The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, July 31, 2019

What USA Basketball's new plan tells us about the WNBA — Cathy Engelbert presser highlights — Must-read women's basketball links

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What USA Basketball’s new plan tells us about the WNBA

A glorious weekend in Las Vegas, with plenty of TV time from ESPN, a strong Friday night pair of events to further extend the celebration, and lots of the league’s stars on display all weekend long fed a sense of progress for the WNBA this past week.

I would argue, however, that the indications from the partnership announced Saturday between many of the league’s top players and USA Basketball, with the full buy-in of the WNBA, might turn out to be the biggest news of all.

Consider the contours of the announcement. Let me quote from the release: “USA Basketball has secured commitments from eight athletes from the 2019-20 USA National Team pool to participate in five of the team’s training segments that will take place between November 2019 and April 2020. USA Basketball will round out the training camp rosters with additional national team athletes as their schedules allow.”

Let’s unpack just this graf: it means Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles, Elena Delle Donne, Nneka Ogwumike, A’ja Wilson, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Chelsea Gray are either not playing overseas or coming back home repeatedly to promote women’s basketball in the United States. The smart money is on the former, especially given the recent history of most of the players named.

Still, it is important to consider this development within the context of a meeting between the WNBA and the WNBPA positive enough that the league issued a press release about the generally private talks. The scuttlebutt has been that both sides may have a pathway toward “going big”, as one league source put it to me, finding a way to keep most, if not all of the players home, with a legit offseason, and compensated/otherwise utilized during that time their bodies can heal.

So there are enormous potential consequences for this: a sustained, national effort and spotlight like this has only been truly done once before, in and after the 1996 USA Basketball women’s team won gold, and the result was the creation of the WNBA, which enjoyed enormous crowd and media support at the start.

But it’s hard to imagine the players agreeing to participate in something that precludes offseason play, or at the very least, makes it very difficult to play overseas, without the two sides moving closer to an agreement that will change the equation for how women make a living playing professional basketball here.

Cathy Engelbert referred to this multiple times during her media avail at All Star weekend (more of that below). She doesn’t speak without considering it carefully.

If she oversees this conversion, well, she’ll be remembered for much more than just getting the title “Commissioner” for the first time of any WNBA league leader.

This Week in Women’s Basketball

Reminder: First, the underlined words are the links. Second. CLICK these, even if you’ve already read them. Clicks = Attention from editors, producers and webmasters. Third, if you want to push out stuff you’ve written or read, email me!

Sensational Ava Wallace on Elena Delle Donne and her dad.

Bria Felicien on Napheesa Collier’s magical rookie season.

Also, Bria here on Joni and Darius Taylor’s work/life balance.

Hooray, women’s basketball content at The Ringer! Brady Klopfer on Pat Summit’s legacy. Lindsay Gibbs on Erica Wheeler.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo has your WNBA origin story.

Make Sean Hurd’s ownership groups happen, please.

Joan Niesen looks at the VanderQuigs backstory.

And Madeline Kenney with her customary excellence on Quigley.

Terrific Mike Jensen piece on Brittany Hrinko, Globetrotter.

Brendon Kleen went in-depth on the USA Basketball agreement.

Alex Coffey. Sue Bird.

I handicap the WNBA MVP race.

I also wrote about the larger importance of the Ogwumikes.

Erica Ayala talked to a bunch of the next generation of WNBA fans.

Basketball Reference Stat of the Week

So I am never shy about expressing my love for Basketball-Reference’s stats page and the many ways it improves my work, my life, my peace of mind, and our partner at The IX. And this week’s lesson is just how great some rookies were the moment they arrived in the WNBA, courtesy of the Play Index. Let’s look:

Cooper, of course, was no rookie. Catchings, it is clear, was great from moment one. Notice, too, how Parker/Delle Donne/both Ogwumikes and Stewart are all elite right away. Some folks just have it. Napheesa Collier is the 2019 rookie leader in win shares, incidentally, at 2.3 through 20 games, so she’ll need a surge to land in the top 15 ever.

Tweet of the Week

Five at The IX: Cathy Engelbert

Here’s more from her presser this weekend in Las Vegas.

CATHY ENGELBERT: I really, really want to talk about the game, but we don’t have a lot of time today, but my job and my immediate focus is around partnerships and sponsorships, broadening the fan base, getting more fans in the seats, so any help you can give for that, we’d appreciate, in transforming the W into a sustainable, thriving business.

In addition, as you all know, we’re in the midst of a very important CBA negotiations including – we met with the Players Association earlier this week, and it was productive. We all have the same goals, and I look forward to continuing to connect with the players and teams. With everyone sharing a deep passion for this game, I am confident that we can strengthen the WNBA working together and growing revenue, driving improved economics for all. We need broad-based support, so thank you for your coverage, and please continue to profile the amazing stories of our highly talented, community-minded and socially-conscious players.

REPORTER: Commissioner, this is probably a question for you. If we go back to the NWSL example, there are times where national team players are pulled away from the league play. Have you had conversations with USA Basketball about what that schedule would look like with this tour?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Well, you know our off-season will be the primary part of the tour, so obviously our season ending in the fall and then obviously the main part of the tournaments and the games that they will be playing will not be during the WNBA season, and obviously next year during the Olympics we do shut down the league for about a month to obviously enable our elite players to play for the national team.

REPORTER: You had mentioned in your opening remarks kind of wanting to grow the game. Just how important has Las Vegas been? The Aces have been a team for two years now and the success that they’ve had, three All-Stars here, just how important has Las Vegas been to growing the game of basketball?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, obviously in their second season and how well the team is doing this year and the arena and the vibe is — Las Vegas being the entertainment capital of the U.S., at least in many people’s eyes, so it’s great for the brand. It’s great to increase, again, our visibility more broadly. But we need to do this in every market and all of our 12 franchises to make sure we’re maximizing the momentum around women’s sports and women’s basketball.

REPORTER: I know you just got started a week ago, getting your feet wet. Before you took over officially there was obviously some negative things going on, the domestic violence issues, the drunk driving issue. Is that something you think you’ll address in the upcoming CBA as far as there should be a policy for whatever happens for domestic issues of that nature?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, thanks for the question. I think we do have an absolute opportunity, but first let me say we take all of these situations seriously and investigate allegations. But we do have this opportunity because we are in CBA negotiations to talk with the players and to come up with resources and training and discipline and bring clarity to this issue. But certainly a very top priority for me.

REPORTER: I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about your early thoughts given it’s your first few weeks about the schedule and how to trade off schedules so you can optimize viewership, whether that’s on TV or digital platforms versus scheduling to kind of optimize attendance, for example, trying something similar to the NBA players where there’s an East Coast game and West Coast game in primetime every night or kind of the more diverse schedule we have in the W right now, which I’m guessing is going to be much better on the attendance front. Do you have any thoughts on that?

CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, so this is, I hate to keep saying, on the list, but obviously something we’re looking at. Now, next year will be unique because of the Olympics and shutting down the season, so the schedule is a little more complex just because of that and we’re still going to try to get our full season in obviously during the time we have, even with the break in July for the Olympics. So we absolutely want broader exposure. You look at the expanded games on ABC this year have been huge for us, and looking across all of our platforms, whether it’s Twitter, whether it’s NBA TV, so looking across all of our platforms and gaining that exposure, and again, we want to be a year-round league as far as the exposure to our athletes, and that’s part of the plan. Thank you.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Lindsay Gibbs, @Linzsports ThinkProgress
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.