The WNBA is back, and so are its growing pains
I'm ridiculously excited for season 27. But I'm also worried.
Hi, friends! Tonight the 27th season of the WNBA tips off.
I’m excited. I’m scared. I’m basically Jessie Spano.
When we last left the WNBA, the Aces won the WNBA championship 3-1 over the Connecticut Sun, leading to a Vegas bender for the ages. Back then, Curt Miller was still the coach of the Sun, Jonquel Jones and Jasmine Thomas were still on the Sun roster, the thought of Candace Parker being on the Aces wasn’t even a fever dream, and Dearica Hamby was being celebrated by the world as she announced during the Aces’ championship parade that she was pregnant with her second child, a son, Legend.
It was, essentially, a different lifetime.
A lot of the buzz headed into this season is about the Super Teams, but you can go elsewhere to read about that — like The Next, ESPN, Just Women’s Sports, Her Hoops Stats, The Athletic, etc. etc.
Today at Power Plays, we’re going to look at where the league stands off the court; together, we’ll sort through the good, the bad, the heartwarming and the downright painful.
Okay. Let’s do this.
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Unfortunately, we have to start in Vegas
A “quick” recap: In January, the Aces announced that Dearica Hamby had been traded to the Los Angeles Sparks. That was shocking news, but it was only the beginning of the surprises. Hamby followed up her trade announcement with accusations on Instagram that the Aces had been hostile towards her about her latest pregnancy.
Among other things, Hamby said that she was “lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against” by the team, which allegedly accused her of signing her extension knowing she was pregnant, and said she was a “question mark” because she might get pregnant again.
The WNBPA and WNBA both started an investigation into Hamby’s claims. But that wasn’t all.
In her Instagram post, Hamby also said, “I was promised things to entice me to sign my contract extension that were not followed through on.” That raised some eyebrows for sure, and Howard Megdal of The Next reported that the Aces were also “under investigation by the WNBA for making under-the-table payment offers to both current players and free agents the team has pursued.” I recommend that you read through that whole report from Megdal, because it’s pretty damning.
ANYWAYS, this week we finally found out the results of those investigations: The WNBA rescinded the Aces’ first-round pick in 2025 for “violating league rules regarding player benefits,” which it specified was in connection with “negotiations for an extension of (Hamby’s) player contract;” and suspended Hammon for the first two games of this season for “violating league and team Respect in the Workplace policies” in connection with Hamby’s pregnancy.
While the investigation did find that the Aces offered improper benefits to Hamby when negotiating her contract extension, it could not substantiate concerns that the Aces were acting improperly during this current free agency period.
So. Yeah. It’s quite a lot to process, especially the week the season begins. So, in no particular order, here are some reactions, including mine:
The WNBPA came out strongly against the sanctions for being too light, saying in a statement that “recent penalties imposed by the League, and an honest view of the facts, demonstrate that this penalty is far from appropriate.” The PA lamented that the league “had an opportunity to send a clear message that it abides by and protects the provisions of the CBA, particularly those that we were most proud of – the provisions meant to support player parents.”
The Aces and Hammon, meanwhile, are very upset that the sanctions are as harsh as they are, and adamantly maintain no wrongdoing. The Aces released a statement saying that the franchise is “deeply disappointed by the outcome of the WNBA investigation.”
The day after the sanctions were announced, Becky Hammon was pre-scheduled to hold a zoom press conference with reporters as part of media availability arranged by the WNBA for all head coaches in the league. As expected, most of the press conference had nothing to do with defending a title. Hammon addressed the allegations and investigation’s findings head on, and she was the opposite of apologetic, repeating over and over again that she and the Aces did nothing wrong to Hamby. It was actually one of the most bizarre press conferences I’ve attended.
“I don't recall my relationship with Hamby being anything but on the up and up and, I'm just obviously, along with the organization and everything disappointed with the findings,” she said.
“I handled Dearica with care from day one when she told me and she knows that.”
Among other things, Hammon said that while she was certain that nobody from the Aces, including herself, ever sent Hamby an inappropriate text message or email, she has “learned recently” that people can “doctor [screenshots] the way they want.” She said that according to the league, her only violation of a workplace policy was asking Dearica about pregnancy in a conversation, which she confirmed did happen. And she insisted that no players on her team were contacted or interviewed as part of the investigation — and that the only player she knew of that was contacted was Liz Cambage, who played for the Aces in 2019 and 2021, before Hammon became coach.
While Hammon absolutely has the right to defend herself if she truly doesn’t believe she did anything wrong, I found her fervent defiance to be a bit off-putting, especially given how sensitive the issue of pregnancy in women’s sports is. It’s the type of defense that could easily be proven false if there is proof out there — and with her discussion of falsified texts and documents, one must wonder if she’s preparing a counterattack already if evidence does drop. Phew.
