WNBA Playoffs: Is a 3-5-7 format the way to go?

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

As of this point, it can be said that the first year of the WNBA’s new and updated 3-5-5 postseason format has been a success. 

Four teams remain – the Las Vegas Aces, Seattle Storm, Connecticut Sun and defending champion Chicago Sky. Both semifinal series are knotted up at one apiece following four first-round bests-of-3 that saw two of the series (Chicago Sky-New York Liberty and Connecticut Sun-Dallas Wings) go the full three games. 

Not only that, interest is up for the WNBA playoffs as well. And it will likely be soon revealed that attendance is on the rise too. 

But – how soon are we to the WNBA Finals possibly being extended to a best of seven? 

When commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that this would indeed be the first season that would see the new postseason format come to light, it was an audacious ask for this particular season by the league. The big reason for that was because of scheduling conflicts around the upcoming FIBA World Cup in Australia. 

Obviously, the WNBA’s attitude was a conflicted schedule be damned and went forward with it anyway. Ever since the 22-game schedule in 2020 that was a product of the WNBA’s pandemic-induced bubble, we have seen a 32-game schedule for 2021 and a 36-game slate for 2022. 

Both schedules were major undertakings by the W for a number of reasons. The 2021 schedule turned out to be one with issues because of the moving of the Tokyo Olympics from 2020 to 2021 on account of the pandemic. Then – 2022’s schedule was one because of the upcoming World Cup, but the WNBA tried to make up with it by limiting travel in 2021 and more two-game back-to-backs and home-and-homes in 2022. 

Obviously, the attitude from Engelbert is clear – the more, the merrier in terms of games. How the 2024 schedule for the WNBA will really be a worthwhile glimpse into the mindset of the league because that is another Olympic year. 

Onto the playoff format – one does not have to tell fans twice about the majesty and the mystique of the phrase “Game 7.” Ask MLB fans. Ask NHL fans. 

Ask NBA fans. 

While much of the talk among WNBA aficionados regarding “expansion” has to do with potential expansion to new cities, Engelbert is already pressing ahead with expanding the regular season. 

Let us go into our orange-colored WNBA time machine back … not that long ago to the All-Star Game in Chicago. More specifically, commissioner Engelbert’s press conference she gave prior to tip-off of that day’s matchup at Wintrust Arena where Team (A’ja) Wilson defeated Team (Breanna) Stewart by a final of 134-112 and Kelsey Plum won MVP with a 30-point performance. 

Engelbert dropped two hints that ~may~ be a tell-tale sign of what may eventually happen over time with the WNBA Finals. She announced that the 2023 WNBA season would be 40 games long. The WNBA can do a 40-game season for 2023 because there is no Olympics or World Cup in 2023. Plus – the prioritization clause of the CBA (which will be a hot-button topic over the offseason particularly with the Brittney Griner saga in the minds of many a WNBA player) will put more pressure on players to think more of their WNBA teams rather than their overseas clubs even if those overseas organizations are paying more money to our WNBA women. 

Also – she announced that the WNBA would do chartered flights for the Finals. Let us be honest – if the WNBA was doing chartered flights for the entire season plus playoffs, the opening round of the playoffs would probably be 1-1-1 as opposed to the first two games being at the higher seed’s venue with a deciding Game 3 at the arena of the lower seed. With chartered flights, travel is not an issue whether the Finals goes 2-2-1-1-1 (ala what the NBA used to have) or (what we guess) will be a 2-3-2 format. 

Then – of course – there’s a new television contract looming for the WNBA as well. Its current deal with ESPN (who has the rights to the playoffs and Finals) runs through 2025. There is no question that any new deal the W will negotiate will be worth more than its current considering the ratings records being set by these playoffs alone. 

These numbers will induce television networks – particularly ESPN – to want the WNBA to expand its Finals to a best-of-7. And if it is one thing we have learned about women’s sports in the past few years is that they are massively undervalued in terms of television. 

Engelbert is practically guaranteed to have to field at least one question from a reporter at a press conference regarding if the league itself will expand. We may be – for now – asking her the wrong expansion question.