000. That was in response to critical tweets Skylar Diggins-Smith sent in response to how she felt she was treated by the Dallas Wings while she was expecting.

Another element? Creating job opportunities for players in the offseason, seen as another incentive to get players to remain stateside in the offseason. It also called for creating initiatives for veteran players that hope to coach.

The CBA also created a nutrition council to address healthy eating, a program addressing domestic violence and “enhanced mental health benefits and resources.”

Another key element of the CBA was that it officially kicked off free agency in February. This was, of course, a month before our entire world was rocked by the atrocity that became Mr. Covid.

But to say the free agency period was a bit active would be an understatement of the year. As soon as the opening bell sounded, the floodgates were opened.

It began with Angel McCoughtry, longtime Dream and at-the-time free agent. With the Dream undergoing a rebuild, McCoughtry thought it was the perfect opportunity to join a contender by going west to the Las Vegas Aces and joining A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage.

Another shoe that dropped on the first day of free agency involved old becoming new again. Kristi Toliver previously won a championship with the Los Angeles Sparks before, in 2017, joining the Washington Mystics along with Elena Delle Donne, beginning the Mystics’ ascent to the top of the W’s totem pole.

What was old became new again as Toliver become reacquainted with Tinseltown.

Another big shoe that dropped on the first day of free agency was the Liberty adding a veteran presence designed to make Ionescu’s transition to the pros smoother. Enter former Connecticut Sun Layshia Clarendon.

The following two days of WNBA free agency would be busy for Jim Pitman and Sandy Brondello in Phoenix. First, the Mercury traded DeWanna Bonner to the Sun for draft picks, then Diggins-Smith would be acquired to the Merc from Dallas.

With Toliver going back west to Los Angeles, this meant the ‘Stics needed someone who could fill her shoes.

Just as Toliver made a return to LA, a now ex-Merc made her return to DC as Leilani Mitchell was announced as the Mystics’ latest signing.

That free agency period would later see Emma Meesseman, MVP from the 2019 Finals, return to Washington, ex-Lib Sugar Rodgers re-upping with her former New York coach in Bill Laimbeer in Sin City and a blockbuster three-team deal that saw Courtney Williams traded to Atlanta that also involved the Sun and Mercury.

This one is a case of former Connecticut connections (try saying that 10 times fast) coming through in the ATL. Dream general manager Chris Sienko and coach Nicki Collen were previous with the Sun prior to going south to Atlanta.

Another move that got plenty of attention (and surely had WNBA fans in Minnesota in the feels) was seeing that Seimone Augustus not only was not returning to the Lynx … but going to its arch rival in SoCal.

For a few days after the initial wave of signings, free agency began to slow down with the free agent picture slowly but surely crystallizing. With all of the speculation regarding free agency, one name continued to be in the back of minds of WNBA fans.

While Tina Charles became one of the greatest players in Liberty (and WNBA) history, the last two seasons of New York basketball were anything but memorable. It is crystal clear that the Liberty are in a rebuild and even as instrumental as she was in navigating the Lib through the trying times of Westchester, New York’s very own Charles should be on a contending team in the prime of her career.

The result … Charles reuniting with her former Connecticut coach in Mike Thibault with the Mystics.

As we know, many of our W faves are also fashionistas themselves. Whether it is through their own clothing lines or partaking in modeling opportunities as a side hustle, WNBA players are as every bit connected in with beauty as they are with ball and brawn.

In 2020, the WNBA itself became a fashion statement thanks to its orange hoodie … unquestionably its signature item. It became the most popular product among the Fanatics network of sites and the best-selling WNBA item in history.

Sports Business Journal also gave the hoodie its fair share of love by naming it the Fashion Statement of the Year for 2020.

Because of the coronavirus, there was lots of concern as to if there would even be a 2020 season. Cases were out of control, particularly in the south and western parts of the country and there seemed to be no way that a typical season with its travel and fans would be contested.

Then as the summer progressed, the idea of single-venue, enclosed sites for seasons – aka “bubbles” – began gaining steam. The NBA announced its bubble at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, the NHL went with a double-bubble in Toronto and Edmonton and the NWSL did a Challenge Cup bubble in the Salt Lake City-area.

Bill Laimbeer mentioned on ESPN after an episode of ‘The Last Dance’ that the W follows the NBA’s lead since the Adam Silver-led men’s league has “more zeroes” than its sister. The NBA did its bubble in Florida, so it was somewhat fitting that the WNBA did the same.

Two courts and almost the entire WNBA sequestered into an IMG Academy “Wubble” that would host a 22-game season with a traditional playoff format.

Of course because of travel concerns due to Covid-19, not all players made the trek to Florida. Among them were Liz Cambage, Jonquel Jones, Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles.

But before the season tipped off in its Florida bubble, one of the WNBA’s owners decided she wanted to be famous.

