June 18, 2024 

Why Commissioner’s Cup final won’t be played at Barclays Center

Inside the league's deliberations over signature event

When the New York Liberty were presented with the 2024 schedule this past December, the team’s front office noticed an immediate issue — something that had to be flagged and brought to the WNBA league office immediately. The Liberty pointed out an issue with the league’s change to the Commissioner’s Cup schedule, and how it could impact the team’s ability to host the championship game at Barclays Center, New York’s home court.

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The new format reduced the number of conference Cup games from 10 to 5 and moved them into a condensed 13-day period in the beginning of June. The midseason championship game would take place on June 25, a day that the Liberty knew that they wouldn’t have access to Barclays Center. 

This fear that the team had over six months ago became a reality when the Cup championship’s venue was announced on Monday. Instead of the Liberty hosting the championship game at their home arena, a privilege given to the team out of the two finalists with the better record in Cup play, New York is going to have to play the game against the Minnesota Lynx at UBS Arena in Elmont, NY, an arena located in Hempstead within Nassau County on Long Island. 

Each year for the past decade the NBA routinely has put a hold on Barclays Center for its annual NBA Draft that takes place at the end of June. When the Liberty received the 2024 schedule, June 25 had already been claimed for the draft. While this year’s NBA draft doesn’t actually begin until June 26, the WNBA’s brother league needs the space a day earlier to execute a load in. A “load in” is an extensive process that typically occurs when venues host concerts, award shows or special events like a Draft. During load in days, trucks bring in the necessary staging materials and tech theater equipment to make sure an event that is not a basketball game runs smoothly. 

“With the scheduling of the NBA Draft at Barclays Center on June 26, the NBA created an unavoidable conflict for use of the building,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass wrote in an email to The Next.  “We are working closely with the New York Liberty on this one-game relocation to UBS Arena and to provide the best possible experience for attendees and participants at the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship.  We apologize for any inconvenience to the Liberty’s season ticket holders and loyal fans.”

The WNBA did not respond to a request for comment.

The conflict was inevitable, and according to New York, so was a potential solution. The Liberty and the league had 6 months to figure out a contingency plan together. A source with knowledge of the situation, told The Next that the Liberty wrote multiple emails to the league urging the WNBA to try to change the date of the Commissioner’s Cup Championship with the assumption that New York would be expected to be incredibly competitive with a shot at defending its 2023 Commissioner’s Cup Championship. 

When the Liberty voiced these concerns in December, the league’s response wasn’t very collaborative, and they told the Liberty that they had to find another venue if the team were to clinch home court advantage.

Flash forward to the first week of June when the potential for the Liberty to host the championship game was looking like a reality rather than just a hypothetical from months ago. New York’s ownership group received an email from league Commissioner Cathy Engelbert which said that if the Liberty earned the right to host, the game would have to be played at the Western conference opponent’s arena since the Barclays Center wasn’t available. How come this possibility wasn’t discussed 6 months ago? It was a suggestion from Engelbert that appeared to counter the spirit of competition, a suggestion that was viewed as embarrassing and irresponsible by the Liberty.

“This is classic old-school WNBA thinking,” a team executive not involved in the final told The Next. “Instead of understanding this matters even more now, and working together to find a solution that benefits everyone — the championship game at the best arena for it — it was, ‘Go figure it out’.”

Why was a team that won all of their 5 Cup games in the span of 8 days including a back-to-back that wasn’t home and home getting punished? New York had earned home court.

The Liberty's starting five looks confused while on the road in Minneapolis.
The Liberty’s starting five looks frustrated in Minneapolis, MIN, USA on May 25, 2024. Photo Credit: John McClellan | The Next

How the Liberty tried to rectify the situation

When the residue from Canadian Wildfires made its way into New York City just over a year ago, the Liberty had to postpone their June 7 matchup against the Minnesota Lynx. The smog made its way into the arena and that created an unhealthy situation for players, coaches and staff. This was an issue that was absolutely unforeseeable.  

Because of this, the Liberty and the Lynx were able to move their June 7 matchup to July 28, creating a back-to-back a day after the Liberty played the Dream on July 27. The Lynx could squeeze in a trip to New York two days before they played the Sun in Connecticut. 

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New York tried variations of what they successfully executed a year ago, but because of the much more condensed and compressed schedule that the WNBA must endure because of the Paris Olympics, the Liberty struggled to move their regular season games around. 

As ESPN’s Alexa Philippou reported on Monday, New York “explored” trying to hold the Commissioner’s Cup final a day before on June 24, so the team could play at Barclays Center. But in order to do this, the team needed to find common ground with the Dream, the team the Liberty were scheduled to play on June 23 in Atlanta. To no avail, the Dream’s own game schedule and their arena, the Gateway Center, couldn’t accommodate a change.

