Three players selected by Atlanta in the WNBA draft - Brittany Brewer (Texas Tech), Mikayla Pivec (Oregon State) snf Kobi Thornton (Clemson) - go over their draft night emotions. (Courtesy of Atlanta Dream)

Dream, WNBA prepare for season without start date

The Dream front office retooled the team’s roster in free agency, then drafted an All-American along with three others Friday.

Now, the team waits for an update on when or if the 2020 WNBA season will be played.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said on a conference call Friday that the goal is to play when it is “medically advisable and feasible.” Because of the coronavirus pandemic, no one knows when that’ll be or what that'll look like.

“It's a little bit of a Rubik’s Cube because as you all know, every day there’s emerging information coming out on the situation here by regions and in the U.S. and around the world,” Engelbert said. “Everything is on the table. We could play into the fall for sure, but we’re going to try to get a semblance of a season this summer into the fall.”

The April 26 training camp start date and the original May 15 season kick off won’t happen as planned, and the league is “using this time to scenario plan regarding new start dates and innovative formats.” 

The league had momentum before the pandemic. The WNBA and WNBPA announced a groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement. The new CBA allowed for more player movement and a lot happened, which caused excitement for the coming season.

The Dream were in on that and added new players – some who starred in the 2019 WNBA finals or recent NCAA tournaments – and the team hopes to put out a much better product than it did in 2019. 

The team last week also received its first-ever jersey brand sponsor in Inspire Brands, launched a new logo, and planned to play in a new arena in College Park in 2020 – one that the front office and players were excited about.

Then the coronavirus began to spread.

Players returned from their overseas teams and began to social distance.

The first couple of days of cancellations were hard for the goal-oriented Nicki Collen, the Dream’s head coach, who has started a 30-day coffee-free challenge so she has a date to work toward. 

“We put all these things in motion and we’re excited to kick everything off,” she said on ESPN’s “Around the Rim” podcast. “We were at that time between draft prep where really what you’re doing is you’re building out your playbook with your new roster so you’re ready on the 26th and all of a sudden when you don’t know where that day is?”

The WNBA has 12 teams in cities across the country, some of which are handling the pandemic differently. The alternative options Engelbert mentioned Friday included: multiple sites, one site, neutral sites, in WNBA arenas or outside of them and without fans.

Collen said playing without fans could feel like a closed scrimmage. Fenerbahçe, the team Elizabeth Williams spent her offseason playing with in Turkey, is known for having loud and invested fans. The team played out its season without spectators.

“There’s a difference in motivating yourself when there aren’t 5,000 people or 10,000 people screaming for you or against you,” Collen said. “And don’t underestimate that, like, how important that is.”

In her previous role at Deloitte, Engelbert said she did a “ton of scenario planning around economic downturns” and had been thinking about options shall the country hit a one, not necessarily a pandemic, before the coronavirus hit.

“The one thing I know from being in prior economic crises, the decisions you make in the crises, when you come out you’ll be talking about them for five to 10 years, whether they worked or didn’t work,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to keep going, keep executing the strategy and keep all the scenario plans on the table, especially in this fluid time where things are changing literally daily.”

Players normally get paid after the start of the season, whether they have protected, guaranteed contracts or non-guaranteed, unprotected contracts. If the season isn’t played, Dream general manager Chris Sienko said what would happen wouldn’t be decided at the team level.

“I think that’s really going to be a discussion between the league and the players association. Not unlike what the NBA is doing,” Sienko said. “So I think we’re going to take a lot of what happens at the NBA level, and it’ll probably be applied to us. I think every intention is to play this season in some capacity. Now, if that were to change, it would not be a team decision. That would be a league decision with the players association. And then we’ll do whatever is asked of us.”

Engelbert said the league is “having discussions constantly, internally about all of the financial impacts of coronavirus on sport.”

Personnel-wise, Collen said some players are bored while others enjoy being home by themselves for extended periods of time. But the stress of a pandemic is universal. 

“I think there’s just so much uncertainty,” she said. “Whether you’re a WNBA player, or you know, someone that’s a gas-station attendant. There’s just the fluidity of this situation and how it changes day-to-day and trying to understand terms and things that we’ve never heard of before, like flattening curves.

“I think they’re doing all right under the circumstances. I don’t think they’re doing better or worse than anybody else. But I think they’re bored. That's for sure.”

When and if players hit the court, training camp will be shorter and though they’ve been working out, they players will have to figure out a way to get into basketball shape for however long the season will be.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt no matter how many hills you run, how many burpees you do, how many five-mile jogs you go on, it’s not basketball,” Collen said. “It’s not cutting, it’s not screening. It’s not physical, no one’s banging on you, leaning on you. So, you know, I think we’re gonna have to figure that out when the you know, dust settles, and we’re back at it.”

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