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WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Explained

In 2021 as part of its 25th season, the WNBA is including something completely brand new: the Commissioner’s Cup.

What is the Commissioner’s Cup? It’s an in-season tournament the WNBA has implemented this year with a $500,000 prize for the winning team that will give the league’s 12 squads something extra to play for. But how does it work?

WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Explained

The WNBA Commissioner’s Cup was supposed to begin in 2020, but the pandemic messed that up. So instead, it’s being introduced to us in 2021.

The tournament uses games from the start of the regular season and gives them additional meaning. The WNBA has moved away from its two conferences determining the playoff bracket, but the conferences get some renewed importance through the Commissioner’s Cup. Every team will play the other five teams in its conference twice – once at home, once on the road – for 10 total games in the first half of the season, and while those games will continue to count as regular season contests that affect playoff inclusion and seeding, they’ll also double as “Cup games.”

WNBA Commissioner's Cup explained

Fast forward to Aug. 12. The team with the best winning percentage in “Cup games” from each conference will meet in Phoenix on that date to determine the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup champion. The victor will get a trophy and the cash prize, with more than $30,000 going to each player on the winning team and those on the losing team can make up to $10,000 each. The MVP of the championship game will also get an extra $5,000.

The schedule for the event fits perfectly into the Olympic break, set for July 11 to Aug. 15, that chops the season in half.

Now I Know What the Commissioner’s Cup Is. But Why?

The reason why is severalfold.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert explained to Yahoo Sports that additional player pay was one of the main motivations.

“One of the things we promised in the collective bargaining was increase player compensation through special competitions,” Engelbert said. “So the Commissioner’s Cup is a reflection of that promise we made and the idea to create a special in-season tourney actually came from the players themselves.”

It makes sense. Rookie contracts range from $58,710 to $70,040, and there’s not a big financial difference between players on the league’s best and worst teams. It makes sense that players would want to make more money and for their performances on the court to directly impact their bottom line.

It also gives players something else to play for.

“It’s also motivating just as a competitor to have another championship to go for,” Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics told Yahoo Sports.

Another reason for the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup could be as an experiment for the NBA to do something similar. The leagues are intertwined, and the NBA could be using the WNBA as a guinea pig in this instance to see how the concept could work for it. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said in the past that the NBA could institute something like this, citing European soccer as an example.

“The most-watched league in the world is only 27 years old,” Silver said in 2019, referring to the English Premier League. “So the idea that the NBA can’t create new traditions over time makes no sense to me.”

In soccer, both in Europe and in North America, teams often play in multiple competitions at once. The games don’t have double meaning like in the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup, but in England for example, teams will play in their domestic league, two domestic cups, and a European competition if they qualify all at the same time during the season. Though it’s certainly not the exact same thing, the Commissioner’s Cup is the first step toward that direction.

So, Should I Be Excited?

Basketball and soccer have always been my two favorite sports that have meant the world to me since birth. If the WNBA can turn the Commissioner’s Cup into anything similar to the FA Cup or U.S. Open Cup, then you should absolutely be excited.

Now, this competition is a far cry from how those soccer cups operate. Firstly, the Commissioner’s Cup adds only one extra game – the championship – while the FA Cup, U.S. Open Cup, and other domestic soccer cups across the world have their own games and are completely standalone competitions. With how the WNBA is doing this, the teams in the Commissioner’s Cup final will likely be playoff teams, and it’s possible we see a preview of a late playoff series, because the games that impact it also impact playoff seeding and qualification.

In my ideal world, the regular season would be shortened and Commissioner’s Cup games would be entirely separate from the league campaign, like it works in soccer. This automatically makes the Commissioner’s Cup more important rather than an extra gimmick thing, and it makes regular season games that much more important, which I would like to see in a league like the WNBA especially, which has just 12 teams and allows two-thirds of them into the postseason (and that’s not to mention the single-elimination aspect the WNBA employs).

It’s also impossible to replicate domestic cups in soccer without multiple divisions. The WNBA has just 12 teams right now. I’m not meaning to imply it’s easy to win a WNBA championship, but if you only have 11 challengers, it will be easier than if there are more. Now there’s another trophy to win, so you might see two of 12 teams win major events in the league in a season. Even in the NBA, I don’t believe 30 teams is enough to accurately capture and replicate the awe and wonder of something like the FA Cup, which is so magical in part because of the giant killing that occurs with low-level teams going toe-to-toe with some of the biggest clubs in the country. Basically, the franchise model North American sports use, or at least the lack of multiple divisions like there are even in North American soccer, means that no additional cup competition could truly bottle up the unique nature that domestic soccer cups provide.

So, to return to the question of if you should be excited: that depends on what you’re expecting and how this competition evolves over the years. If you’re expecting the FA Cup in the WNBA, then you will be disappointed. If you’re expecting a cool extra thing that adds a little more meaning to early-season games and lets players get paid a bit more, then you’ll be satisfied. The event could turn into something much greater than it will be now, and that’s exciting, but its current state shouldn’t make you think soccer has come to basketball.

If anything, this proves how necessary WNBA expansion is (as if there wasn’t already a mountain of reasons for it), and that’s something that should have you plenty excited.

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