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Today was supposed to be one of the WNBA's best days. Instead, it sucks.
I mean yeah, what the headline says.
Hi, it’s Matt Ellentuck again.
I’ll shut up now.
Today sucks for reasons far bigger than basketball, but for right now at least, it’s ok to be sad for what should’ve been the start of a statement summer for women’s hoops in America. May 15 was supposed to be the tip-off of the 2020 WNBA season, and, more significantly, the beginning of a serious financial investment into the best women’s basketball league in the world. The WNBA’s bandwagon was ready to fill out to capacity, and players were more energized than ever to make it happen.
But the league, as we’ve known for months, won’t play in May. It probably won’t play in June. There’s a chance it won’t play at all, and that gut-punch hurts. It’s another round of pain for the women’s basketball community, which is still grieving the losses of Gianna Bryant, her teammates, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, and Kobe Bryant. This isn’t how 2020 was supposed to go. Hell no. This year was supposed to be the rise of women’s sports. Deloitte, in its fancy list of sports trends, even told us so.
The WNBA started the year with the most exciting offseason the league has had in its 24-year history. In the 12-team league, five All-Stars (DeWanna Bonner, Tina Charles, Kristi Toliver, Angel McCoughtry and Skylar Diggins-Smith), changed teams since February. Dozens more impact players moved too, and that never happens. A newly implemented collective bargaining agreement substantially increased the money teams could spend, and weakened the franchise tagging that often left the offseason stale. It created preseason storylines we’ve never had in abundance before.
After a 2019 season filled with injuries, All-Stars Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi and McCoughtry were expected to be back and ready to play, too. If the drama of Courtney Williams forcing her way out of Connecticut didn’t suit you, there were on-court reasons to be excited for the 2020 season. The league’s built multiple superteams, with seven franchises able to make a legitimate title claim. There hasn’t been an easier sell for new fans to start watching the WNBA than right now.
The players were damn ready, too. After decades of embarrassingly low pay, the league was set to pay top players nearly double ($215,000) their earnings from last season ($117,500). The league’s lowest earners would receive a minimum of $57,000 (up from ~$42,000.) Players also, FOR THE FIRST TIME, were guaranteed their own hotel rooms and a business class comfort-plus airplane seat for road games. (I’ve highlighted everything to know about the CBA in here, for those who are just catching up.)
The spotlight was on. The league was ready. The players were ready. The fans were ready. Liz Cambage’s boxing hands were ready. But the country isn’t. Once again… just shit.
Everything was coming together so damn perfectly at the end of 2019, shortly after the WNBA Finals went to a dramatic five-game finish that left maybe the greatest offensive team in league history, the Mystics, with their first-ever championship trophy.
Sabrina Ionescu, one of the best and most popular players in NCAA basketball history, carried the wave of women’s basketball excitement as she chased an NCAA tournament title with the Oregon Ducks. Her jersey sold out in every color in freakin’ hours in November.
She handled the publicity to perfection, too. The 22-year-old delivered a moving speech at Kobe Bryant’s memorial in February, shattered college basketball’s triple-double record, proved she was far and away the best player in the world, and became the unanimous choice to be picked No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft months six months before it even happened. The sports world was waiting for her to cut the damn nets in New Orleans in April, then walk the stage in New York City, her new home, after her name was announced two weeks later as the top pick in the WNBA Draft. But 2020 took those moments from us, too. Shit.
Dammit, we were even robbed of seeing the most popular grassroots women’s basketball player probably ever (!?), win her high school championship game. And yes, Paige Bueckers is so popular her high school games were streamed. If you haven’t seen her play yet, just know she already has her future UConn head coach Geno Auriemma stanning before she even arrives on campus. The 18-year-old has nearly half a million Instagram followers already, and her highlights go viral routinely, influencing another round of a prospective women’s college basketball and WNBA fans.
Reflecting on the last few months of what was to happen and what actually did happen is all levels of frustrating and depressing. Everyone played their part. And this day, May 15, should be the moment women’s basketball has been waiting for.
Hope for a 2020 WNBA season isn’t completely lost yet, though it’s unclear how safe a return to play before a Covid-19 vaccine could even be. The safety and health of the league’s players, coaches, training staffs and everyone else who makes the W go, needs to be the top priority — no matter how badly we want the season to roll onward. But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about the possible financial implications if the league can’t play at all this year.
I’m sorry this is such a sadboi blog, but it is important to remember the players aren’t going anywhere. When it’s safe, they will play again. Taurasi will get to “fucking kill” a rookie. Stewart will swish another fadeaway turnaround. Delle Donne will rip nets on a corner three. And the Aces Twitter account will dunk on my life.
It’s ok for today hurt. Just know it won’t last forever.
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You should also read: Jessica Luther's “Coronavirus threatens all women's sports. U.S. women's soccer is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Also, if you’re interested in what makes Paige Bueckers so special, I broke her game down here.
Thanks again. The next newsletter won’t be as sad. I promise. I think.