The future of the WNBA? Commissioner, players weigh in on expansion, TV rights and more

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert talks to the media before the 2022 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game.
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As the WNBA heads into the second half of the 2022 season, players and fans alike are envisioning a new-look league for 2023 and beyond. Several news items emerged over the recent WNBA All-Star Weekend and chief among them were changes to the current and upcoming seasons, including charter flights for all 2022 WNBA Finals games, an increase in the bonus-pool total for this year’s playoffs and a 40-game schedule for 2023.

Prior to Sunday’s WNBA All-Star Game at Wintrust Arena, commissioner Cathy Engelbert addressed the media in her “state of the league” news conference, covering a wide range of topics and offering a glimpse into what the league’s future holds.

WNBA to charter flights for all 2022 Finals games

“We continue to work really hard on the transformation of the business to improve the player experience, so we’re going to implement a couple things … to help with the player experience for the rest of the season,” said Engelbert before announcing that the league would provide charter flights for WNBA Finals this season.

Travel has remained a consistent concern for WNBA players and coaches, and in March, the New York Liberty were fined $500,000 for providing charters during the regular season, which was technically against the league’s CBA. But Engelbert has been an advocate in certain playoffs situations, and in 2019 and 2021, she secured charter flights for playoff teams that had to cross multiple time zones with a day or less turnaround time before their next game.

Even with the news that teams will travel to WNBA Finals on charter flights, expect players to remain vocal about the topic of travel moving forward.

WNBA players eligible for increased income through marketing agreements, bonus pool bump

Engelbert said the bonus pool for this year’s playoffs will increase to $500,000, nearly doubling the bonus each player will receive for winning the WNBA championship.

“We’re just trying to chip away and find ways for the players and to lift them and to pay them more,” said Engelbert, also noting the league’s commitment to “really double down” on player marketing agreements.

“Probably spend about $1.5 million this year to help players grow their personal brand, elevate marketing, help the league market because it’s all-around exposure and marketing as we set forth on this transformation.”

Of note, this commitment to invest in player marketing agreements comes ahead of big changes for the 2023 season regarding the CBA policy of “prioritization,” which was designed with the intention of ensuring players participate for the entire WNBA season, thus prioritizing the league over overseas playing opportunities.

Starting next season, players will be penalized for missing the designated start of training camp or May 1, whichever is later. Players with more than three years in the league will be fined. Additionally, if players miss the start of the regular season, they will be suspended for the entire season. Prioritization rules will get even tighter in 2024, when players who aren’t available at the start of training camp or May 1 (whichever is later) will be suspended for the WNBA season.

While it remains unclear how players will weigh the financial benefit of playing overseas vs. the potential suspension for the WNBA season, Engelbert said she hopes the league’s targeted efforts to provide additional income opportunities will entice more players to eschew playing overseas.

“I think the more we can get [players] to partner with businesses and corporate sponsors and the more they can market themselves, the more endorsements they’ll get,” said Engelbert. “And now we’ll have players coming in with NIL deals who will have significant income in addition to their WNBA income. They love the game. So it’s all going to play out over the next couple years, but we’re really chipping away to make this a more economic decision for players to stay.”

WNBA expansion targeted for 2024, 2025 at latest 

Approximately 100 cities are on the WNBA’s radar for expansion, which Engelbert said were being looked at “through a lens of psychographics, demographics, arena, NCAA fandom, current WNBA fandom, merch sales, viewership.” However, she noted between 10-15 cities have expressed keen interest in hosting a WNBA team.

“We’re meeting here and there I’ll call it with interested ownership groups,” said Engelbert, adding that she hopes to see new teams in the league as early as 2024 and for sure by 2025. “We’re looking for the right ownership groups with the right commitment, the right arena situation, the right city to support a WNBA franchise.”

As for the idea of expanding to cities or states where women’s rights have been altered because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the commissioner said the league will take that into account when evaluating cities.

“We continue to advocate for gender and health equity, especially in communities of color and access and reproductive healthcare. …So we’ll continue to be leaders on that, and we’ll evaluate those kind of things when we’re looking at cities.”

