Why WNBA Needs an In-Season Tournament

The proposal to introduce an in-season tournament to the NBA is gaining traction. It may even prove necessary if the NBA wants to continue asking for more money to obtain/retain its broadcast rights.

The idea might also prove a winner for another NBA league, the WNBA. It could help the league retain top talent, boost broadcast rights value and help build on the WNBA’s momentum.

Seems like a crazy idea for one or the other, or both? Not really. The NBA already has some experience with in-season events.

One of the NBA’s four primary products—the NBA 2K League—already features three in-season bouts separate from regular-season play. “The Ticket,” “The Tipoff” and “The Turn” each award teams cash prizes for winning tourney games along with pieces of a championship banner. “The Ticket” also grants a playoff spot to its winner.

Just as in the proposal for the NBA in-season test, the NBA 2K League uses teams’ records in regular-season play to figure seeding for each tournament that involves all of the league’s teams.

There is a key difference, however, that could play out well in the WNBA as well.

The NBA proposal would treat divisional games during the regular season as a group play round for the in-season tournament. For example, the Miami Heat is one of five teams in the Southeast Division. Every win against the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards would not only be a win for Miami’s regular-season standings but count as a win for the Heat’s group play record as well.

Although the WNBA would have to adjust that format, a lot of the structure could carry over.

For example, as the WNBA does not have divisions, group play would likely happen in the two six-team conferences. Thus, every game the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun play would not only count as a regular-season win or loss but as a group play win or loss as well.

There are potential benefits for everyone involved. The league and its WNBA broadcast partners like CBS and Disney would have a new product to advertise. Having early-season games count for tournament group play would also give them extra billing. A tourney that uses the conference structure in its seeding would differentiate that product from the WNBA postseason and help franchises to build a rivalry that helps fans further connect with teams emotionally.

Sep 12, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard (6) holds the WNBA championship trophy after defeating the Washington Mystics after the game in game three of the WNBA Finals at Eagle Bank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Cash prizes for advancing in and winning the tournament would supplement players’ compensation, and extra exposure could boost their own value as celebrities available for endorsement deals. Not only would that mean a better standard of living for players but could improve the WNBA’s product as well, enabling players to take an actual offseason to get healthy and rest.

It could be a win for team investors as well.

Franchises would have new opportunities to sell merchandise, and the ticket salespeople would be able to use the tournament as a pitch for potential customers. New merchandise could include special uniforms that Nike designs and releases in concert with players wearing them exclusively for the contest, paralleling the NBA’s City Edition line.

CBS and Disney might be the most eager partners in this endeavor. This tournament would help media rights partners have primetime live sports programming, which is television’s cash cow, during the biggest live sports lull of the year. If the WNBA positioned this tournament after the end of the NBA and NHL seasons—but before the beginning of the college American football and NFL seasons—they would have little to compete with besides the MLB regular season. 

There are real upsides, though the situation is far from simple.

Inserting a 12-team tournament into the WNBA regular season would create some issues to iron out with the players. The WBPA is unlikely to agree to play more games for the same amount of money, for example. One possible concession is shortening the regular season, but the league would have to then convince franchises that the tournament would at least replace that lost revenue if not bring them more income.

It’s also highly unlikely that players will agree to any reorganization that extends the current season. Many of them play in other leagues during the WNBA offseason, and so there is very little (if any) actual offseason for them. Those other leagues tend to compensate the players better, so it’s a simple question of where the athletes can get the best return on their investments.

This might be an opportune time to approach the WBPA with the idea, however.

Negotiations are ongoing for a new collective bargaining agreement, which means changes to the league’s structure can more easily be brought to the table. The counter-argument is that the WBPA is likely focused on increasing benefits and compensation for players in the current structure and not looking to re-invent the wheel.

The fact that the WNBA currently only has 12 teams complicates things as well. For example, if the league wants an in-season tournament based on conference group play, most of the intraconference games would dominate the early parts of teams’ schedules. That’s problematic for a couple of reasons.

Oct 8, 2019; Uncasville, CT, USA; Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) shots against Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver (20) and forward Elena Delle Donne (11) during the second quarter in game four of the 2019 WNBA Finals at Mohegan Sun Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

While that would determine which teams in the Eastern and Western conferences look best among their peers coming out of the gate, it also means the majority of interconference games would get pushed to the back end of the regular season. In that framework, teams would be traveling further and more often when they are the most fatigued and the postseason is just around the corner.

But for every con, there seems to be plenty of pros to consider.

Undoubtedly there would be some hoops for the league to jump through in order to make this a reality. If done properly, it could be a win for fans and the league.

A tournament like this would create a new product for media partners and the WNBA to advertise during the season, potentially increase players’ earnings and entice new investment in individual franchises. For a league that is moving confidently toward its third decade of operations, it might be a great sign of embracing innovation and strength.