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The WNBA Cup: A proposal for a new competition

The WNBA Championship pits the best teams of the Eastern Conference and Western Conference against each other at the end of the season. But what if the other teams of the WNBA had some post-season glory to win? Enter the WNBA Cup.

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Almost every European domestic league has a competition for some sort of domestic cup.  In Spain, the cup is called the "Copa de la Reina", or the Queen's Cup.  Four teams meet in the middle of the season to play for the cup and the current format looks like the qualifying teams are the host team (whoever that is) and the three other top finishing teams at the halfway point.

The NBA has recently made noises about a mid-season tournament.  They were influenced by European soccer and domestic competitions like the FA Cup and the League Cup in English soccer and international competitions like the Champions League.  Details are vague on that, but the NBA's D-League is in fact moving ahead with a concept that the league could emulate.

On January 15, the D-League will hold its first-ever "NBA D-League Showcase Cup" in Santa Cruz, California, which will be an eight-team tournament with games counting toward the regular season standings, as described by Glenn Cravens of The Salinas CalifornianAdam Johnson of Sea Dubs Central has more details on how the bracket was determined, but it puts some more substance around the thinking of how the NBA might implement the structure that has been discussed.

This led a few of us at Swish Appeal to wonder, "Should the WNBA try doing a similar tournament?"


Any proposed women's basketball American cup competition faces two problems.

The first is that the WNBA already has a prestigious mid-season competition - it's called the All-Star Game.  And even in the All-Star Game, the players don't necessarily give their all.  Unlike football - where going by half-measures could get you seriously injured - in the All-Star Game players can go through the motions playing defense or even offense. 

The second problem is motivation.  What exactly is the motivation for players to add a set of meaningless games to a busy season?  Playing for the honor of a trophy might mean something overseas, where cup games have decades of tradition behind them, but all it might mean to American players is a bunch of games where the owners get paid and they don't.

If Adam Silver is exploring the idea, why not explore the idea for the WNBA?  Like Silver or not, at least he's thinking outside the box.  So what should the WNBA do?  Let's make some modest proposals.

1.  Any such tournament should be held at the end of the season.

The only other options are the pre-season or carving out some time mid-season.  At pre-season you wouldn't see the players at their best.  Mid-season?  We shouldn't give up the All-Star Game, fans expect that.  They would rebel at the All-Star Game being cancelled. Carving out extra time for another tournament?  It's likely that some of the same players in the All-Star game would end up in a mid-season cup and they'd probably resent it.  The end of the season would be the best time for a cup tournament.

2.  The tournament would have to have some kind of meaning.

The part of the season that really means something is the post-season; this is the time when teams have something to play for.  Why not have the WNBA Cup serve the purpose that the WNIT serves in the college postseason?  Just because it's a secondary tournament doesn't mean that teams don't play hard in the WNIT.  Teams want to end their seasons on a high note and a WNBA Cup in the post-season allows professional teams to have that chance.

The WNBA might have to shell out some more cash for post-season play.  The current 2014-21 CBA between the league and the players does give bonuses for post-season play, and there is a rule that if the number of playoff games is increased, those bonuses could go up by 5 percent.  Certainly, the league and the players could come to an arrangement that the players would be paid for their particpation in a WNBA Cup.

So what could a WNBA Cup look like?

Here are two scenarios.

a)  The #3 and #4 finishers in the regular season in each conference qualify for the WNBA Cup.  The #1 and #2 finishers in the post-season play for a finals berth.

This would have meant a Phoenix vs. Minnesota Western Final and an Atlanta vs. Indiana Eastern Final.  Four teams would have gone on to the WNBA Cup:  Chicago, Washington, San Antonio, and Los Angeles.

Who would they have played?  They could play the teams that previously finished at the top of Euroleague.  The bracket could be:

Chicago Sky vs. Bourges
Indiana Fever vs. UMMC Ekaterinburg
Los Angeles Sparks vs. Fenerbahce
Washington Mystics vs. Galatasaray

Where would the cup be held? It could be held either in the US or overseas, perhaps at the arena of the previous winner.

How would it work? It could be anything from single elimination to best of two to best of three.  It would cerainly be interesting to watch some of the best teams in the USA take on the best teams in Europe.  Furthermore, it would allow a WNBA team other than Phoenix to win something in the post-season instead of go away with nothing

b)  The losers of the conference finals could move on to cup play.  This would send Minnesota and Indiana off to the WNBA Cup.

Indiana Fever vs. Galatasaray
Minnesota Lynx vs. Fenerbahce

If the Western Conference really is better than the East from top to bottom, what better way to prove it than have Phoenix the WNBA champion and Minnesota the winners of the WNBA Cup. (That is, if the cup isn't taken by a Turkish team.)

What would be the incentive of European teams to play?  Simple.  As the WNBA season is ending, the European season is beginning.  The European teams will want to test how good their own domestic players are, and what better turn up than playing against a team that is fully tuned up?  Furthermore, an arrangement could be made where the European players in the WNBA Cup are paid the same post-season bonuses that WNBA players are paid.  I doubt that a European team will turn down a paycheck.

What about player conflicts?

One complication that will undoubtedly come up is the case of a WNBA player with dual obligations.  In the example above, suppose a Minnesota Lynx player plays for Fenerbahce in the off-season.  So does that player suit up for Minnesota, or for Fenerbahce?

The rule would generally be that a player's team allegiance would be determined by nationality.  In the example above, if the player is American, she'd play for Minnesota.  If she's Turkish, she'd play for Fenerbahce.  If she's neither, she could decide who she wanted to play for.  Nationality would be determined by FIBA rules if there's a question.

So will a WNBA Cup ever come along?  It would definitely take time to arrange; the WNBA couldn't just snap its fingers and have a Cup take place.  Arrangements would have to be made with the owners, with the players' union and with FIBA/the European basketball federations.  Formats and costs would have to be worked out.

But stranger things have happened.  We now have a World Baseball Classic.  NBA teams have played friendly matches against international squads with increasing regularity.  And the NBA's D-League is actually holding a tournament in 10 days. So why not the WNBA?