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🏀Guide to the 2020 WNBA Season

July 21, 2020
Guide to the 2020 WNBA Season

The GIST

A global pandemic, bed bugs, protests for social justice…we’ve been through (and are still going through) a lot. But, sports are returning! The WNBA will finally tip-off its 24th season (oh, to be young) on Saturday, July 25th with star-studded matchups and an opening weekend dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement.  

Here’s how we got here 

Back in January, the league signed a historic CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) featuring many improvements for players, most notably an increase in average compensation from $79k to $130k (!!!). So, with the 2020 WNBA season originally scheduled to begin on May 15th, the league was ready to ride that good news momentum and the thrilling finish of the 2019 Finals into its 2020 start. 

*Enter COVID-19* On April 3rd, the WNBA suspended the season indefinitely, leaving fans left in the lurch.

Back like they never left

After a v. successful virtual draft, long-winded deliberation and salary negotiations, on June 15th the league announced plans for a shortened 22-game season (they were supposed to play 36) hosted in the “Wubble” at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. All teams will practice, play and live on the IMG campus for the duration of the season. Regular season games will run from July 25th through September 12th, followed by a traditional format for the playoffs. 

In the spotlight

Although all contests will be played without fans in attendance (one of many COVID-19 protocols), we can still enjoy the action from home thanks to an extensive TV broadcast schedule offering 24 (!!!) nationally televised games. Looks like the national outlets might have learned their lesson

Players to watch

Sabrina Ionescu (pronounced YOH-NESS-COO): Coming off a record-breaking (and pandemic-shortened) senior season with the Oregon Ducks, New York Liberty guard Ionescu is the top player to watch this year. She was the first pick in the 2020 WNBA draft and her jersey sold out within an hour. No worries though, it’s restocked for now and you can rock it while you watch Ionescu’s highly anticipated rookie campaign.

Breanna Stewart: The 2018 league MVP missed the 2019 season after rupturing her Achilles (ouch) while playing in Europe overseas. And yes, most players play in the W in the summer and overseas in the winter to help make more money — another guide for another day. At 6’3”, Stewart averaged an astounding 21.8 PPG (points per game) and 8.4 RBG (rebounds per game) in 2018 and will be looking to lead the Seattle Storm back to the championship, which they won in 2018.

Sue Bird: Serving up a one-two punch with Stewart, 11-time All-Star (and one half of everyone’s favorite power couple) Bird enters her 19th season in the WNBA. Returning from missing the 2019 season due to knee surgery, she’ll bring leadership and experience to the stacked Storm roster.

Skylar Diggins-Smith: Four-time All-Star Diggins-Smith missed the 2019 season to give birth to her son and was part of a blockbuster trade this offseason, moving from the Dallas Wings to the Phoenix Mercury. With her average of 17.9 PPG in 2018, watch for Diggins-Smith to make an instant splash with new teammate Brittney Griner and the Mercury this year. 

Players sitting out

A handful of athletes opted out of the 2020 WNBA season due to COVID-19 health concerns, injuries and/or to keep their focus on social justice efforts. Here are a few athletes we won’t see on the court this year:

Natasha Cloud: A key player in the Mystics’ 2019 championship run, Cloud will sit out the 2020 season to focus on the fight against police brutality. Converse offered Cloud the first ever WNBA contract with the brand and will cover her salary while she advocates for social justice. We love to see it!

Chiney Ogwumike (pronounced OH-GWOO-MIH-KAY): The Los Angeles Sparks forward has faced numerous injuries in the past and chose to opt out this season, citing safety concerns. But that doesn’t mean she won’t be busy; Ogwumike recently announced that she’ll be co-hosting a new, daily national radio show with ESPN — the first Black woman and WNBA player to ever get the nod. More of this, please! She’s also partnered with LeBron James on his #MoreThanAVoteCampaign and will use her time away from the court to continue the fight for social justice.

Chiney Ogwumike/Instagram

Elena Delle Donne: Reigning league MVP and 2019 champion, Delle Donne entered the WNBA medical evaluation protocol and did not join her Washington Mystics team in Florida for pre-season training. Despite suffering from Lyme disease, Delle Donne was not granted a medical exemption by the league. She penned a powerful letter about her health and disappointment in the decision. Luckily, her Mystics coach confirmed that Delle Donne will keep her roster spot and receive her full salary, whether or not she competes.

While we’ll miss rooting for them on the hardwood this season, we’re stoked to continue supporting these women and their advocacy. 