The Liberty also toyed with trying to move one of their upcoming home games against the LA Sparks that are scheduled for this Thursday and Saturday, according to a source familiar. New York ran into the same issue they did with the Dream. It was much more difficult trying to find days that worked with the Sparks’ schedule.

The WNBA’s tight schedule is made like a brain teaser. A tiny change impacts another piece of the puzzle. 

Another potential solution came into focus once the Lynx officially clinched their spot in the Commissioner’s Cup championship on June 13. The Liberty floated an idea that the July 2 game that the Lynx play at Barclays Center, less than a week after the scheduled Commissioner’s cup Championship game, be converted from a regular season game into the Cup final. New York had confidence in this solution because it gave the Lynx an extra couple of days of rest. Instead of traveling to New York after a game against the Mercury at home on Saturday June 22, the Lynx could rest and practice at home for a couple more days before flying out to Dallas to face the Wings on June 27.

But according to a source with knowledge of the situation, the league shot this down and they gave Minnesota the option: July 2 at Barclays Center or June 25 at UBS Arena. The Lynx didn’t opt to move the game, leaving the contest on Long Island at a more neutral site.

“It’s not the day of the Commissioner’s Cup,’’ Lynx head coach and President of Basketball Operations Cheryl Reeve said before the Lynx played the Wings on Monday night. “The July 2 game is a regular-season game. The Commissioner’s Cup is June 25, and all parties have known that for a while.”

The WNBA’s reasoning for shooting this idea down wasn’t because New York proposed that the Commissioner’s Cup championship potentially eliminate or count as one of the Liberty’s and Lynx’s 40 regular season games. But such a change would likely run afoul of the league’s deal with Amazon Prime Video. When Prime Video streams the Cup championship game, they are exclusively showing the WNBA when other major networks are not. If the game was played on July 2 rather than June 25, then Liberty vs. Lynx would have had to compete with Fever vs. Aces on ESPN. 

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In 2024, recurring issues continue to haunt the WNBA 

With charter flights becoming the law of the land, there’s an assumption that every element of the status quo in the WNBA is quite different from what it once was three years ago. But multiple team executives told The Next that while the league has dedicated a great deal of its hiring to building out the business side of the WNBA, there’s been very little done to provide more personnel and support for league operations.

While the 2024 WNBA represents a new era with the increased media attention and buzz, this latest arena debacle reminds WNBA franchises that the league will continue to struggle when it comes to the W being forced to pivot. In the past and apparently still in the present, alternative venues are acceptable. 

While the Liberty will be playing in UBS Arena, a professional world class arena that the New York Islanders play in that seats over 17,000 people, the days of Disney on Ice and a Maluma concert in Phoenix taking precedence over WNBA games of consequence still looms in the background. 

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The Liberty will be playing a game where a portion of their fans have the opportunity to see their team clinch championship hardware if they do defend their Commissioner’s Cup Championship. Those moments haven’t come often to the franchise. The Liberty won last year’s Commissioner’s Cup in Las Vegas and the Liberty haven’t previously played in championship clinchers at home in their franchise’s history. That’s why trying anything possible to host at Barclays Center was top of mind for the Liberty. Their fans simply haven’t had many of these experiences.

“We are excited for the opportunity to defend our Commissioner’s Cup title in New York, and we appreciate our fans’ unwavering support of our team,” Liberty CEO Keia Clarke said in the team’s release on Monday. “While we wish we could have brought this game to our fans in our home arena, we are grateful to UBS Arena for accommodating us and providing a world-class venue in New York.”

In their 28-year history, the Liberty have been a nomadic franchise. They’ve moved to Radio City Music Hall, Arthur Ashe Stadium, the Prudential Center and, infamously, the Westchester County Center to play games when their home arena wasn’t available. Now add UBS Arena to that list.

New York’s business operations and ticket sale departments are doing everything they can to pack as many people into UBS Arena as possible. But tickets weren’t able to go on sale immediately when the Liberty clinched home court. Season ticket holders were notified of the venue change yesterday when the team made their announcement.

When Jonquel Jones was asked what it meant to clinch home court for the Commissioner’s Cup championship, she was all smiles while taking in the vibrant New York Liberty crowd following the team’s 93-88 win over the Washington Mystics. “Let’s go New York,” she shouted into Tina Cervasio’s mic. “Y’all ready?”

Liberty fans will have to get ready to support their team in a different way than they might have expected to at Barclays Center. They’ll have to take an extra train or two in order to make it over to Elmont.

Howard Megdal contributed reporting to this story.

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.