WNBA rights undervalued as ESPN contract end nears

Future media rights already are a top business priority, for the league, whose current contract with ESPN runs through 2025.

“In my mind, when the TV deal is up in two years, that to me, that’s the moment,” said 13-time All-Star Sue Bird. “I think we just have to continue down this path, keep doing what we’ve been doing, and then when they start negotiations for that, that could really break things open and change the entire trajectory of our league.”

“We need to make it easier for fans to watch our games, to know where our games are,” said Englebert, who noted she’s already doing legwork on the league’s next deal. “We have 160 games on national platforms this year, a record for the WNBA, which is great. We’re getting exposure, but I think our fans get frustrated: ‘Where do you find those games?'”

Players echoed the same empathy for frustrated fans, including All-Star Game MVP Kelsey Plum: “For me personally, it’s so interesting when people are like tuned in, ‘Where can I watch the game?,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, you’ve got to download this app, then you got to put this in and oh, it’s blacked out, so you’ve got to go to this place’ I would just like — see easier and more accessible to fans. We understand that the product is great and when we get people to watch the game, they love it, but the hardest part is getting people there.”

Howard Megdal of the The IX recently reported that the WNBA’s current ESPN deal paid the league $27 million in 2021. According to Medgal, the WNBA has set an internal target of $100 million per year for the new rights deal, a number that is still well below a comparable league: Major League Soccer, which recently signed a 10-year deal with Apple TV that pays the league $250 million per season. Given MLS’ similarities in league size, schedule, and ratings, that deal could serve as a blueprint for what the WNBA should fight for in negotiations.

Jerseys, merchandise availability remain work in progress

A clunky media package wasn’t the only frustrating issue for fans that Engelbert addressed. She acknowledged plans are in the works for more robust merchandise and retail offerings, and Engelbert pointed to last year’s partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods as a move in the right direction. She noted that the league is working to “transform” into more of a destination site, where fans can watch, play, bet and buy all things WNBA.

“We never rest on merch because we know how important it is to the brand, but we’re still working on opportunities and then partnering with small and medium-sized businesses like Playa Society and others to come up with different merch,” she said.

“I feel like we shouldn’t go into an airport where a WNBA team is and you don’t see any WNBA gear,” countered A’ja Wilson. “There’s people plenty of times tweeting at us and they’re like, ‘We’re in Vegas, where I can get some Aces gear?’ And it’s like, well, they only open the store on game days, and it shouldn’t be like that. Yes, you can go to Nike, but we all know, you can into an airport and they have every sport on demand right next to a magazine.”

Near-term focus remains on Brittney Griner

Bringing Brittney Griner home from Russia, where she’s been detained since February, remains a top priority for the WNBA and its players, who honored her in multiple ways during the All-Star Weekend festivities.

“She remains a huge priority for us, continues to have our full support,” said Engelbert. “Fully focused on getting her home safely and as soon as possible.”

During the All-Star Game, where Griner was named an honorary starter, players wore her No. 42 on the backs of their warm-up jerseys, and in a surprise move, they all donned uniforms bearing the No. 42 during the second half of the game, where Team A’ja Wilson beat Team Breanna Stewart, 134-112.

“We just wanted to make sure at some point that we were able to — on national television, obviously in front of a sold-out crowd — put Brittney’s name in the forefront,” said Team Stewart co-captain Sue Bird. “Hopefully at some point she sees a picture or something, letting her know that she is always on our minds and in our hearts.

“It’s also a way to have other people see her name. Maybe someone turned on the TV and doesn’t know about the story and is like, ‘Oh why are they all wearing the same jersey number?’ In those moments it brings awareness, and it constantly reminds the Biden administration that we are supporting them and whatever they need to do to get Brittney home.”

WNBA regular-season action continues through Sunday, Aug. 14.

2022 Rivalry Series: USA extends lead to 3-0 over Canada in women’s hockey showcase

Hilary Knight #21 of Team United States reacts after scoring a shorthanded goal in the second period during the Women's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match.
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Hilary Knight had two goals and one assist to lead the U.S. women’s hockey team to a 4-2 win over Canada on Sunday, extending Team USA’s series lead to 3-0 in the seven-game 2022-23 Rivalry Series.

