What we know and don’t know about the WNBA’s return to play

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

The WNBA announced Monday that it reached agreement with the players’ union on a 22-game regular season and standard playoffs that will run July through October and are expected to be played at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. As of now, no fans are expected to be allowed at games.

The 2020 season was supposed to start May 15 but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Many details of the upcoming season are still being nailed down, including the schedule and precise facility details, but here’s what we know about the plans for now.

How happy are players with the plan?

The Women’s National Basketball Players Association accepted the league’s proposal — which includes players receiving 100% of their salaries — with 77% of the membership voting yes. That means 23% of players voted no or didn’t vote. Some were against having a season for a variety of reasons, including concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and their desire to focus on social justice issues at this time. Those players were passionate in their viewpoints and made them known to the rest of the membership.

Here’s one key point: Voting yes doesn’t guarantee that a player will play, and voting no doesn’t guarantee that she won’t. The vote was about the union accepting the proposal. Now each player will need to decide if she is going to play. Players have until June 25 to let their teams know if they are opting out.

What happens if players choose to not play?

Both the league and the union stressed that they will support anyone who doesn’t want to play for any reason. The players have received two paychecks thus far. If a player opts out, she won’t get any additional pay.

Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the players’ executive committee, said she understands if some players aren’t ready for a season this year. But she knows that others are.

“On a personal level, I’ve dealt with the issues with the pandemic and the racial injustice issues and not being able to play basketball,” she said. “So I connect with the rest of the players as they sort through their own emotions as we try to figure out how to get through this as a league.

“I won’t say we heard from every player, but we heard from a lot. It was a lot to take in and consider. It was a process every step of the way.”

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert added, “I don’t think we ever thought 100% of players would be on board with playing this season, because this is hard. This announcement is just the beginning of a continued dialogue with the players about what this looks like. I am totally committed to them and making sure they’re comfortable. If we can reassure some of those who didn’t vote or voted no, I’d love to talk to them. But I totally understand players who have reservations.”

How will the league handle higher-risk individuals?

The WNBA will pay the full salary for any players who need to sit out because of medically confirmed preexisting health conditions that could make them high-risk cases if they contract the virus.

Elena Delle Donne, who was league MVP last year for the WNBA champion Washington Mystics, has dealt with Lyme disease in the past and is coming off back surgery in the offseason. She has yet to say if she will play in 2020.

Will age be a factor for coaches, support personnel and referees? That hasn’t been revealed by the league. Of the WNBA’s 12 head coaches, five are 60 or older: Washington’s Mike Thibault (69), Indiana’s Marianne Stanley (66), Seattle’s Dan Hughes (65), Las Vegas’ Bill Laimbeer (63) and Dallas’ Brian Agler (61). In the NBA, commissioner Adam Silver is pondering if older coaches should be on the bench when the league returns, with comments that drew instant pushback from some NBA coaches.

How much will social justice issues be part of the 2020 season?

It will be a major focus, which is something the union and the league have both stated emphatically. In the WNBA and NBA, some players have raised concerns about whether playing this year will take focus away from what’s seen as a pivotal time in discussions about race in America.

But Ogwumike said the WNBA can use its platform during a season to elevate its message, and the players will have a lot of opportunities to discuss these issue with everyone in one place for an extended time.

“At a time like this, we can continue to amplify our voices,” she said. “With Black Lives Matter, with representing women, with causes that are important to our league. There’s an opportunity to really do this right.”

Engelbert said that the league is fully in support of the players doing that, emphasizing that the season was about much more than basketball.

“I’ve seen the way our players interact and get purpose from each other,” Engelbert said. “I continue to be impressed by that.”

How often will there be testing?

Those details haven’t been released, but this is one of several instances in which we can look to what’s known of the NBA’s plan to resume its season and assume this will be similar. Obviously, everyone will be tested upon arrival to the WNBA’s compound.

ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that the NBA plans to have daily testing for all who are in the bubble in Orlando, Florida. It’s likely to be the same for the WNBA in Bradenton.

How will the WNBA react to a positive test?

As with the NBA, at this point, it is not expected that the WNBA would shut down if someone tests positive. That person would be isolated, and those who were around them would be monitored. If there are multiple positive tests at the same time, the league would have to reevaluate.

Are there changes to the playoff format?

The playoffs will be as usual: single-elimination games for the first and second rounds and five-game series for the semifinals and WNBA Finals.

How many games will be televised and streamed?

We don’t know yet, but the league has broadcast deals with ESPN, CBS Sports Network and NBA TV. Games also might be shown on Twitter, and there is League Pass, the WNBA’s streaming service. As soon as the schedule is finalized, the television schedule will follow.

How many people from each team will be allowed in the bubble?

This is another question for which we’re still awaiting the answer. The NBA has said that it will allow 35 people per team into its bubble in Orlando. That number will likely be smaller for the WNBA, as the roster size is no more than 12 players, with a head coach and two assistants. Some coaches are also their teams’ general managers, so it remains to be seen if non-coach GMs will be in.

It also remains to be seen how many potential replacement players might enter the bubble in response to injuries or if teams will need to make do with the personnel they have, unless it falls below a certain number.

How many trainers, other support staff, referees and media will be allowed in? None of that has been announced, but it’s reasonable to assume that people will need to commit to staying in the bubble until their job is finished. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said she expects to be in the bubble for the season.

What will living arrangements be like?

Players will live in multiroom villas, which have kitchens, and hotel rooms. It’s expected that players will have some meals provided, and they will have per diem to pay for other meals (or groceries) to be delivered to them.

Players with children will be allowed to bring them in, along with a caretaker; a source said it appears that their lodging, testing and meals will be paid for. This would be in line with the commitments to working moms that the league and union made in the collective bargaining agreement brokered in January.

All players with at least five years’ experience coming into this season can bring a “plus-one” — a spouse or significant other, for example — to stay on site for the season, but the player will need to pay for that person’s lodging, testing and meals. That person cannot come and go from the site.

Once the playoffs reach the semifinals, all players still on-site will be allowed to bring in a plus-one.

The WNBA is said to be finalizing an agreement with IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, to host all games. What do we know about the facility?

IMG Academy’s basketball facility has four fully equipped indoor courts. That’s on a campus that is about 450 acres. Bradenton is located south of Tampa.

As for specific concerns about coronavirus in Florida, union executive director Terri Jackson said, “What we believe IMG was able to offer was really the ability to be contained, to be in a bubble. And I think it gave many of the players a sense of relief. That they’d be able to be outside, but there was a way to control the environment. The league has committed that it’s not going to start the season unless the players association and necessary stakeholders are satisfied that that all the safety protocols are in place.

“And that these measures are with professional athletes in mind, specifically the women of our league.”

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