While other professional leagues attempt to come up with plans to return to play amid the coronavirus pandemic, the WNBA appears to have a finalized plan to be able to start its year two months after its originally scheduled season-opening date.
The 2020 WNBA season was supposed to tip off on May 15 but was put on hold like the rest of the sports world due to COVID-19. Now sitting more than a month beyond that date, the WNBA recently announced an agreement has been made to start the year in July at one central location.
On June 15, the league officially announced a plan for a 22-game regular season to be played at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The site will serve as the home for all 12 WNBA teams to conduct training camp, practices and games while providing housing beginning in early July with the start of the regular season targeted for later that month.
“The positive is that we are going to play basketball. From a player’s standpoint, I think that is really big,” Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said in a Zoom call with the media on Thursday. “It’s a really unique opportunity from a TV perspective. I’m really hopeful that ESPN, CBS Sports and the many outlets we can be on, it’s a tremendous opportunity to fill the airwaves with the WNBA. That could be a really interesting way to grow our business in that we are more accessible and people are able to see us.
“Obviously, the challenge and something that is uncharted waters for all of us is playing without fans. Especially for us and the fans we’ve had at Target Center for years. That will be different, but I think once the ball gets tossed up and we get going, it will just be competing. … This will be different to have all the players and coaches setting up camp, it will be interesting.”
According to ESPN, the agreement between the league and the players’ union also includes an opt-out option for players if they are to contract COVID-19 while allowing them to still be paid their full salaries. Players can also opt out of playing for non-COVID reasons but would not receive their salaries for the year.
With July quickly approaching, players are required to let their teams know if they do indeed plan on playing or not by June 25. And recently, we have already seen some players come out and say they will not be taking part in the season, whether that’s due to health concerns or to focus on social injustice causes around the country.
With many players around the WNBA torn as to whether or not they’ll play or sit out the season — as is the case in other leagues like the NBA — we might continue to see additional players announce they are going to pass on playing in Florida in 2020.
“If you are connected at all to the WNBA community and the NBA community and professional athletes in general, this time right now is very heavy. People are handling it different ways,” Reeve said. “Will there be more? Maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised at all.”
Players Who Have and Still Could Opt to Sit Out
Since the WNBA announced its plan last week, multiple players have already let their teams know they won’t be taking part in the mini-season at IMG Academy.
On Wednesday, the Lynx announced that forward Cecilia Zandalasini will miss the 2020 campaign due to personal reasons. She will be placed on the non-active list, with the team announcing it signed forward Megan Huff to replace Zandalasini on the 12-player roster.
Zandalasini, who will turn 24 years old in March, most recently played with the Lynx during the 2018 season. Although the forward didn’t play with Minnesota in 2019 while playing overseas and later dealing with some injury issues, the organization had hoped — even up until last week — that Zandalasini would ultimately make a return to the court this summer.
That was until COVID-19 and other concerns arose and shifted the plan for the upcoming season. Although she likely won’t be the only international player to sit out the year, Zandalasini will officially not be returning to the court with the Lynx in 2020.
“Up until last week, we thought (Zandalasini) was a part of things as well. It’s that ultimate next big step of booking your ticket and having to get packed and ready that forces you to maybe come to realize you are having some apprehension about it,” Reeve said. “A lot of international players are going to be faced with this situation. My conversations with (Zandalasini) was just the uncertainty. The events around COVID and also the violence at the hands of police that have created an uprising around the world were factors.
“I was looking forward to having her. I am high on (Zandalasini) the basketball player. But I certainly respect her decision to not join.”
Another player that recently announced she will sit out the upcoming year is former Lynx player and current Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery, although she plans to not play in Florida for a different reason.
On Thursday, Montgomery took to social media to announce she will opt out of playing during the year to focus on social justice reform, adding “there’s work to be done off the court in so many areas in our community.”
“In the case of Renee, she felt this was the best way for her to do what she needs to do,” Reeve said. “I think that’s probably what you’re going to see is some very personal decisions being made.”
Much like the pandemic, social injustice and the topic of social justice reform remains front-of-mind for WNBA players when weighing the pros and cons of taking part in the altered season. Some players will focus on how to create lasting change while still taking the court in Florida, while other players feel focusing their time on those topics is far more important than playing.
“We’re going to be available and we are going to continue to speak on it, even when (the media) isn’t asking for interviews. The work will be ongoing, but I think it’s all in the approach the media takes,” Reeve said. “I think the chance to be together for the players will be very powerful. We have a very motivated group. We’ve been talking about this and these issues, but I think this is the tipping point. We’re not going away and you have to be relentless, much like many players are relentless in their pursuit of being great. … I think what we are going to be able to do down there in Bradenton will prove to be very powerful.”
Lynx star Maya Moore, who will sit out her second straight season, is the visible WNBA player to leave the game to continue to focus on criminal justice reform and her involvement in the criminal case of her friend Jonathan Irons.
“I think right now, people are finally seeing a much clearer focus what Maya Moore’s work has been about. Maya has been doing this for a long time and I think now we are all going ‘ah, now I understand,’” Reeve added. “We think it’s really important, whether it’s Maya or Renee Montgomery, this is what’s on the forefront of our minds. Playing basketball is what we do, but a bigger part of us is wanting to make the world a better place for everyone.
“I would ask all of you to be a part of that change with us as we continue to talk about this throughout the season and then some. We say indefinitely until we see change.”
Zandalasini, Montgomery and Moore are just a few examples of players electing to sit out the year for multiple reasons. And it’s likely a topic we will hear much more about with WNBA players in the next week or so.
When it comes to Minnesota, there is at least one more player who lives internationally that could be worth keeping an eye on as the June 25 decision deadline arrives: forward Damiris Dantas from Brazil.
There could be players within the United States, like Montgomery and Moore, who could ultimately decide it’s not worth making the trip to Florida for the season, but it’s an entirely different perspective for international players like Zandalasini and Dantas.
For Reeve and her squad, however, they are anticipating every player on the roster taking part in the upcoming season at IMG Academy. At least at the moment.
“I feel like I have a pretty good pulse, but it’s really important that none of us be surprised by any decision that might come from this as you start to get closer to having to join your team. Would I be surprised if we might have more? No and none of us should be surprised,” Reeve said. “As of what I knew at the end of the day (Wednesday), we were at a place where everyone was going to be joining. Until everyone gets here and we are on a plane to Bradenton, I guess there’s a chance things could change.”
Some WNBA players have come out and either expressed concern about playing during the upcoming season or have announced they won’t be making the trip with their teams down to Florida. And before the June 25 date for players to finalize that decision, we could very well see even more big-name players deciding to stay home.