Savannah Harmon and Abby Roque also scored for the U.S., which has notched three consecutive wins against Canada for the first time since 2019. Goalie Nicole Hensley made 22 saves in front of a record-setting crown at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, where fan attendance totaled 14,551.

Marie-Philip Poulin and Sarah Nurse scored for Canada, which captured gold \at both the IIHF Women’s World Championship in September and the Beijing Olympics in February.

Knight has enjoyed a standout 2022-23 Rivalry Series to date, registering six points (three goals, three assists) in the first three games including the game-winning goal in a shootout victory in Game 1 of the series on Tuesday and the game-winning assist in Game 2 on Thursday. Prior to the puck drop in Seattle on Sunday, Knight was presented with a golden stick to commemorate her record-breaking 87th career point in world championship play. Knight became the all-time points leader at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in September, when the eight-time world champion recorded one goal and one assist in Team USA’s 12-1 quarterfinal win over Hungary.

Sunday’s matchup between the U.S. and Canada marked the third game of the 2022-23 Rivalry Series and was the third matchup between the two teams in five days. The U.S. came in with a 2-0 series lead following a 2-1 victory on Thursday in Kamloops, B.C., and a 4-3 shootout victory — the first shootout in Rivalry Series history — in Kelowna, B.C., on Tuesday. It also was the first game for the U.S. national team on home soil since Dec. 17, 2021, when the team hosted Canada in St. Louis (Canada won 3-2 in overtime).

The 2022-23 Rivalry Series continues next month with two games in the U.S., set to be played in Las Vegas on Dec. 17 and Los Angeles on Dec. 19.

2022-23 Rivalry Series schedule, results

Tuesday, Nov. 15 USA 4, CAN 3 (SO) Kelowna, British Columbia NHL Network
Thursday, Nov. 17 USA 2, CAN 1 Kamloops, British Columbia NHL Network
Sunday, Nov. 20 USA 4, CAN 2 Seattle, Washington NHL Network
Thursday, Dec. 15 10 p.m. ET Henderson, Nevada NHL Network
Monday, Dec. 19 10 p.m. ET Los Angeles, California NHL Network

What is the Rivalry Series?

The Rivalry Series was introduced by USA Hockey and Hockey Canada during the 2018-19 season and designed as an annual showcase of the highest level of women’s hockey at various locations in the United States and Canada. The first series comprised three games between the two national teams, with Canada winning 2-1. Team USA took 2019-20 title, winning the expanded five-game series 4-1 and wrapping with an overtime win in the finale in front of a then-record-breaking total of 13,320 fans in Anaheim, California.

Following a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic and preparation for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the Rivalry Series resumed this season with seven games over three months: three in November, two in December and two in February.

The U.S. and Canada have battled in the gold-medal game of six of seven Winter Olympics and 20 of 21 IIHF Women’s World Championship, with the two exceptions being the 2019 World Championship and 2006 Olympics. The Canadian women are the reigning Olympic and world champions.

2022-23 Rivalry Series rewind: USA takes Games 1-2

Game 1 recap: USA 4, CAN 3, SO (Nov. 15): The series kicked off Tuesday with Team USA grabbing a 2-0 lead off goals from Hannah Brandt and Hilary Knight. But Canada battled back with three unanswered goals and held a 3-2 lead with 13 minutes to go in the third. With just 1:29 remaining in regulation, Alex Carpenter tied it for the Americans, sending the game to overtime. The U.S. ultimately won in a shootout, with Knight and Carpenter scoring while U.S. goalie Nicole Hensley made two key saves.

Game 2 recap: USA 2, CAN 1 (Nov. 17): Canada was first to get on the board Thursday when Marie-Philip Poulin capitalized off a penalty shot opportunity in the second period, but USA’s Kendall Coyne Schofield knotted the score just 1:12 later. Alex Carpenter scored the go-ahead tally with 6:36 remaining in the third to give the U.S. a 2-1 win and a 2-0 series lead. U.S. goalie Maddie Rooney recorded 19 saves in net.

