Column: Early prediction – 2021 WNBA season will be played at home arenas

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

It is always never too farfetched to look into the future.

We are still some months away from the (likely) start of the 2021 WNBA season. Given last year’s 2020 campaign was contested at the IMG/Feld Entertainment wubble in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, talk in the WNBA family has certainly centered on if there will be a wubble Part 2.

Without question, the wubble was a major success … and should be considered one of the biggest successes in WNBA history. Pulling off a season in what was a coronavirus hotspot with zero positive COVID-19 tests (albeit a few inconclusives) and a renewed emphasis on the ills of social injustice is the mark of a league that not only deserves its flowers, but is “here to stay” as was declared after the W and players shook hands on its new collective bargaining agreement.

It also did not hurt that WNBA ratings and social media interactions went up for its wubble while those of other sports went down throughout the course of the pandemic.

No WNBA schedule for 2021 has been released yet and probably will not be released for the next few months as the league, teams and venues put everything together. But our guess is that there will not be a second wubble for the 2021 season.

Granted, no one has any idea what the COVID picture will look like by this summer, but 2021 is poised to be a year where the United States as a whole finally starts to beat the virus instead of letting it beat US. The incoming administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris promises to be one in which science (what a concept!) dictates steps in defeating Mr. Covid (as opposed to the root of all evil which is money) and news continues to trickle out concerning the rollout of vaccines.

As science finally dictates our national response to coronavirus and as these vaccines hit the market, 2021 looks to be a year where we slowly but surely begin to beat this thing into the ground and get back to our lives.

And it means WNBA teams will be getting back to arenas that they call home.

This would mean that in 2021, the New York Liberty will finally play its first season at Barclays Center. This would mean that in 2021, the Atlanta Dream will play its first season at Gateway Center Arena in College Park, just south of downtown ATL near its airport. This would mean that in 2021, the Indiana Fever will play its home games at Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University. This would mean that in 2021, the Phoenix Mercury will stage its home contests at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum while the former Talking Stick Resort Arena (now PHX Arena) undergoes its continued makeover, manicure and pedicure.

A vexing question that would be on many minds is if there will be fans in the stands for these games. Our guess is that the Mercury, Dream, Fever and Dallas Wings will have fans in its stands for its games given the Arizona, Georgia, Indiana and Texas governors will probably be more open to the idea of filling up arenas as much as possible. It may be a chore to convince those in other W states such as Connecticut, New York, Illinois, California, Washington state, Minnesota and Nevada as well as Muriel Bowser, DC’s mayor, of the same if the COVID picture looks as dire as it does now.

Our guess is that it will improve thanks to the new administration and the vaccines. Given how the COVID picture could look, those governors and mayor may be more open to it if the teams and league have policies in place to monitor/enforce social distancing and wearing of masks. The teams will likely provide team-branded masks and hand sanitizer to fans that attend.

Making the situation even more fluid regarding a 2021 WNBA season is that it will be an Olympic year. Mr. Covid effectively postponed the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to 2021 and the season will likely overlap with the Games as it does for every summer Olympiad. Interestingly enough, commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced at her “State of the W” address prior to last season’s WNBA Finals in the wubble that there would be an All-Star Game in 2021 and that it would be the first year of the much-ballyhooed Commissioner’s Cup – a signature element of the landmark CBA.

Where that All-Star Game would take place is anyone’s guess, but the fact such an event would be announced by the commissioner in an Olympic year is a strong sign that the wubble may simply be a 2020 thing.

Another clue – teams such as the Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun began advertising season ticket drives for the 2021 season shortly after the 2020 season concluded. Why announce season ticket drives unless the plan was for the 2021 season to be contested again at home arenas. Other teams, like the Dream, Fever, Liberty, Las Vegas Aces and Los Angeles Sparks have also been doing the same.

The biggest clue on whether the 2021 season is back in home arenas or not may come from the most predictable of entities itself – of course that is the NBA. Remember this quote from Aces coach Bill Laimbeer …

They’re working very hard trying to find solutions. They have a lot more zeroes than we do in the WNBA. So, we’re going to take our cue from them.

–Bill Laimbeer, Las Vegas Aces coach

Laimbeer’s comments were made on ESPN’s The Jump with Rachel Nichols. It took place after the airing of the Michael Jordan “Last Dance” documentary episode which zeroed in on the Bulls’ rivalry with the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s and early 1990s which Laimbeer was part of.

He basically said look to the NBA for what the W may do – and it is a not so well-kept secret that the WNBA takes a good number of its cues from Adam Silver and the NBA.

The NBA is planning on starting its season on December 22nd. In home arenas. No bubble, but the rules on if fans are allowed into the stands or not vary from arena by arena (and really locale by locale and/or state by state). Granted, Indianapolis’ opportunity at hosting the NBA’s All-Star Game has been moved from next year to 2024.

Another reason as to why the W would prefer it if we return to arenas in 2021 has to do with a simple math problem.

Take out your pencils and paper, class. Write down the following numbers:

2021 (next season) and 1997 (the WNBA’s inaugural year). Subtract 1997 from 2021, then add 1 representing the inaugural year.

What answer did you get?

A very intelligent pupil…let’s say her name is Aya, answers, “25!”

Very good, Aya!

The 2021 season will not just be any season – it will also be the WNBA’s 25th anniversary. The W will be a quarter of a century old next year. If they can help it, Engelbert would all of the chips to fall their way between now and the early Spring/Summer to ensure there is as much pomp and circumstance as possible (COVID permitting) for the 25th as opposed to it having being confined, ala 2020, to a bubble.

Do bubbles work? Absolutely. The WNBA, NBA, NHL and NWSL have all proven that for the time being bubbles are the way to go while the NFL and college football put their full hubris on display and both entities are swimming in COVID outbreaks plus game postponements and cancellations. The NWHL recently announced it is condensing its entire season to a two-week bubble in Lake Placid, New York.

MLB managed to get through its season limiting its COVID outbreaks, but still contested its World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays in Arlington, Texas’ Globe Life Park (with fans in the stands) but Justin Turner, one of the star players for the Dodgers, was revealed to have tested positive for COVID immediately after the Dodgers won the 2020 Commissioner’s Trophy.

But the reality of bubbles (or in our case, wubbles) is that they are a major logistical and financial undertaking – and the W’s almost did not happen. One can only imagine the amount of money, planning, logistics and (wo)man hours it took to put together the WNBA and NBA bubbles and to make them look presentable on television to the widest audience possible.

Engelbert and Silver did the best they could in the most unenviable of positions and both commissioners are more than deserving of their flowers – as are the players, coaches and team/league staffs in both leagues who sacrificed so much to ensure these seasons still happen amidst an out of control pandemic and a renewed conversation regarding social injustice.

The proof is in the pudding, though. And as gradual steps are taken to pound this virus into the ground (via the new administration and the vaccines), the case to return to arenas will only grow as 2021 will surely represent a year where the country and world starts FOR REAL to begin “rounding the corner” (to borrow a phrase from a certain someone whose name we will not mention here) in the fight against the coronavirus.

So … if this prediction is correct (and can be pulled off safely), someone tell Sabrina Ionescu she can finally get well acquainted with Barclays Center because that cathedral is poised to be hers for the next 15 or so years.

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