Can’t miss match-ups

The WNBA opening day schedule on Saturday, July 25th will definitely be worth the wait. The first contest of the season showcases the league’s starpower with Ionescu’s Liberty taking on Stewart and Bird’s high-powered Storm live on ESPN at noon ET.

On Tuesday, July 28th at 7 p.m. ET, the Mystics and Connecticut Sun will clash in a rematch of last year’s finals. Both teams will be missing stars, with Delle Donne and newly traded Tina Charles out for the Mystics along with Jonquel Jones opting out for the Sun, but we can still expect a thriller from these powerhouses.

And we can’t wait for the 3 p.m. ET Saturday, August 8th matchup between the Mercury and Storm. WNBA legends, former UConn teammates and pals Diana Taurasi and Bird will meet in what could be one of the last battles between the pair. Taurasi and Bird have 20 WNBA All-Star appearances and six WNBA championships between them. Sheesh.

Matt York/Associated Press 

Favorites to win the championship

The Mystics earned their first-ever WNBA Championship last year, defeating the Sun in a thrilling five-game series. The Mystics were favored to defend their title this season, but with stars like Delle Donne and Cloud opting out, the trophy is up for grabs. 

Thanks to the return of Stewart, the Storm are now favored to win it all. But we wouldn’t be surprised if the Los Angeles Sparks (who made it all the way to the semifinals last year) took home the hardware either.

 

With the unprecedented nature of this season, anything could happen on the court. Check out the complete WNBA schedule and be sure to sign up for our twice-weekly free newsletter to stay up-to-date all season long!

Portland Thorns Defeat North Carolina Courage in Quarter-Final Upset

July 20, 2020
MADDIE MEYER/GETTY IMAGES
MADDIE MEYER/GETTY IMAGES

The GIST: Remember when we told you (more than once) that the North Carolina Courage were the heavy favorites to win the NWSL Challenge Cup? Well, about that...

What happened?: After absolutely owning the group stage of the Cup, the first-place Courage faced the last-place Portland Thorns FC in the quarter-finals...and lost. Morgan Weaver scored the lone goal for Portland to win 1–0 in the most unpredictable upset of the tournament. This must be what Drake was singing about.

  • And that wasn’t the only underdog story of the weekend (wait, this must be what Alicia Keys was singing about). The No. 2 Washington Spirit, who were thought to be a shoo-in for the semis, lost to the No. 7 Sky Blue FC in a penalty shoot-out. Theirs was the second of three quarter-finals to end in a 0–0 draw and be decided by penalties. Wild.

So what now?: Now we look ahead to Wednesday’s semifinals. Portland will face Houston Dash, who qualified fourth in the group stage, in the daytime match at 12:30 p.m. ET. And for our nighttime entertainment, Sky Blue FC will take on the Chicago Red Stars at 10 p.m. ET.

  • We’re not going to make any predictions (because, er, last week did not go well), so we’ll just say that we’re super pumped to watch Portland star and GOAT Christine Sinclair at least one more time.

Any MLS news?: We’re at the tail end of the MLS Is Back Tournament’s group stage, and a few teams are on the chopping block. A must-watch match this week? Toronto FC vs. New England Revolution tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. ET. Should be a banger.

🏈NFL Lacks Return to Play Strategy, Concerning Players

July 20, 2020
 SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES
SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES

The GIST: NFL training camps start in just over one week, and players are not happy about the NFL’s health and safety plan, or rather, lack thereof.

What’s the plan?: The NFL has decided that all 32 teams will begin training camps next Tuesday, July 28th, as was originally scheduled earlier this year (aka pre-pandemic). Teams can ask rookies to report as early as tomorrow, while quarterbacks (QBs) and injured players will have the chance to report Thursday.

  • The issue, however, is that the league hasn’t come up with a clear COVID-19 strategy for training camps and the regular season. This lack of plan is especially poignant considering 72 NFL players tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
     
  • There are currently some regulations in place, like only a maximum of 20 players are allowed in a team’s facilities at once, but the NFL says it still has a lot to discuss with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) before it can release a full plan.

What are the players saying?: They’re not happy. The always outspoken (in a good way) Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is leading the charge of players calling out the league for their lack of action. Last week, Watt made it clear that, above all, players want to play, but they also want to be safe. Fair.

