August 18, 2021 

Year 1 of Commissioner’s Cup shows potential of in-season competition

Sights and sounds from around the inaugural WNBA Commissioner's Cup championship game and a look at how it grows from here.

PHOENIX — It turns out, it may have been a perfect … confluence of events for the Seattle Storm and Storm fans. And, by the end of the inaugural WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship, it turned into another coronation of the league’s best team.

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But beyond the on-court championship, it’s safe to say that, now that the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup is complete, it’s a concept and event that has immense potential for the league. And if that’s visible when the game is a 22-point blowout win by the Storm over the Connecticut Sun, imagine what it’ll be when a game goes down-to-the-wire.

The entire evening treated the game as a capital-e Event, including both teams taking a team photo together. The game itself didn’t being until after a ceremonial tip-off held by WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, with Seattle’s Stewart losing the tip to Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones. For Bird, the player with the most WNBA games played in league history, there was a realization of the impact of that moment once it happened.

“I thought to myself, ‘That’s going to be like Penny Toler’s first basket or when Lisa Leslie did the first jump,’” Bird said. “It’s always going to be shown as the first moment of the Commissioner’s Cup and now it’s cool that our team is part of that and now we’re the winner.”

There are several firsts that were achieved on Thursday night, but while the “contest-within-a-contest” style of the Commissioner’s Cup may feel new in major professional sports in the United States, professional sports clubs participating at multiple competitions at once is a well-known concept internationally. While it’s best known for its use in soccer, major European women’s basketball teams like Stewart’s UMMC Ekaterinburg or Jewell Loyd’s Perfumerias Avenida of Spain participate in a national league, a national cup tournament and in EuroLeague Women, which pits the top teams from across the continent.

Winning these competitions typically come with a player’s reward pool to split. And those may not even be all the money games, either.

“There’s always some random game in February that has a random bonus on it or a random game in November that has a bonus on it or if you’re playing your big rival, it has a bonus on it,” Bird said. “So, we’re familiar with it, this midseason-bonus-type game, and it’s only good when you win it, so I’m glad we won it.”

While the shorter, more compact WNBA season makes it difficult to hold a separate competition entirely, the Commissioner’s Cup stands to serve as a nice way to add a little extra to some early regular season games. And while a lot teams around the league approached those games with either indifference or mild interest, Bird said that was not Seattle’s approach.

“From what I’ve read in other teams’ comments about the Commissioner’s Cup throughout the season, I think we were one of the few teams that right from the jump, we were like, ‘Oh, this is a Commissioner’s Cup game.’” Bird said. “And every time we won, we’d talk about it afterwards, like, ‘Commissioner’s Cup, one step closer to that money.’ Definitely, we were talking about it all year.”

The WNBA saw 5,006 fans show up on Thursday at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, and a little more than half of those fans were Phoenix Mercury fans who came out as either supporters of the three returning Olympic gold medalists — Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart — or to support former Mercury players DeWanna Bonner and Briann January.

But it felt like everyone else in the arena were Seattle Storm fans, and several who I talked to before and during the game had made the flight into town specifically for this game. A few referenced the team’s schedule — the Storm open the second half with nearly two straight weeks on the road, not playing in Seattle again until Aug. 27 — as a key factor in their decision to come. Additionally, there was nearly 5 full weeks from the time Seattle clinched their berth and played in the game, making it easier to book one of many Seattle-to-Phoenix flights available to fans.

It didn’t appear to be many, if any, Connecticut fans who made the trip across the country, but there were also family members of several of the players participating in the game, including the extended family of Connecticut’s DiJonai Carrington Seattle’s Kiana Williams’ parents. It ended up being a special night for Williams, who not only gets to claim a second championship in 2021 after winning the NCAA title at Stanford, but also nearly doubled her 2021 money earned while in the WNBA. Being able to do that was a major part of why Seattle’s Olympians came back to play.

“Our teammates [were] the motivating factor behind this game,” Stewart said. “We wanted to win for them. Obviously 30K is 30K for all of us, but for some of them, it’s, I don’t even know what the ratio is for Kiana, but it’s a lot. To really help them get that is amazing.”