One thing is CERTAIN: The WNBA needed to be much more transparent about the parameters of this investigation. The league said in its press release that the investigation included interviews with 33 people and a review of texts, emails, and other documents, but offered no other details, until Hammon came forward with her accusations that the investigation didn’t include any active players on the Aces roster. Here’s how the WNBA responded to that, via M.A. Voepel:
“The WNBA told ESPN that investigators -- two former prosecutors, one from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York and one from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office -- interviewed everyone who they thought would have relevant information, including people suggested by the Women's National Basketball Players Association. The league said the Aces were given the opportunity to provide the names of individuals to be interviewed and did not.”
Do I dislike that the Aces didn’t provide all the names of its current players to investigators so they could be interviewed? Yes, absolutely. It definitely looks like they’re hiding somethings. But also: Why in the world would investigators have to go through the team to access players??? That makes no sense, and certainly casts doubt on the thoroughness of the investigation.
To close a loop: The WNBA said Cambage was not interviewed for the investigation. What a strange side plot to all of this.
I think my overall feeling right now is frustrated. Frustrated that there isn’t more transparency about the process. Frustrated that with the light sanctions, it looks like the WNBA might be trying to protect one of its most high-profile and successful franchises ahead of a pivotal season for the business of the league as a whole. Frustrated that the franchise seems to have made such poor decisions that puts it in need of such protection. Frustrated that so many players are caught up in this, trapped between loyalties to friends and union and employers and coaches and teammates and paychecks. Frustrated that this is what I’ve spent my time thinking about all week, instead of getting hype for the season tip-off.
Need some good news? Brittney Griner is back!!!
This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. It’s been 16 months since Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained in a Russian prison, and about six months since she finally came back home as part of a prisoner swap. Days after she secured her freedom, Griner announced that she planned to play in the WNBA this season. On February 21, she officially signed a new contract with the Phoenix Mercury. And a couple of weeks ago, she gave her first press conference since the 2021 WNBA Finals.
The press conference was emotional, celebratory, and at times downright delightful, despite the circumstances. Griner has always been an incredible human being, with the ability to absolutely captivate an audience with her compassion and competitiveness on and off the court.
But while a nightmare like the one she faced would turn most of us cold and jaded, it seems to have made Griner more empathetic, gracious, and determined. Sabreena Merchant at The Athletic did a great job capturing the joy at her first press conference since the detainment.
“I believe in me, I believe in what I can do. I know that if I put my mind to it, I can achieve any goal,” Griner told reporters. “And I’m not trying to sound big-headed, but I just really bet on me, and I have all the resources here to help me get to that point where I can play and it was no question to be back in the WNBA, back in Phoenix and playing.”
Someone is cutting onions in here, I swear.
Griner just taking the court tonight against the Los Angeles Sparks (11:00 p.m. ET, ESPN) will be a victory in itself, but it’s clear Griner isn’t just looking for a participation trophy; she wants to dominate, just like she always has. She played one preseason game and looked pretty good, notching 10 points, three rebounds, and one block in 17 minutes. There’s no telling how much we’ll see of her tonight, but lower your expectations at your own peril.
What a blessing it is to go into the season with Griner home where she belongs.
Also? LOOK AT HOW GREAT SHE AND HER WIFE CHERELLE LOOKED AT THE MET GALA.
Okay, back to bad: The roster crunch is even more brutal than usual this season, and expansion is still more dream than reality
It’s been a pretty excruciating week leading up to this season’s tip off, both because of the awful unveiling of the Vegas investigation findings and punishment, and because so many fan-favorite players have been cut from their rosters.
Some of the more painful cuts have been: Destanni Henderson from the Indiana Fever; Emily Engslter from both the Fever and the Washington Mystics; Theresa Plaisance from the Seattle Storm; Charli Collier from the Dallas Wings; and Didi Richards from the New York Liberty. And that’s just accounting for players who have been in the league for at least a year. Many 2023 draftees were cut during training camp, too, including 11th-overall pick Abby Meyers from the Wings; 13th-overall pick Taylor Mikesell from the Fever; 20th-overall pick Elena Tsineke from the Mystics; and 22nd-overall pick Alexis Morris from the Connecticut Sun.
There are only twelve roster spots available in the WNBA, and because of the hard salary cap, many teams only keep 11 players on the roster. Given that there are only 12 WNBA teams, well, there simply aren’t enough places to house all the elite talent in the women’s game. And while the exclusivity certainly helps the league retain its air of superiority, it also severely limits players development, dampers fan engagement, and squashes hopes and dreams. It makes it particularly difficult for fans of college teams to follow their favorite players in the WNBA when only a handful of rookies make the roster.
