The WNBA will hold its draft on April 17, as originally scheduled, without a gathering of draftees, media or fans because of the coronavirus pandemic, the league announced Thursday.
Instead, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert will announce the picks live on a broadcast starting at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2/ESPN App), with the top prospects taking part remotely.
The New York Liberty have the first overall selection and are expected to pick Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu.
Ionescu and the rest of the draftees won’t have the chance to walk onto a stage and pose for the standard photo holding up their new team’s jersey, but at least they will still have a part of the draft experience and will find out where they’ll start their WNBA careers — even if they might not know when the season will begin.
“The prospects deserve to be drafted, and this is part of their dream,” Engelbert said. “It was a collective decision made by the league, in consultation with the teams. We felt it was really important to celebrate and recognize their hard work and accomplishment.
“While it’s premature to say what the circumstances will be for training camp and the tip of the season, we’re scenario-planning around the start of the season. And part of that is we have to have a draft. The teams are strategizing about their rosters, and the draft is also an important part of that.”
Draft-eligible juniors must declare for the draft at least 10 days before it’s held.
Training camps were scheduled to begin April 26, with the season to start May 15. But with the sports world currently shut down, the WNBA’s start date, or even how long the season will go, is an open-ended question.
The WNBA originally had a month-long break this year because of the Tokyo Olympics; that down time would have run from July 11-Aug. 15. But with the Summer Games postponed, it gives the WNBA a little more leeway in terms of potential rescheduling.
“We have not taken any scenario off the table,” Engelbert said. “We’ve got our regular tip still on the table, we’ve got 15-, 30-, 60-, 90-day etc. (delay) scenarios on the table. It’s our job to think through the scenarios, put down all the pros and cons, and continue the momentum around the WNBA during a time of crisis in the world. I think there’s still unprecedented awareness to support women’s sports and the WNBA.
“We’re really bullish that when we get to tip our season, we’ll have success in building off the momentum we and the players established together with the new CBA.”
The collective bargaining agreement was agreed to in January. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association has been in close contact with the league about all decisions going forward, including the draft.
“My belief is that if there was an opportunity to stick to one of the key dates, I think it’s a positive move,” said WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson of keeping the draft on April 17. “Coming out of CBA negotiations, we’ve just had a good framework for communicating. Cathy and I have committed to checking in with each other every day.”
The league and the union also have been working together to make sure that WNBA players who were playing overseas — some still are — had all the information they needed about dealing with travel during the pandemic. Many have returned to the United States.
“One of things we stressed was, ‘Make sure you have a plan, whatever decision you make,'” Jackson said. “Whether they stayed overseas — we understood some had contractual commitments — or whether they wanted to come back here. We said, ‘It’s a multi-layered approach. Think about not just identifying flights, but when you get to this country, there might be additional challenges and concerns.'”
Engelbert said whenever the WNBA does start, it will follow a strict protocol regarding the health and well-being of players, coaches and fans.
She and Jackson were both pleased with the CBA, and felt it would be a great springboard into this season. While there are concerns about how the pandemic will affect the global economy — and how that in turn will impact the WNBA — they are staying positive.
“Obviously, it’s concerning for any business operating during this pandemic,” Engelbert said. “But I continue to be confident in our ability to navigate all the complexities. While some may argue we’ll lose some momentum because of this, we’re still pretty much all engines go on the initiatives that we were introducing over the coming seasons.”
The league also announced Thursday that during the draft, it will honor young players Alyssa Altobelli, Gianna Bryant and Payton Chester, who died with six others — including NBA legend Kobe Bryant — in a helicopter accident on Jan. 26. The WNBA also plans to honor Kobe Bryant for his advocacy of the league. Also, starting Monday, the league will provide free access to WNBA League Pass, so fans can watch content on demand, including replays of 2019 games.
For Engelbert, this is her first full season with the league, having taken over as commissioner last July. She’s not sure where she’ll be during the draft broadcast. That’s still being determined, but she could be in her home in New York.
However, in her former position with Deloitte, Engelbert dealt with the global financial meltdown of the mid-2000s, among other similar situations. So she has experience with crisis management and how to keep moving forward.
She also anticipates that people will be very excited to having sports again to watch. And she thinks that the WNBA as a smaller league — 12 teams — could be more “agile” in regard to any potential schedule changes or anything else needed to get going again.
“We’ll start with our draft,” Engelbert said, “and then work with the appropriate medical authorities and government directives to make sure we’re comfortable tipping off the season.
“I think this has proved how much live sports is part of the fabric of entertainment of America and around the world. Our players will be eager to be viewed as leaders in getting live sports back on.”