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Does the Commissioner’s Cup need a refresh?

Tuesday night’s Commissioner’s Cup Championship, won by the New York Liberty, once again felt like a WNBA Finals preview. Rather than featuring the league’s top overall teams, would the in-season competition benefit from a format that resulted in a little more chaos?

2023 Commissioner’s Cup Championship - New York Liberty v Las Vegas Aces
The New York Liberty celebrate winning the 2023 Commissioner’s Cup.
Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

The powers that be within the WNBA must have been thrilled with this season’s Commissioner’s Cup Championship: a matchup between the league’s two much proclaimed (and protested) superteams, the Las Vegas Aces vs. the New York Liberty.

The Commissioner’s Cup final, won by the Liberty, was the appetizer for the assumed WNBA Finals matchup between the same squads.

However, should the Commissioner’s Cup Championship serve as a Finals preview? Or, would the competition bring more value to the league if the format introduced a bit more uncertainty into the WNBA season?

The original vision for the Commissioner’s Cup

The 2020 CBA introduced the prospect of “special competitions” that would provide additional compensation for players. As Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said ahead of the 2021 season, the season in which the Commissioner’s Cup would debut, “So the Commissioner’s Cup is a reflection of that promise we made and the idea to create a special in-season tourney actually came from the players themselves.”

The prize pool for the Commissioner’s Cup totals $500,000, with members of the winning team earning $30,000, members of the runner-up receiving $10,000 and the MVP of the final getting a $5,000 bonus.

As has been the case for the three seasons of the competition, every team’s first home and away games against its five intra-conference opponents are designated as Commissioner’s Cup games, with teams’ records in these 10 games determining the Commissioner’s Cup standings. The top Eastern and Western Conference teams in the standings then meet in the final.

The outcomes of the first two Commissioner’s Cups

In 2021, the Connecticut Sun finished 9-1 in Cup play, making them the Eastern representative. At 8-2, the Seattle Storm edged out the Aces as the Western representative. In the traditional league standings when Cup games were completed, the Storm sat in first place; the Sun were third overall but first among all Eastern Conference teams.

The inaugural Commissioner’s Cup final, won by the Storm in dominating fashion, seemed like a Finals preview; however, an injury to Breanna Stewart and the Chicago Sky’s playoff groove produced a much different WNBA Finals.

Last season, the Aces and Sky easily earned berths in the Commissioner’s Cup championship, with both teams finishing 9-1 in Cup games. When the final was played, the Sky and Aces sat in first and second in the overall standings, again making the final, won by the Aces on the back of a first-quarter blitz, feel like a WNBA Finals preview. The Aces, of course, would top their Commissioner’s Cup championship with a WNBA championship, while the Sky, in a reverse of the 2021 playoffs, would be upset by the Sun.

While the Commissioner’s Cup championship and WNBA Finals have yet to include the same two teams, the Commissioner’s Cup has been symmetrical with the WNBA regular season, with the best teams overall representing the respective conferences in the Commissioner’s Cup final.

Could the Commissioner’s Cup benefit from more chaos?

Would the Commissioner’s Cup be more entertaining if it demonstrably diverged from the WNBA regular season? Rather than an expected Finals preview featuring the W’s two much-spotlighted super teams, what if, as an example, the Dallas Wings, an outside title contender, and Chicago Sky, a team fighting for their playoff life, met in the Commissioner’s Cup final?

The CBA does not outline a certain format for the Commissioner’s Cup. Over its 27 years, one of the strengths of the WNBA has been a willingness to experiment, refusing to be beholden to fabricated traditions and, instead, making changes—some more successful than others—to increase interest and excitement.

Just as single-game elimination playoff games introduced extra intrigue, a Commissioner’s Cup schedule that included less games would make the race for a spot in the championship more contested, and possibly more chaotic. The more games, the more likely it is that the best teams prevail; the fewer games, the more likely an upset or two could disrupt the standings and result in a pair of surprising Commissioner’s Cup finalists.

A new Commissioner’s Cup format

The format for the forthcoming NBA in-season tournament could serve as model for a refreshed, rejuvenated Commissioner’s Cup.

In contrast to the current intra-conference set up, the W’s 12 teams would be organized into four intra-conference groups, with two for the East and two for the West. For example:

  • East A: New York Liberty, Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky
  • East B: Connecticut Sun, Washington Mystics, Indiana Fever
  • West A: Las Vegas Aces, Minnesota Lynx, Seattle Storm
  • West B: Dallas Wings, Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury

Teams would play the other two teams in their group once, reducing each team’s Cup games from 10 to two. The winner of each group would be determined by record, with head-to-head record and point differential serving as tie breakers.

Now, with every team playing only two Cup games, every single Cup game has incredibly high stakes, with fans much more attuned to the implications. Imagine if the Liberty or Aces dropped their first of only two Cup games this season. The atmosphere surrounding their second game would be intense!

The winners of each group would meet their intra-conference counterpart in the new Commissioner’s Cup semifinals (East A vs. East B; West A vs. West B), with the winners of those two games meeting in the Commissioner’s Cup Championship.

This iteration of the Commissioner’s Cup could be completed before the All-Star break, with the championship possibly held the night before the All-Star game. An overall abbreviated Commissioner’s Cup schedule also would reduce the travel imbalance that occurs when most intra-conference games must be held earlier in this season because they also count as Cup games, thus resulting in more cross-conference games, with longer travel, in the second half of the season.

This reimagined Commissioners Cup certainly is imperfect, with possible behind-the-curtain concerns unconsidered. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about restructuring the Commissioner’s Cup to generate more hype around the entire competition, not just the championship game.