The WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Offers American Sports A Roadmap For In-Season Tournaments

Breanna Stewart felt a bit clumsy when WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert tossed up the ceremonial opening tip of the first-ever Commissioner’s Cup on Thursday night in Phoenix. The arc of the ball wasn’t the same as it might have been from a referee, and seemingly every camera in the building was trained on her at center court.

What felt unusual on Thursday will soon feel ordinary, after WNBA players successfully bargained for the Cup to be added during last year’s Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. The pandemic forced the league into a Bubble for the 2020 season, but the Cup made its debut this year. Teams’ first 10 games against conference opponents were used to qualify for the championship game of the Cup, and not surprisingly, the two teams that met for the Cup were the Storm and Sun, the two top teams in the league standings.

There was a lot on the line. While the Storm’s new trophy won’t get them any closer to back-to-back WNBA championships, it did give each player a $30,000 prize. That may not be life-changing money to Stewart or Sue Bird, but for the players at the end of the bench, it’s huge.

“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 (Williams), but it’s a lot. To really help them get that is amazing.”

At the same time, it was an opportunity to flaunt another successful part of the league’s new CBA, which also included an increase in annual salaries, parental benefits, and more improvements for players’ lives. The prize money can be a big boon for players each season, but especially during seasons with no Olympics (for which the WNBA takes a month-long break), it could put a spotlight on the league during a relatively quiet period in the sports calendar.

“Something the WNBA has lacked is its own stage at some times,” 18-year veteran Bird said. “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.”

From a product standpoint, the Cup provides WNBA fans an extra game between two of the league’s best teams — with a little more on the line. NBA players receive $100,000 if their team wins the All-Star game, and the WNBA All-Star MVP gets a $5,000-plus reward. But those games are little more than glorified exhibition contests. The Cup features teams with real chemistry and history together, with a major incentive to win.

Bird said women’s basketball players are familiar with games where extra money is on the line. Overseas, in many of the foreign leagues WNBA players flock to during the winter, these games are common. Rivalry games or in-season tournaments frequently provide payouts for the winning team.

No such thing exists in the NBA, though. One media analyst called the Commissioner’s Cup a “visionary idea” in an interview with CNBC, and the G League may reportedly try its own version during the upcoming season. The primary reason is simple: more TV viewers.

The Commissioner’s Cup was announced in conjunction with a new WNBA media rights deal for Amazon, which has shown games on its Prime Video streaming service all season and was the sole broadcaster of the Commissioner’s Cup championship game this week. For the NBA, getting a new series of games into the mix, whether as part of the normal regular-season schedule or as a separate segment, generates obvious value to media companies that want to broadcast games.

The play-in games are a prime example. While there was clearly more at stake with a trip to the playoffs on the line and the NBA lucked out with hugely popular teams facing off, the ratings were promising. The Lakers and Warriors with a chance to claim the seventh seed out West and 5.6 million people tuned in. For a league always in search of ratings boosts and ways to draw interest beyond the postseason, the NBA will certainly be watching the WNBA’s Commissioner Cup model closely.

TV viewership has put a dent in everything from the NBA to the Olympics recently, but women’s hoops remains on the upswing. The WNBA opened 2021 on a nine-year high for ratings, while the NCAA women’s tournament scored its most-watched championship game since 2014. Both are headed in the right direction. What if, as Bird imagines, the WNBA could seize its own part of the calendar where fans were fully homed in on it? The W could easily blend the Cup in with its usual summer All-Star game, and highlighting the league’s best teams brings added attention to the women’s game as well.

As media rights grow, sports look for ways to innovate, and women’s sports is riding a wave of momentum. It’s only reasonable that the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup will be the beginning of something new for in-season events. The money gave them plenty to play for in the first go-round, but the good money is on the Cup providing a roadmap for the W and others to up the ante in coming years.