The WNBA has many fine qualities and for the most part does a good job of maintaining and promoting the teams, games, and players. However, there are areas in which it could improve.
Now, most articles like this focus on things that cost money. Wouldn’t it be great to pay salaries competitive with those in Europe, have the players flown on chartered jets, and have massive advertising blitzes during the NCAA tournament, and so on. The WNBA doesn’t have tons of money, so today we’re going to focus on things they can do that cost nothing.
1 Eliminate the lottery
Tulsa coach Gary Kloppenburg suggested this earlier in the year, and while it smacks of enlightened self interest coming from the leader of a team that went 3-31 a season ago his reasoning is sound.
The reason the WNBA has a lottery is that the NBA has a lottery and the W wants to emulate the men’s league as closely as possible. The NBA created its lottery to eliminate the perception that out of contention teams would intentionally try to lose games to improve draft position (often called “tanking”, from the old boxing term).
In the WNBA, tanking after falling out of the playoff race isn’t a real concern. The season is very short and so many teams make the playoffs that by the time a team is out it’s too late to throw enough games to matter. Take a look at last year. The Shock went 3-31, the worst record in the history of the WNBA, but were not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention until August 14th. At that point they were 23 games into the schedule. The Mystics, who went 6-28, weren’t out until after their 26th game. That’s two teams that didn’t win double digit games between them and they had just a handful of games after being knocked out of playoff contention. The other playoff spots weren’t decided until the final weekend. Tanking after elimination isn’t a realistic option in the WNBA.
There is still the prospect of teams tanking earlier if the draft prize is big enough. The lottery does nothing to prevent or even discourage that. The 2007 Sparks started the season well, but once Chamique Holdsclaw left they went into Get Candace Parker mode. A team that started 5-2, including winning its first two games after Holdsclaw’s departure, and was coming off a 25 win season in 2006 wound up 10-24.
The bottom line is the NBA season isn’t the WNBA season and the reasons the NBA needs a lottery don’t apply to the W. Length-wise, the WNBA season is more like to the NFL, another league that does not have a draft lottery.
2 Change the schedule
More and more we see players opting to play only in Europe and skipping the WNBA. The #1 reason cited is the wear and tear on the bodies of the players. The logical response should be to reduce the grind of the W season to encourage players to come back and stay.
WNBA games are scheduled in a very haphazard way. It’s common for teams to have four games in six days then have a week or more off. It’s bad for the fans, who can have a hard time keeping up with when the team is playing, It’s bad for the players, who can’t get into a routine because the game schedule is so uneven. It’s bad for the teams, who have to keep the community excited for long stretches without games then handle the logistics of a bunch of them in a short period.
This isn’t that hard to fix. A WNBA season is 14 weeks plus two days, which has to fit 34 games. Ideally the league would expand it to 17 weeks plus two days and have each team play two games every week, with the odd weekend making up for games missed during the All Star break. That’s not going to happen, but the schedule could still be made more regular. Each team should play two or three games per week, with no back-to-backs and no long stretches without games. The simplest method would be to divide each week into three windows, keeping the Monday off day that the league seems to prefer. One window would be Tuesday/Wednesday, one would be Thursday/Friday, and one would be Saturday/Sunday. Each team would play a Sat/Sun game every week. In a two game week a team could have a game in either of the other windows. In a three game week, they would have one in both. Teams would only need one three game week per month to make 34 games in 14 weeks.
Again the WNBA has modeled its schedule on the NBA, which features many back-to-backs. However, the men’s league fits 82 games into 170 days, barely over two days per game, which requires them to put games closer together. WNBA season is 34 games in 100 days, almost three days per game. A more reasonable schedule model would be the Euroleague model, where teams play only twice per week regularly.
3 Accommodating injuries
No, I’m not going to suggest the league return to having 13 roster spots. That’s a popular notion among fans and a good idea for the long term health of the league as it allows more player development and builds a deeper pool of experienced players for potential expansion. But it would cost money and I promised at the start of the article that all these proposals would be cost free.
Every year there’s a team or two that has to play shorthanded because a key player is injured. The Mercury will be there this year due to Penny Taylor’s knee. They can’t release her, because they want her on the team going forward. There’s no way to assure that other than keeping her on the active roster even though she won’t be able to play this season. The Mystics did this for two years with Alana Beard. Nobody is pleased with this situation. The fans don’t like the team being put at a competitive disadvantage. The players don’t like being hurt, of course, but also feel guilty about taking up a spot when they can’t play. Teams don’t like having to keep an inactive player on the active roster.
Given that a return to extra roster spots is off the table, the best way to deal with this situation would be an Injured Reserve arrangement similar to the NFL. When an NFL player goes on IR they are rendered inactive for the remainder of the season. They still get paid and count against the salary cap, but they are no longer allowed to play or practice. The team, meanwhile, can sign a replacement player if they have room under the salary cap. This allows teams to keep injured stars while still maintaining a full roster.
That’s three easy, free things the WNBA could do to improve the league experience for everyone. Please feel free to add more suggestions in the comments below.