What the WNBA desperately needs is both roster expansion and league-wide expansion. But commissioner Cathy Engelbert doesn’t seem in a hurry.
“Engelbert has turned the expansion process into some strange form of a running joke. In the last year alone, statements from the commissioner have moved the timeline from 2024 to 2025 to 2025-ish to declining to update the timeline for fear of being wrong,” Alex Simon wrote for The Mercury News.
“She has also made a moving target out of the number of cities under consideration, saying the league was considering up to 100, then 20, then 10, only to go back to 20 this month.”
We’re going to be diving into the expansion — or lack-there-of — issue much more in upcoming newsletters, but the lack of urgency is alarming, and frankly, down-right depressing.
But while the league isn’t growing in size, there are signs of progress
Need another pick-me-up? Here are some things we can celebrate:
The WNBA has, finally, drastically improved its app and website, and the early reviews are very positive!! Of course, we still have to see how it holds up to the actual season, but I’m choosing to be optimistic.
Lots of new partnerships have been announced lately: Playstation is the official console and marketing partner of the WNBA; CarMax has expanded its commitment to the league and become an official WNBA Changemaker; and the WNBPA has partnered with Priority Pass, which should give players access to 1,300 airport lounges across the world.
This year, in addition to WNBA League Pass, there will be more opportunities to watch games on television and prominent streaming platforms than ever before. CBS will carry 40 games across CBS Television Network/Paramount+ and CBS Sports Network; ION is airing 44 games on Friday nights, in a new deal worth about $13 million a year according to The Next; NBA TV will air 43 games; Prime Video will show 21 games, and be a destination for Thursday night games; Meta will air 20 games, while Twitter will air 12; and ESPN — which will air the playoffs, too — will air 25 national broadcasts on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2, and also include a “WNBA Countdown” pregame show before at least 10 game broadcasts. You’re going to need to check the WNBA site daily to figure out where games are going to be shown, which is annoying. But until the W can fully renegotiate its TV deal with ESPN, it’s a step in the right direction.
Bloomberg reported that WNBA revenue is up, going from $102 million in 2019 to a projected $180-200 million this year.
While the league isn’t providing full-time charter flights yet, it did announce last month that it will charter flights for every playoff game and for regular-season back-to-back games, which is progress.
The stakes are so, so high
There are two huge business deadlines fast approaching for the WNBA and its players, and its imperative that the 2023 season is properly promoted and invested in so that the league is in a healthy place as these pivotal moments near.
First off, the current CBA lasts until 2027, though there is an opt-out clause that would terminate it at the end of the 2025 season. To exercise that option, the WNBPA (and/or the WNBA itself) would need to declare its decision to opt-out by November 1, 2024. That means there’s two full WNBA seasons until the decision needs to be made, and the players are expected to opt out.
And perhaps most importantly, the expiration of the current television deal with ESPN looms. The deal pays the WNBA about $30 million this year, and will cap off at $33 million in 2025, when it expires. As Howard Megdal has written at The IX, it is absolutely imperative that Engelbert secures a very significant new media deal to help push the WNBA forward to the next steps; it’s basically the only way that respectable salaries, expanded rosters, charter flights, and all of the other fiscal things we want for the players can be achieved.
The hope is that, if negotiations for the new media rights deal haven’t already begun, that talks will pick up drastically in the offseason. So ratings, attendance, engagement, and marketing numbers matter more now than ever.
Please, WNBA. Don’t fuck this up.
During the offseason, Miller became the head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks, and Stephanie White became the head coach of the Sun; Jonquel Jones is now with the New York Liberty, and Jasmine Thomas joined Miller with the Sparks; Candace Parker did, in fact, join the Aces, meaning we have a frontcourt of Parker and A’ja Wilson; and as for Hamby … well, just keep reading above.
Expand the league, expand rosters, get the merch out there, have a giant marketing budget and LFG. It boggles the mind that the NBA people over the WNBA/Cathy are comfortable suppressing growth. The people in charge don't seem to want the league to make money. There is so much money to be made in women's sports.
It is so frustrating to watch the league continue to prioritize competitive balance over growth. This is the time to be aggressive, and Cathy is so, so passive. There is no reason that rosters shouldn't have been expanded to 14 AT LEAST this summer, or that there should be a hard cap or any ban on owners wanting to provide chartered flights and other things to make travel easier. It is how the NBA grew! We have a model! Why are they doing this?