Connecticut Sun All-Star power forward Jonquel Jones (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

The Intrigue & Opportunity of the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup

When Seattle and Connecticut meet Thursday night fo the first-ever Commissioner’s Cup title, there will be more at stake than just a trophy.

The WNBA’s month-long Summer Olympics hiatus is coming to a close on Thursday in perhaps the biggest way possible. Rather than returning from the Tokyo layoff with a full slate of games, all eyes will be on the Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona, where the Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm will face off in the championship match of the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup.

The Sun and Storm own two of the three best records in the WNBA and combine for a winning percentage of 73.2 season. Seattle took the first two matchups between the teams so far, but this one is a little different: The winner gets a trophy and bragging rights.

They get cash, too.

All told, it stands to be a successful experiment at the very least, and quite possibly a model for other leagues (or other sports entirely) to emulate in the years to come.

How it Works

WHO: Connecticut Sun vs. Seattle Storm
WHAT: 2021 WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game
WHEN: 12 August 2021, 9 p.m. ET
WHERE: Footprint Center, Phoenix, Arizona
HOW TO WATCH: Amazon Prime Video

This is the first year that the WNBA has tried an in-season tournament, and it’s added instant intrigue to a regular season that already values individual games more than many other professional leagues by virtue of each team playing just 36 of them.

Each of the W’s 12 franchises had 10 first-half games designated as Cup Games. They were the first contests of the season at home and on the road against each conference opponent. The top team from each conference in the cup standings — this year, the Jonquel Jone’ Sun and Breanna Stewart’s Storm — advanced to the final, played on a neutral court to open the second half of the season.

This new format also constitutes a renewal of conference significance in the WNBA.

The W no longer seeds playoff teams based on conference finish, making divisions less relevant than in previous years. But tonight, there’s real East-West supremacy up for grabs.

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What’s on the Line

Unlike all other Cup games to this point, the championship does not actually count within the regular season standings. But that’s only because there’s already so much else to play for this evening in Phoenix.

Yes, the winning team gets a shiny trophy. But perhaps most importantly, the Commissioner’s Cup comes with a $500,000 prize pot.

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • $30,000 per player for the winning team
  • $10,000 per player for the losing team
  • An additional $5,000 for the game’s MVP

The $30,000 equals about half of some WNBA rookies’ annual salaries, so this is no small prize.

The pot came about, notes Jackie Powell of Bleacher Report, as part of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement between the league and the WNBA that called for opportunities for players to be compensated via special competitions.

Moving the Game Forward

The game, which tips off at 9 p.m. ET, will stream live on Amazon Prime as part of the league’s growing business relationship with the digital and e-commerce giant. How the viewership numbers and the game itself play out will tell us a lot, but it’s true in any event that the WNBA has never shied away from trying something new. The league has used this tournament as a signal its clear intent to move forward on emerging live platforms and reach fans in new ways.

To start, the WNBA is using the game as an opportunity to elevate its social justice platform with a trio of virtual discussions that will be posted to the league’s website and YouTube channel.

The conversations will center around player activism and leadership (featuring Nneka Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams), mental health (with WNBA Medical Director Dr. Altha Stewart and Director of WNBA Mind Health Dr. Kensa Gunter), and the WNBA’s social justice priorities (with writer and activist Raquel Willis and Black Women’s Health Imperative CEO Linda Blount).

When game time rolls around, the WNBA will use new tracking technology to enhance the streaming broadcast. Players will wear Kinexon Wearables, which will track everything from their sprint speed to how quickly they change direction.

The league will also use Hawk-Eye optical tracking, which provides real-time, immersive 3D highlights. In an era in sports where analytics are increasingly move valuable and mainstream, these two technologies will combine to provide an estimated 50 million data points during the game. The WNBA announced in a press release that it will continue to expand its arsenal data and tracking tools into next season.

With so many innovations culminating with tonight’s championship, the rest of the sports world would be wise to take notice of what the WNBA has built here. After all, the NBA is well-documented as favoring a lucrative midseason tournament of its own — don’t think Adam Silver and Co. won’t be jotting down notes as the festivities unfold this evening in the Valley.

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