The first ever WNBA Commissioner’s Cup 2021 in-season competition has kicked off! The league launched the new competition as part of their focus on innovation. Excitingly, 60 select “Cup games” from the regular season will determine which teams advance to the first ever Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game in August.
There are not only bragging rights at stake (particularly in the inaugural season). But also there’s a significant prize pool: $500,000. Plus, the winning team will take home a custom designed cup that is passed from champion to champion every season.
So today, we take a look at how the Commissioner’s Cup came to be, what exactly it is, and why it’s important. We also reveal the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup standings and leaders to date.
When was the Commissioner’s Cup created?
The in-season tournament was first announced as part of the new CBA, in January 2020, and was supposed to begin with the 2020 season.
“We aren’t just adding games. We’re kind of finding ways to garner new fans,” players’ union president Nneka Ogwumike said to ESPN at the time. “The new schedule and Commissioner’s Cup will reflect the progress and innovation we’ve been discussing.”
Each team was scheduled to play 10 Cup games during the season, with the final Cup games played in July. The top team in the Cup standings from each conference would advance to a one-off Cup final in August. But the Commissioner’s Cup was ultimately not held in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“One of the things we promised in the collective bargaining was increased player compensation through special competitions,” commissioner Cathy Engelbert told Yahoo Sports. “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.”
This year though, the Commissioner’s Cup finally came to life.
What is the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup 2021?
The WNBA Commissioner’s Cup 2021 is an in-season competition that pits Eastern Conference teams against each other, and Western Conference teams against each other. Basically, during the first-half of the WNBA season, 10 regular season games per team are counted towards each team’s record for the Cup. Then, the winners of each conference meet for the grande finale: the Championship Game held on August 12, 2021.
This timing conveniently puts the spotlight on the WNBA (and some of it’s best stars and competition) prior to the resumption of regular-season action for all 12 teams on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.
As Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields told Yahoo Sports, “To see that as the first game post-Olympic break, you know it’s just gonna carry over into the second half of the season and the playoffs.”
How does the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup work?
This year’s 60 Cup games are the first home game and first road game each team plays against its five conference rivals during the first-half of the regular WNBA schedule. The team from each conference with the highest winning percentage in “Cup games” will earn a spot in the Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game.
There are 60 “Cup games” and 1 final game.
All 12 WNBA teams compete in the Commissioner’s Cup.
The WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Eastern and Western Conference Team Cup games will be played between May 14, 2021 and July 11, 2021. The WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game will be on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 at Phoenix Suns Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.
The Commissioner’s Cup winners gets not only conference rivalry bragging rights, but also a unique Commissioner’s Cup trophy and a $500,000 prize pool. Members of the winning team will be able to earn in excess of $30,000 per player, while those on the runner-up team will have an opportunity to earn $10,000 per player. An additional $5,000 will be awarded to the MVP of the Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game.
“I think for the players, it’s actually going to be pretty normal,” Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird told Yahoo Sports. “We’re used to playing in that system. And hopefully for the fans, it’s just going to generate excitement. You know, everybody loves watching games that mean something. So not only is this, like, a little bit of midseason bragging rights, there’s also money on it. I mean, you can’t get more meaningful than that.”
However, the tournament set up means some players are missing the action as they’re still returning from overseas play or are out for the 3×3 Olympic games, leaving certain teams at a disadvantage. For example the Dallas Wings fell just shy of beating the Seattle Storm on May 22nd, and were missing both Allisha Gray and Awak Kuier. The Minnesota Lynx started without Napheesa Collier due to health and safety protocols from returning overseas, and the Washington Mystics have been without Elena Delle Donne who’s returning from back surgery.
So why have a Commissioner’s Cup?
“Together, we view the Commissioner’s Cup not just as a compelling competition, but as a multi-faceted platform designed to drive opportunities for broader fan engagement, create additional interest around our regular season games, convene around equity and equality themes in our WNBA markets, and provide the players with an opportunity to earn significant cash compensation.” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
The WNBA Commissioner’s Cup gives regular season play added importance, because from day one of the season, there’s more at stake which could drive more fan interest. A $500,000 purse shows a serious investment in women’s sports that helps cast even more doubt for the “nobody watches the WNBA” crowd (which Nike has something to say about by the way). And interest in the tournament is definitely on the upswing as of late April this year when the competition was officially announced.
However interest still pales in comparison with the amount of attention the NWSL Challenge Cup receives, which is in its second year running and was launched at the height of pandemic boredom in 2020. As you can see below, search volume for the NWSL’s Cup tracks far higher relative to the WNBA’s.
One other key difference with the women’s soccer comparison is that their cup was a distinct event, entirely separate from regular season play. The 10 NWSL teams were organized into two regional divisions of five teams each. Every team played four games within their division, with the two division winners competing in the final, over the course of a month.
But, there’s also the context that the WNBA’s search traffic consistently runs higher than the NWSL’s over the last year.
Presumably, it’s safe to anticipate that in general Cup interest will continue to increase over the years, and will likely sky rocket around the time of the WNBA’s Cup’s Finals in August, when the event feels more distinct from regular season play.
It also provides another opportunity to get the league more engagement from a sponsorship perspective. For example, official sponsors and WNBA Changemakers Deloitte and Google, along with Wilson, the Official Game Ball of the WNBA, will be promoting and activating around the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup events as part of their support for the league’s community-driven initiatives.
More competition fun
Plus, it’s an additional incentive for already highly competitive players to put their best product out on the floor, from the start of the season. “It’s…motivating just as a competitor to have another championship to go for,” Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne told Yahoo Sports.
Though the cup does present some challenges. Typically the beginning of the season is a time to work out kinks and gel on the floor (which is particularly important this year after dramatic free agency shake ups), as well as to put less experienced players in tough game situations for learning purposes. With more at stake, coaches might end up being less willing to take early season risks, and teams immediately have added mental stress.
“I want to make sure that I’m protecting the health of the players, especially the ones that are going to be involved in a lot of games,” Coach Dan Hughes said during a Zoom interview reports the Seattle Times. “I understand the financial rewards, but I also understand if your mission is to be a champion, then that’s probably a higher calling than this.”
How to watch the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup
Watch the 60 in-season games across network TV as well as on League Pass (see more details on how to watch the WNBA). Then watch the Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game on Amazon Prime Video. This exclusive live streaming is part of a multi-year agreement that gives Prime Video international streaming rights to 16 WNBA games per season, including nine Commissioner Cup games and the Commissioner’s Cup Championship Game.
WNBA 2021 Commissioner’s Cup standings
You can find the latest Commissioner’s Cup standings on the WNBA’s Leaderboard anytime. And below you can see each team’s record through games played on Sunday, May 28, 2021. Cup leaders currently include Connecticut Sun and New York Liberty from the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference leader is the Seattle Storm.
Eastern Conference Commissioner’s Cup Standings
- Connecticut Sun 4-0
- Chicago Sky 3-2
- Atlanta Dream 3-2
- New York Liberty 3-3
- Washington Mystics 1-3
- Indiana Fever 1-5
Western Conference Commissioner’s Cup Standings
- Seattle Storm 5-0
- Las Vegas Aces 2-1
- Dallas Wings 3-3
- Phoenix Mercury 2-2
- Minnesota Lynx 0-3
- Los Angeles Sparks 0-3
Stay tuned for WNBA Commissioner’s Cup Leaders & Winners
Stay locked in to see which teams pull ahead and who ultimately wins the cup later this season. Up next, learn more about picking a team to root for with our fun guide to becoming a WNBA fan.
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