After being taken in the second round in April, Williams started the season with Seattle but was cut on June 28, a league-wide cut-down to avoid having contracts guarantee for the rest of the season. Williams had made $31,095 up until that point, according to Her Hoop Stats, but then got a 7-day contract from Seattle on July 23, in the middle of the Olympic break. Each 7-day contract as a rookie earns her $4,326, putting her at $35,421 for the season. With winning the $30,000 bonus per player, Williams increased her WNBA earnings in 2021 by 86%.

That type of financial impact will resonate with players throughout the league, especially after the hard work done in the previous collective bargaining rights agreement created the room for this game. But as a vice president of the Women’s National Basketball Players’ Assocation (WNBPA), Bird was also thinking bigger picture.

“With the Commissioner’s Cup it gives something that I think something the WNBA has lacked is its own stage at some times,” Bird said. “Different aspects of our season, the Finals, it kind of gets lost. It’s not necessarily our time. A great example is the NCAA Tournament. Women’s basketball has its own stage. Whether or not it grows into that, I’m not sure but it’s actually something that the league can sell ahead of time. There’s going to be a date, a place, a time, you don’t know the opponents yet but you can sell that ahead of time. Fans can get excited about that. You can cheer for your teams, or you can buy tickets and go regardless and just like the NCAA Tournament. That’s really what I was getting at when I talked about what this Commissioner’s Cup means just in terms of long-term growth for the league.

“And I think for us players playing, it gets you excited. I mention those bonus games overseas. We all knew in the locker room before those games, like, yo, yeah, there’s 10K on this one. You knew it and you talked about it and it does give a different edge to what you’re doing as you prepare.”

Scheduling-wise, it probably is not ideal to play the Commissioner’s Cup in such short order after the Olympics and before the beginning of the regular season, but there truly may not have been another time to do it in this initial test run. It does leave the team that won pretty unable to celebrate, though, with the regular season back underway just three days later. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t appreciated nonetheless.

“A lot of things are happening and I don’t know if we take an opportunity to have a time-out and celebrate what this means because we are thinking big picture and we have such a tough road ahead,” said Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn. “I think me personally, it’s amazing to be a part of this. I love the confetti, I love the trophy, I loved the picture. It was a playoff atmosphere and I think it’s very cool for our league to add this.”

One tweak that could make a lot of sense: play the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup championship game on the Friday evening of All-Star weekend. Assumedly, if the format stays the same and a team makes the championship, they’ll have quite a few players participating in the All-Star Game anyway. Why not bring the whole team in, kick off the weekend with this game and give the winning team a chance to enjoy their celebration without rushing immediately into another game?

Another added benefit of that move would be getting other All-Stars to attend the Friday night game. In Phoenix, Mercury superstar Brittney Griner came out and sat courtside with her wife and thought it was “important” for her to come to watch, even if her team didn’t make it.

“One, they were here [in Phoenix]. I’m not going to be a sore loser, ‘Oh, I didn’t make it to the Commissioner’s Cup so I’m not going to support, I’m not going to go,’” Griner said. “No, I’m still going to support, still going to go, show up. I wanted to show up for some of my USA teammates that were there and see them, and I had friends on the other side as well that I wanted to show up for. I thought it was really good to be there.”

Phoenix guard Megan Walker also attended, wanting to support two friends of hers in Bonner and January, and exemplified how playing this game on All-Star weekend could help players across the league get a chance to show up.

“I feel like I never get the chance — we’re always competing at the same time, or against each other,” Walker said. “I definitely wanted to see what it was about, and it was at our home gym so it was a no-brainer.”

Another thing that Connecticut head coach Curt Miller mentioned before the game that would heighten interest in the competition is a naming sponsorship deal for in front of the Commissioner’s Cup name. Currently, it’s just “WNBA Commissioner’s Cup,” but what if a corporate partner was interested in their name being in place of WNBA? Not only is that another potential financial benefit for the league, but what if the money added could double the pot for the players, from $500,000 to $1 million? And each winning team player took home $60,000?

There will remain a lot of questions about how the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup performed, and the biggest one — How many people watched the game? — will remain unanswered because Amazon Prime, who broadcasted several build-up games and the championship game, doesn’t typically release any data on viewership numbers.

But make no mistake: the first run of the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup was a really good starting point. And there remains a lot of room to grow.

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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