A basketball crown, a second-place finish and half a million dollars show the WNBA’s hopes for its next big thing.
The Commissioner’s Cup is an offseason tournament designed to attract fans and increase revenue opportunities for the WNBA through interconference competition. You’d be forgiven if you hadn’t noticed in its two-year existence. Some players are caught forgetting. But for the history of the WNBA’s newest vocabulary word, look no further than Sue Bird.
Seattle guard, Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike and Mercury star Diana Taurasi are behind the WNBA’s latest innovation, sparking a unique event during the 2019 collective bargaining agreement. A year after the Commissioner’s Cup debuted in the WNBA, the NBA is now considering an offseason tournament to spice up its regular season.
For Bird, growing a new event is just one more addition to his long list of game-changing accomplishments. The 41-year-old’s on-court accolades are almost unmatched: a five-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time WNBA champion, two-time NCAA champion, WNBA winningest player and all-time assists leader.
As the WNBA progresses, those records may one day fall. But Bird’s influence will continue as a key member of the players’ union, providing innovative ideas to lay the groundwork at a critical time for the WNBA’s growth.
Terry Jackson, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Assn., called Bird’s service as one of three union vice presidents a “gift.”
“She realized her responsibility to the game and to the women playing now and to the young women who aspire to be like her,” Jackson said. “In the women’s game, we know what our role is and she understands the scope and impact of it and quite honestly, she’s been very generous in serving in leadership over the last couple of years and sharing that with us.”
Bird, who announced his retirement at the end of the season last month, will play his final regular-season game against the Sparks on Thursday at Crypto.com Arena. It will be the final Commissioner’s Cup game of the year for both teams, who are out of the running for $500,000 in bonus money as players and fans continue to celebrate Bird’s illustrious career.
“Sue is one of the goats,” said Sparks guard Jordin Canada, who played four years with the Bird in Seattle. “He is a legend in this game. … It’s a long list of things he’s accomplished in his career, and it’s a testament to what a great player he is, and not only that, but also a person.”
Looking back on her 21-year WNBA career, Bird regrets not being more involved with the players’ union earlier, she told The Times in a phone interview. Like many of her peers, Bird spent her WNBA seasons playing overseas. He felt like “out of sight, out of mind.”
After Bird stopped playing overseas in 2015, he became more interested in the union. He started out as a player representative. First Vice President Layshia Clarendon encouraged Bird to run for a position on the executive committee.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. As Bird’s term as vice president began in August 2018, the players were deciding whether to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement.
Helping negotiate with the highly regarded 2020 CBA for increased salaries and better benefits such as 100% paid maternity leave and child care and family planning stipends has been one of the most rewarding parts of being in player leadership, along with the WNBA’s social protections, Bird said. . Justice campaigns in the 2020 bubble season, bringing Breonna Taylor to the spotlight and launching a campaign to elect Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
CBA negotiations were difficult in part because players wanted to start from scratch after previous collective bargaining agreements left them feeling “stuck,” Bird said. Jackson said players submitted 75 offers.
Both sides went off the roster, and there was a moment when players let the league know they were ready to sign, Jackson recalled. Until Bird walks in with a question: “But why?”
“Sue said OK, we’re coming to the end, we’ll be done with it, but we don’t want anything,” Jackson said. “We don’t want any regrets.”
Despite months of negotiations, the January 2020 Good Morning America deal is far from perfect. Two years into a seven-year contract, questions about the prioritization clause, which limits lucrative opportunities abroad starting next season, are putting some players on the back burner. Players still wrangle the league over travel accommodations with extra legroom, but no guaranteed charter flights.
The current contract expires in 2027.
“I joke that it’s the CBA before the CBA,” Bird said. “We need someone who will be a foundational CBA that can be a starting point for growth beyond.”
A major area of improvement that could solve many of the league’s problems is revenue. The salary cap in the most recent CBA increased by nearly 30%, but the contract provided for a 50-50 revenue split only if the league met certain revenue growth targets from broadcast contracts, marketing partnerships and licensing deals.
The creation of the Commissioner’s Cup was supposed to help the league achieve its goals. Jackson called it a “game within a game” because Bird, Taurasi and Ogwumike wanted to provide a real solution to repeated calls for a “new model.” The two-year format, inspired by similar seasonal tournaments in overseas leagues, designates 10 regular-season games for each team as Bowl games, and the top team in each conference will play an additional game with $50,000 in bonus money.
The first-year tournament, which ended with Seattle routing the Connecticut Sun and Bird joking that the trophy weighed as much as the team’s bonus money, was thought to be because the players were slow to shift their focus from their traditional regular-season stakes.
Sparks forward Katie Lou Samuelson, who won the Commissioner’s Cup last year as a member of the Storm, said awareness has grown in the competition’s second season. But with a WNBA-record 36 regular season games, the Cup isn’t always at the forefront of every player’s mind.
Part of the appeal of the current form is that there is minimal disruption to an already difficult schedule. It adds only one game for the two finalists. But even the small scale has yet to make real waves.
Off-season tournaments have already been successful abroad, including in the top Spanish league, where Samuelson and Storm guard Jewell Loyd played for 10-time Copa del Rey champion Perfumerías Avenida. The competition brings together the top eight teams in a 16-team league for a weekend tournament. It can be grueling – three games in three days – but the quest for trophies and bonuses, along with the city’s bragging rights, has kept the event popular in Spain.
Loyd sees a future where the Commissioner’s Cup could also become a big spectacle.
“The biggest thing in the WNBA is how you sell things,” the three-time All-Star said. “That’s a big part of it, understanding who you’re marketing to, how you’re selling it, and what it’s about.”
The Commissioner’s Cup is currently sponsored by Coinbase, and Bird hopes the sponsorship opportunities will expand the event to more teams coming together to “almost become an event like watching our Women’s Final Four.”
“As an event that people want to be a part of,” he continued.
Bird hoisted its first Commissioner’s Cup trophy last year, but it will soon take a back seat as the league looks to continue the tradition in its next era. This passing of the torch will be another help in his record-breaking career.