Who’s playing in the 2022-23 Rivalry Series?

Team USA’s roster — led by coach John Wroblewski — for the November Rivalry Series games features 23 players, 16 of whom were part of the silver medal-winning team at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship in August:

  • Hannah Brandt (Vadnais Heights, Minn.)
  • Alex Carpenter (North Reading, Mass.)
  • Kendall Coyne Schofield (Palos Heights, Ill.)
  • Jincy Dunne (O’Fallon, Mo.)
  • Aerin Frankel(Chappaqua, N.Y.)
  • Rory Guilday (Minnetonka, Minn.)
  • Savannah Harmon (Downers Grove, Ill.)
  • Nicole Hensley (Lakewood, Colo.)
  • Megan Keller (Farmington Hills, Mich.)
  • Amanda Kessel (Madison, Wis.)
  • Hilary Knight (Sun Valley, Idaho)
  • Kelly Pannek (Plymouth, Minn.)
  • Abby Roque (Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.)
  • Hayley Scamurra (Getzville, N.Y.)
  • Maddie Rooney (Andover, Minn.)
  • Lee Stecklein (Roseville, Minn.).

Team Canada’s 23-player roster, selected by coach Troy Ryan and director of hockey operations Gina Kingsbury, features 16 players who were on the gold medal-winning team at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship and the 2022 Beijing Olympics (Canada beat , including:

  • Erin Ambrose
  • Kristen Campbell
  • Emily Clark
  • Ann-Renée Desbiens
  • Renata Fast
  • Brianne Jenner
  • Jocelyne Larocque
  • Emma Maltais
  • Emerance Maschmeyer
  • Sarah Nurse
  • Marie-Philip Poulin
  • Jamie Lee Rattray
  • Ella Shelton
  • Laura Stacey
  • Blayre Turnbull
  • Micah Zandee-Hart

Rivalry Series history

Following Sunday’s victory, the U.S. holds a 6-2-1-2 (W-OTW-OTL-L) record over Canada all time in the Rivalry Series. Canada won the 2018-19 Rivalry Series with a 2-0-0-1 record, while the U.S. won the 2019-20 Rivalry Series with a 3-1-1-0 record.

2019-20 Rivalry Series results

Dec. 14, 2019 USA 4, CAN 1 Hartford, Connecticut Alex Cavallini
Dec. 17, 2019 USA 2, CAN 1 Moncton, N.B. Alex Carpenter
Feb. 3, 2020 CAN 3, USA 2 (OT) Victoria, B.C. Hilary Knight
Feb. 5, 2020 USA 3, CAN 1 Vancouver, B.C. Katie Burt
Feb. 8, 2020 USA 4, CAN 3 (OT) Anaheim, California Megan Bozek

2018-19 Rivalry Series results

Feb. 12 USA 1, CAN 0 London, Ontario
Feb. 14 CAN 4, USA 3 Toronto, Ontario
Feb. 17 CAN 2, USA 0 Detroit Michigan

Atthaya Thitikul takes LPGA rookie-of-year honors in stride ahead of Tour Championship

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand smiles after the birdie on the 6th green during the second round of the TOTO Japan Classic.
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To say that Atthaya Thitikul has enjoyed a breakout rookie LPGA season is a bit of an understatement, but keeping things low-key is exactly how 19-year-old “Jeeno” likes it.

As the 2022 season concludes this week at the CME Group Tour Championship, Thitikul has already captured two LPGA titles, held the No. 1 spot in the world rankings and collected the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year honors. But the current world No. 2 displays a wise-beyond-her-years ethos when she says what she’s most proud of this season is her mindset.

“[I’m]19 years old — I think I’m still young to handle all the things that I have now,” Thitikul told On Her Turf ahead of this week’s season finale in Naples, Fla. “I didn’t say that I handled it well, but I’ve just said that I think I can handle it. I can do it. And yeah, it’s turned out to be pretty good this year.”

