WNBA Commissioner’s Cup has right intentions but failing to resonate

Chicago Sky's Kahleah Copper (2) celebrates with Courtney Vandersloot after Vandersloot was fouled and scored in the act of shooting during the second half of a WNBA basketball game against the Connecticut Sun Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Chicago. The Sky won 81-75. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

There’s a graphic that circulates every once in a while, comparing Sue Bird and LeBron James’ contracts, and how James makes about 170 times more than Bird does for doing the same job.

Regardless of the trolls and backlash the graphic unintentionally brings, it does also bring up the valid point of how little even the best players in women’s sport make.

Bird’s $215,000 paycheque even comes after the WNBPA ratified a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2020 that will run into 2027. The new agreement includes benefits for players, travel and maternal benefits that help put the female athlete and mothers at the forefront. Most importantly, however, the new CBA featured pay increases for players from veterans all the way down to rookies, with a 53 per cent increase in cash compensation, consisting of base salary, additional performance bonuses, prize pools for newly created in-season competitions, and league and team marketing deals.

The in-season competition in question is the brand-new Commissioner’s Cup, something many around the league have yet to fully understand.

Essentially, each team plays 10 designated Cup games within their conferences, and the team from each side with the highest Cup win percentage will then play each other in Phoenix on Aug. 12, right before the end of the Olympic break, with the winning team taking home $500,000 to split amongst themselves – something that means players making $60,000 would be able to take home an extra 50 per cent with their $30,000 cut.

Even players on the losing team of the championship game can make up to $10,000, and the game MVP will earn an extra $5,000.

The concept of playing for an additional trophy, and prize money, seems pretty ideal in a league where only eight teams make the playoffs, and most players make a lot less than Bird does. But the execution of the concept is a lot more lacklustre than the reality.

Because the Commissioner’s Cup games are regular-season games, just 10 are marked as Cup games, there’s the usual motivation to win these games to improve playoff seeding, regardless, but not much else – the extra money included.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think we go into the game thinking about that,” said Dallas Wings forward Kayla Thornton. “I think in the aftermath, once we sit down and talk about stuff, it’s like, ‘Oh, dang, that was a Commissioner’s Cup game.

“We really don’t think about it, we just go into the game with our game plan, preparing to win and stuff like that, and everything else takes care of itself.”

In the first year of anything there’s bound to be bumps in the road and kinks to work out, but the format of the Commissioner’s Cup has revealed that, for a lot of players, it’s an afterthought. During the season any win means more because it helps their playoff chances, not because it means that they’re one step closer to the $500,000.

For future years, it might be ideal to add extra games that don’t impact playoff chances for the Cup, as players would be solely focused on that when playing, but for now, since the games are already regular-season games, that is the focus for most players. The consensus is that while extra cash is always nice, the reason for playing in the WNBA to begin with is to win.

Thursday saw the Minnesota Lynx beat the Wings in conference play, a designated Cup game, and are now 1-0 head-to-head in the Commissioner’s Cup leaderboard. However, regardless of the Cup designation or not, the Lynx had to find a way win because they’re currently an eighth-place team, the final spot for playoffs, and need to hold off the Wings who were just a half game back in the standings.

“It’s definitely an afterthought,” said Lynx forward Napheesa Collier. “It would be great to go to the Commissioner’s Cup, there’s a lot of money involved [and] obviously we want that, but it doesn’t really have an impact on our season for real.

“That’s definitely secondary. We talked about it when we got into the locker room afterwards, the team did. It’d be nice to get the money, but we’re definitely thinking about our regular season.”

Of course, players do appreciate that the league and the WNBPA are constantly pushing to grow the game for women and make the sport a viable long-term career option, something many women’s leagues don’t have where players have to have second and third jobs to make up income. The Cup is a step towards growing the league, which is something everyone involved can cheer for.

And even if it’s not at the forefront of their minds, a lot of players do know that while every game is a must win, the first time they play one of their conference opponents there’s extra important because of how the result might affect the Commisioner’s Cup leaderboard and their chance to play for the prize money.

“We’re locked in all across the board, but I think this is a big game, and it is a Commissioner’s Cup game. That’s how we look at it also,” said Chicago Sky guard Kahleah Copper pre-game against the Connecticut Sun on Thursday. “Overall, we want to win, but we know how important this is for the Commissioner’s Cup so it’s important for us.”

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