WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert Addresses Support for Brittney Griner, New Prioritization Rule, Expansion

Ahead of Game 1 of Sunday’s WNBA Finals between the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert addressed the media during their annual Finals press conference. As usual, Engelbert addressed a wide range of topics, including the prioritization rule and the expansion of the league. She also reiterated the league’s support for Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, who remains jailed in Russia.

Here is a summary of some of Engelbert’s key comments:

Reaffirms support for Griner

Brittney Griner was first arrested on drug charges in Russia in February and sentenced to 9 1/2 years in prison in August. While the US State Department is working on negotiations for a possible prisoner swap, it’s unclear when or if that will happen. Engelbert confirmed that the League is working with the government and is doing everything in its power to support Griner.

As we prepare to launch this amazing series, it’s important to reiterate that we are always thinking of Brittney Griner and our commitment to bringing her home safely and as quickly as possible. That didn’t waver. We continue to work with the State Department, the US government and administration, and others on this very complex situation. I recently received a handwritten letter from BG and am so inspired by their courage in the face of tremendous odds. We are totally focused on getting her home safely and she remains such an important part of the WNBA family.

Sticking to the prioritization rule

In the coming season, the prioritization rule of the league will apply. In 2023, players must report to their team by opening night or they will be ineligible to play for the entire season. In 2024, players will have to register after training camps. In recent days, some players have expressed frustration with this rule as it could create conflicts with their overseas teams and limit the time they can spend with their families.

However, Engelbert made it clear that the league is not backing down — even if it means some players are choosing to leave the WNBA.

As everyone knows, owners have really stepped up their game on the player compensation side in this bargaining cycle, and I think the quid pro quo for that was prioritization – showing up on time for our season. To be honest, after 36 years in my working world, there hasn’t been a single time that I haven’t had to show up on time. So I think the owners have been very steadfast in their commitment.

We want our veterans to come back and be with the team and build the chemistry it takes to build a championship culture. I think that was something that the owners really pushed forward and really cared about and I support them wholeheartedly. But we understand that players will make the best decisions for themselves and their families, we see that all the time.

But like I said, we chop away; We’ve nearly doubled the prize pool for WNBA Finals winners. The total pool now equals the Commissioner’s Cup pool of half a million dollars in playoff bonuses. There’s a variety of other things, like we’re going to spend almost $1.5 million on player marketing deals with players this year. So try to give players a reason to stay home and a reason to prioritize the WNBA. But I understand and our eyes are wide open that there are some players who might not choose to do that.

No major updates to the extension

The WNBA will expand in the near future, but the when and where is still unclear. Noting that the league narrowed the list of potential cities to about 10, Engelbert confirmed that Oakland/the Bay Area is on the list but did not offer any significant updates. She’s still hoping to make an official announcement before the end of the calendar year, but hasn’t made a firm commitment to it.

“In expansion, we continue to do very hard work on expansion, as I’ve probably mentioned over the past six months or so. We took those hundred cities we looked at based on psychographics, demographics, current WNBA fan base, merch purchases, NCAA viewership, arena availability, engaged ownership groups and we’ve narrowed that down to probably about ten , and we will continue to work hard on it and hopefully be able to announce an expansion in the next few years.

So we’re in no rush like I said and have had two pretty rough COVID years of ownership. We want to ensure that the new ownership group is successfully positioned. So we will announce it when it is right when we have agreements with different ownership groups. But we’re still working hard on it, but it’s been a pretty intense season and we’re going to work even harder in the off-season.

Yes I would say I would like to announce by the end of the year. These are complex situations for building expansions in cities. Again, you need to find the right owners with the right capital. We need to do an expansion blueprint, we need to let our GMs and Head Coaches know in advance what that’s going to be like. We’re working on all of that. We have workstreams around all of that. We have a process and a lot of interest. The great thing is that we have more than ten interested cities and we continue to conduct bidding in those cities with potential owner groups and take potential bidding situations seriously.”

Preseason play comes to Canada as the league seeks to expand global reach

The WNBA is still based entirely in the United States, although there’s a chance that could change with expansion if Toronto is one of the selected cities. In the meantime, the league is looking to expand its global reach, and as part of that process, next season will feature a preseason game in Canada for the first time ever.

Further details such as date, location and teams involved will be announced at a later date. It’s possible that this game could be used to test the viability of an expansion team in Canada, although Engelbert didn’t specifically cite this as a reason for hosting a game there.

Additionally, the league hopes to eventually play more games outside of the country, just like the NBA is doing with its Global Games series.

“I think we’ve been looking at Canada for a while. In fact, before the pandemic, we had plans to play a preseason game in Canada and obviously literally like leaving the CBA in January 2020, talked to Canada and made a visit up there. Women’s sports are very, very popular up there and they were very successful in basketball, soccer and hockey.

We have players from Canada in our league so that helps too. I think the ease of traveling there during what was again an intense training camp period that had made Canada attractive to us and again it’s the damn graphics, the youth and the diversity of the country in some of those cities that’s why we’re going to start there . But we’d love to go to Europe, Asia, an EMEA tour, do an Asian tour sometime in the future while we build the economy of this league and the success of these players’ global brands.”

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