WNBA commissioner mulls doubleheaders with NBA teams, other options

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert on Friday said doubleheaders with NBA teams and different fan engagements are among the things being discussed in regard to the league having a 2020 season.

The WNBA season was scheduled to begin May 15, but it has been postponed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Engelbert said she believes that the coronavirus pandemic "will change sports forever."

"From a perspective of how do you engage fans, how do fans come into an arena, how fans interact," Engelbert said. "So we're thinking about how we do a better job engaging fans at home, because maybe there's a scenario where more fans stay at home rather than come to the arena for all sports -- not just our sport."

Engelbert, who was set to announce picks for the WNBA draft from a makeshift studio at her home in New York on Friday night (ESPN/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET), said the league has discussed multiple options about how to play games this year.

"With or without fans, one site, multiple sites, in our arenas, not in our arenas," Engelbert said. "At neutral sites, at sites where maybe there isn't as much exposure -- as there are hot spots around the country. We're not taking any options off the table.

"We're doing a lot of analysis. This is why it's called scenario planning. We're leveraging all of the resources we have with the NBA and the WNBA. We could innovate around different formats. We probably won't end up with one scenario; we'll end up with maybe employing multiple ones."

That might include the possibility of doubleheaders with the NBA, since it's also unclear when that league will resume.

Only five WNBA teams actually share the same arena as an NBA team: Indiana, Los Angeles, Minnesota and New York and Phoenix. And the Mercury were already scheduled to play in Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum this season while Talking Stick Resort Arena undergoes a renovation.

"Where we do share an arena, it's a time of opportunity that we could probably do back-to-backs or doubleheaders," Engelbert said. "Or maybe bring some games -- if we get to the point where we're in arenas with fans -- we [go] to arenas where there's not a WNBA team to foster [growth]. Especially some of these big college markets where women's basketball is extremely popular.

"I look at playing at the same time as the NBA as an opportunity to kind of do live look-ins, things like that."

As far as fan engagement, Engelbert said it would require innovative thinking and technology.

"Could you have a fan replicate being in an arena, because they touch something on [a mobile device]?" she said. "Vote for their favorite shot or player? Even if [we get] fans back, the ramp to that is not going to be that quick. You look at how some platforms have benefited because people are home. How can we replicate a business model like that?"

Engelbert took over as WNBA commissioner in July 2019. Previously, she was CEO of Deloitte, and she referenced her experience in that sector.

"We did a ton of scenario planning on economic downturns," Engelbert said. "As soon as I came into the league, I started thinking about what levers would we pull should we hit some kind of economic downturn. I wasn't thinking it would be a pandemic that would prevent the season from starting.

"The decisions you make in the crisis, when you come out, you'll be talking about them for five to 10 years, whether they worked or didn't work. One thing that's come out of this whole crisis is how important communications and relationships are. We've been talking to our players and our teams about the mental-health aspect of a crisis like this and how it drains on people."

Engelbert also addressed the question of how the league will deal with the possibility of states having different rules limiting the size of gatherings.

"We're in 12 markets, so our scale is a little smaller than some other major professional sports leagues," Engelbert said. "I think we have the opportunity to collaborate with state and local governments, only when it's medically feasible."

Engelbert also was asked about the viability of the league in light of global financial issues related to the pandemic.

"We're working with teams from an economic perspective that what we do makes sense," she said. "Some would say that women's sports are already at a bit of a disadvantage. We had a lot of momentum coming into this year, which is why I still have a level of optimism. This is a business, and we're going to navigate the complexities."

Engelbert also announced that the WNBA, presenting draft partner State Farm and the players' union will donate $240,000 to Direct Relief -- $20,000 for each of the 12 first-round picks -- to help get protective gear and medication to health-care workers as quickly as possible.