Following the resignation of former Georgia senator Johnny Isakson, that left one of the Peach State’s Senate seats open. The name that began being talked about a lot in Georgia’s political circles was Kelly Loeffler, co-owner of the Atlanta Dream.

Georgia governor Brian Kemp eventually named Loeffler, a major Republican donor, to the seat. She still had to defend that seat in a “jungle primary” that included another Republican challenger in Doug Collins, a representative from Georgia’s ninth congressional district (mostly the northeastern part of the state).

It also included a couple of prominent Democrats in Raphael Warnock of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and Matt Lieberman, son of former Vice Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman.

As time went on, Loeffler began making controversial comments regarding open carry by Black Americans and the WNBA’s plan to spread the message of Black Lives Matter while inside the bubble. Loeffler even felt that every WNBA jersey should have an American flag adorned on it.

Those comments quickly turned the W’s community against Loeffler and her calls for her ouster as Dream co-owner were heard far and wide.

WNBA players even let their thoughts be known while inside the bubble. They wore black shirts that said “Vote Warnock” on their fronts.

Warnock and Loeffler have since advanced to January 5th’s runoff election. Georgia also has another between Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff and Republican incumbent David Perdue. As of today, more than 3 million early votes have been cast, shattered a record set by a 2008 runoff between Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin.

A Washington Post analysis even showed that the support of WNBA players may have shifted the race more in Warnock’s favor. After the players wore the “Vote Warnock” tees, he got a poll bounce in his direction and the Democratic Party began coalescing its support around the Rev.

Of the players and teams that did make it to the bubble, few teams had their full collection of rosters or close to it. The Seattle Storm, Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky were three of the teams where this applied to with other would-be contenders being shorthanded due to either Covid-19 or putting careers on hold to be further involved in the conversation around social justice.

Prior to the season, many WNBA pundits pegged either the Washington Mystics or Las Vegas Aces as the favorites to win the title.

Except for two things. Sue Bird was back. Breanna Stewart was back.

And after both Sue and Stewie were sidelined in the 2019 season due to injury, the Storm were ready to take back what they felt was rightfully theirs.

The Storm looked like their 2018 selves from start to finish – even with coach Dan Hughes not making it to the bubble and assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg taking his place. Even though Seattle faced a bit of late-season adversity with injuries, the Storm met up with the Las Vegas Aces in the Finals and claimed its fourth championship in franchise history.

For Bird, it was also her fourth championship. For Stewart, it was her second championship and second Finals MVP in an already illustrious career.

But as many players in the bubble stated, what happened in Bradenton was about more than just wins and losses. It was about continuing to expand the WNBA’s progressive message of social progress even if the W was in the enclosed capsule of the bubble at IMG Academy.

WNBA players are well-versed in what is happening outside of their own basketball “bubble” as well. A renewed conversation around social justice issues occurred in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as well as the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin by police.

At both of the WNBA’s courts in the bubble, “Black Lives Matter” was painted in black lettering in two areas of those courts. An idea that was originally suggested by Angel McCoughtry became reality as well when WNBA players wore the name of Breonna Taylor on the backs of their jerseys.

It was a very political summer for many sports leagues – many of whom ironically followed the WNBA’s example it set in 2016 after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police.

Even a WNBA luminary that has not played a game in two seasons had a social justice victory of her own.

Maya Moore has not played in the WNBA since 2018 – the same season where her Minnesota Lynx hosted the All-Star Game. She took a sabbatical from professional basketball after that season to focus on an issue that was near and dear to her heart – the Jonathan Irons case in Missouri.

Irons is a man that was sentenced to 50 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. After a long and hard fight, the tide was shifting in Irons’ and Moore’s direction.

It is rare that Black Americans are able to celebrate justice, but the Irons case proved to be that much-needed rarity.

Not only was Irons freed from jail, he and Moore tied the knot.

With the WNBA being the socially conscious league that it is, of course there was going to be much attention from players surrounding the 2020 presidential election.

At one point in the campaign, there was lots of speculation as to who Joe Biden’s running mate would be. Susan Rice? Amy Klobuchar (noted Lynx fan)? Keisha Lance Bottoms?

It was always known that Biden would choose a woman to be his vice presidential running mate. On August 11, Biden solidified his ticket.

And in the run-up to that election, the NBA ensured that several arenas – including some that are home arenas for WNBA teams – could be converted in polling locations.

Barclays Center (Liberty), Staples Center (Sparks) and Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Fever) were only a few of the stadia that individuals could cast votes at. Georgians could also cast votes at the Georgia International Convention Center – which includes the Dream’s home of Gateway Center Arena. After a bit of uncertainty, the Mystics’ home of DC Entertainment and Sports Arena also became a polling place. Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the Mercury were slated to host its home games in 2020 also became a polling location.

Voter participation for the Nov. 3 election set a turnout record, and after a few agonizing days of refreshing Pennsylvania’s results, a winner was declared.

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