  • He also highlighted the unknowns they’re facing, saying they’ve yet to receive an official plan from the NFL, NFLPA or any team. The league has yet to announce how testing will be administered and managed or how a positive test could affect the players and the season. Alarming.
  • To make matters worse, players still don’t know if the preseason — scheduled to start August 13th — will actually take place, and they have no clue what training camps will look like. And this haphazard return-to-play plan comes against the advice of the NFL’s and NFLPA’s own medical experts.

What other players spoke up?: Since Watt’s tweet, many fellow players have been voicing their concerns using the hashtag #WeWantToPlay. Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, whose wife, Ciara, is pregnant, tweeted, “We want to play football but we also want to protect our loved ones.”

What now?: The league has just days to figure out a plan. If they don’t, we anticipate a lot of no-shows at next week’s training camps. It really begs the question: what exactly has the NFL been doing for the past four months, if not prepping for football in the time of COVID-19?

🏀

Westbrook Designs New Jerseys for the NBPA, Blue Jays' Request to Host Home Games Denied, Williams Sports Kicks in Bryant's Memory

July 20, 2020
@GABBYWILIAMS INSTAGRAM
@GABBYWILIAMS INSTAGRAM

NBA: While most of the NBA is enjoying their time in their Disney World bubble ahead of the season restart on August 1st, Houston Rocket Russell Westbrook — who is quarantining at home after testing positive for COVID-19 — has been keeping busy creating some new threads. Westbrook is working with the NBA Players Association (NBPA) to design shirts featuring social justice messaging not included in the league’s 29 previously approved jersey messages.

  • Despite over 80% of players choosing a message so far, many have voiced their dismay at how limited the list was. Westbrook is a Fashion Fridays frequent flyer, so we’re hoping these new designs will land him back on our list.

MLB: The MLB is going ahead with their no-bubble regional travel plan, with the intention of having the league’s 30 teams play their home games at their own stadium. But this plan has been foiled for the league’s sole Canadian team, the Toronto Blue Jays. The federal government denied the Jays’ request to host opponents at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, forcing the team to find a new home south of the border.

  • Without their home-stadium atmosphere, the Jays could be at a huge disadvantage. Buffalo, home to Jays Triple-A-affiliate Buffalo Bisons, looked like it might be the best fit, but rumor has it the Jays are also exploring stadium-sharing situations with other MLB teams. Either way, they better get moving, because Opening Day is Thursday!

WNBA: In preparation for Saturday’s WNBA tip-off, the league held a media day last week where Chicago Sky star Gabby Williams stole the show, debuting a pair of Kobe sneakers customized with Gianna Bryant’s portrait.

  • Gabby was a close friend to both Kobe and Gianna, and was also Gianna’s favorite WNBA player. We can’t think of a better tribute for Mambacita.

NWSL Challenge Cup Proceeds to Knockout Round

July 16, 2020
BRYAN BYERLY/ISI PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
BRYAN BYERLY/ISI PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES

The GIST: The NWSL was the first North American pro team league to return to play. And now, they’re the first league to start their playoffs as they move on to the knockout round of the Challenge Cup. Thank goodness for women’s sports.

Who’s moving on?: Everyone! The eight-team knockout stage (aka lose-one-and-done playoffs) starting tomorrow originally would have seen one team not make the cut, but since the Orlando Pride pulled out of the tournament, all eight teams made it, effectively making the group stage all about seeding.

  • For the knockout round, teams are seeded based on their group stage results with the undefeated North Carolina Courage taking the number one spot. As the top team, they’ll now face the last place team, Portland Thorns FC (FC stands for Football Club), after they notched three draws (aka ties) and a loss in the group stage.

So who’s going to win?: As the only undefeated team, the Courage are definitely the favorites. Their star striker Lynn Williams leads the tournament in goals (this epic two-goal performance even won her Woman of the Match) and their goalkeeper Steph Labbé has been holding it down, too. This should be a piece of cake, but soccer is a game of moments, so you truly never know.

  • Looking at this weekend, the Washington Spirit should sail through their matchup against Sky Blue FC on Saturday, so our game of the weekend is the Houston Dash–Utah Royals FC tilt. The Royals may have the home crowd atmosphere, but the Dash have “something to prove.” Tune in tomorrow night at 10 p.m. ET.

Exciting. Any MLS news?: Great news from the Florida soccer bubble: no new COVID-19 cases were reported this week. The group stage is set to continue with no foreseeable match postponements or cancellations in sight and with no additional teams pulling out. Take a moment to knock on all the wood around you.