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” WNBA.com 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.

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.