To keep herself in check, the Thailand native keeps her philosophy posted on her Instagram profile, which reads, “Be you, be happy and everything will be fine.” Thitikul, who on Oct. 31 joined 18-time LPGA winner Lydia Ko as the only players in tour history to reach No. 1 before their 20th birthday, said she took stock of poor performances on the golf course and found they all had one thing in common: She wasn’t being herself.

“I didn’t have fun,” she says of those unsatisfactory rounds. “I was expecting a lot of results on the golf course, not really talking, not really enjoying it. So I think being myself, have fun, keep smiling, keep laughing and talking with other players or talking with my caddie, joking around — I think it’s the best that I can do.”

Golf has always been fun for Thitikul, who grew up in northeast Thailand and was introduced to the sport at age 6 through her father and grandfather, both of whom were not golfers themselves but recognized the opportunity that golf might provide. Thitikul teases that her grandfather was enamored with Tiger Woods, but after her first golf experience with a professional in Bangkok, she was hooked, too.

“They asked me when I finished practicing, do I like it? And I say, ‘Yeah, I do.’ Because [there were] a lot of friends and when I practice, it seemed fun and it seemed not like other sports that I have been watching on TV,” she recalls.

Thitikul’s ascent to the top of her sport was swift: In February 2017, just three days after her 14th birthday, she made her first LPGA tournament appearance at the Honda LPGA Thailand and finished 37th out of 66 players. Just five months later, Thitikul made headlines when she became the youngest person ever to win a professional golf tour event at age 14 years, 4 months and 19 days old, winning the Ladies European Thailand Championship on the Ladies European Tour (LET).

RELATED: 2022 CME Group Tour Championship — How to watch, who’s playing in LPGA’s season finale

For three more years, Thitikul resisted turning professional, racking up multiple international amateur victories and plenty of tour experience, notching her first LPGA top-10 finish in March 2018 at the HSBC Women’s World Championship (T-8) and earning low amateur honors that same year at two majors, the ANA Inspiration (T-30) and Women’s British Open (T-64). The following year, she won the Ladies European Thailand Championship for the second time in three years, earned low amateur honors at the British Open (finishing T-29) for the second straight year and was No. 1 on the women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking.

In her first year as a pro, during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, Thitikul broke through for her first professional win in July at the Thai LPGA Championship. She finished the season with five Thai LPGA wins and topped the money list.

Thitikul moved to the LET in 2021, winning the Czech Ladies Open in June, and just a month later she moved into the top 100 on the world rankings for the first time at No. 89. She finished 2021 with two wins, three runner-ups and nine additional top-10 finishes, securing the LET Order of Merit and Rookie of the Year titles and becoming just the fourth player to win both awards in the same season.

After finishing third at LPGA Qualifying School to earn her card for 2022, Thitikul didn’t miss a beat in her meteoric rise this season. She posted two top-10s in her first four starts before striking a staff deal with Callaway, which she followed up by winning her first LPGA title in March at the JTBC Classic. She carded an 8-under 64 in the final round to force a playoff and Nanna Koerstz Madsen on the second extra hole. She earned her second LPGA title in September at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, tying the tournament record of 61 in the second round and beating Danielle Kang in a playoff.

As for the pressure of being a teen phenom, Thitikul admits she can’t ignore it but has figured out how to turn it around to her advantage: “It’s still so hard because I think as players want to be on top and we put the pressure on ourselves, and there’s a lot of eyes on us. … But at the same time, it’s kind of like you couldn’t win every week, you couldn’t have a good day every day. It’s golf. I like to think of pressure as a challenge. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I think of it as challenging.”

Away from the golf course, Thitikul enjoys spending time with friends, watching Korean television dramas and indulging in Asian food (Chinese and Korean are favorites). Although she doesn’t have a pet, she says she’s a dog person, and prefers the mountains to the beach, as she loves to hike.

But don’t expect too much lounging, hiking or other non-golf activities on Thitikul’s itinerary after this season wraps on Sunday.

“This offseason, we have a lot of work to do,” she says.” There are a lot of things I still have to learn – not just for next year but for [beyond.] … But hopefully next year, it’s going to be nice and good for me as well. I really want to have a major win in my career. I don’t know if it’s going to happen next year, but hopefully.”