Sports·The Buzzer

The WNBA has come a long way in 25 years

CBC Sports' daily newsletter looks at what's changed from the WNBA's inaugural season in 1997, and since the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.

Things look brighter for the league's silver-anniversary season

Canadian Kia Nurse is looking to rebound from a tough year in New York as she starts the WNBA's 25th season fresh in Phoenix. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Associated Press)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.

The WNBA's 25th season tips off Friday night

Whether you consider its entire quarter-century existence or just the last calendar year, the WNBA has come a long way. Here are some things to know as the league enters its silver-anniversary season:

What's changed since last year

Due to the pandemic, the 2020 regular season was cut to only 22 games and played in a sequestered, fanless environment in Florida. Same for the playoffs, which culminated with stars Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird leading Seattle to a sweep of Las Vegas in the WNBA Finals in early October.

But the "Wubble" is history. All 12 teams are back playing in their home cities, and at least some fans will be in attendance everywhere. The schedule is 32 games — two less than normal, but not because of the pandemic. There's a break from July 15-Aug. 11 to allow players to compete in the Tokyo Olympics.

The WNBA is also welcoming back several players who opted out of last season either because of coronavirus concerns or to devote more time to social-justice causes. And 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick Sabrina Ionescu returns from an ankle injury that cut her exciting rookie season to just three games.

There's also an interesting new in-season competition called the Commissioner's Cup. Ten of each team's intra-conference games before the Olympic break have been designated as Commissioner's Cup games. The team with the best record in these games from each conference will square off right after the break — on Aug. 12 — for the trophy and the lioness' share of a half-million-dollar prize pool. Players on the winning team will get about $30,000 each. As Yahoo Sports' Cassandra Negley notes in this story, that's more than half of what 2020 WNBA rookie of the year Crystal Dangerfield makes for the whole season.

What's changed since 1997

Too many things to list here, but some of the differences that jump out from the WNBA's inaugural season are that there were only eight teams and the playoffs consisted of only two rounds — all single-game affairs. The first two rounds are still single elimination, but the semis and WNBA Finals are now best-of-five series.

The most important growth, though, has come in player pay and benefits. In 1997, salaries ranged from $15,000-$50,000 US, and the players had to fight for their medical coverage to be extended into the off-season. Today, the minimum salary for players on their rookie contracts is close to $59,000, and $70K for veterans. The best players can make just north of $220K. The new labour deal struck in early 2020, just before the pandemic hit, also included perks like full salaries for players on maternity leave, help with costs related to adoption, surrogacy and fertility/infertility treatment, and individual hotel rooms on road trips.

WNBA players still make only a fraction of what their counterparts in the NBA pull in. Many of them play overseas in the off-season to supplement their income. But the gains made in the last 25 years are a testament to the skill and determination of today's players, and of their predecessors who did the hard work of laying the foundation.

The Olympics add an extra wrinkle to the 25th-anniversary season

It's unlikely anyone will prevent the WNBA-star-studded U.S. team from winning its seventh consecutive gold medal in Tokyo. The Americans are 49-0 since the Unified Team upset them in the semifinals in 1992.

But Canada has a shot to reach the women's podium for the first time. It's ranked fourth in the world, and three of its players are on WNBA opening-night rosters. Fourth-year guard Kia Nurse, an All-Star in 2019, will try to bounce back from a miserable shooting season as she starts fresh in Phoenix, which acquired her in a trade with New York. Third-year forward Bridget Carleton hopes to build on a solid season with Minnesota that saw her score 25 points and grab seven rebounds in her first WNBA start and average 6.6 points and 3.5 rebounds for the year. Veteran forward Natalie Achonwa joins Carleton in Minnesota after spending her first six seasons with Phoenix, where she averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds last year. Read more about the Canadians and other things to know for the WNBA season in this piece by CBC Sports' Myles Dichter.

Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart's Seattle Storm won the WNBA title last year. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Quickly...

Denis Shapovalov nearly upset Rafael Nadal on clay. The young Canadian won the first set of their third-round match at the Italian Open and had two match points in the deciding third set. But Nadal showed why he's the greatest clay-court player of all time, battling back to win in a tiebreaker. Later this month, the 34-year-old Spaniard will go for his 14th French Open singles title on the dirt of Roland Garros (no one else has more than seven in the Open Era) and his 21st Grand Slam singles title. That would move him past Roger Federer for the all-time men's record. Read more about Nadal's comeback win over Shapovalov and watch highlights here.

The last meaningful game of the NHL regular season is tonight. And there's quite a bit at stake. If Colorado beats Los Angeles (the Avalanche are a huge favourite to do so), they'll leapfrog Vegas to finish first in the West Division and will also win the Presidents' Trophy for the NHL's best regular-season record. Either way, the last two undecided playoff matchups will be decided tonight. If the Avs win, they play St. Louis and Vegas faces Minnesota in the first round. If they lose, it's Vegas vs. St. Louis and Colorado vs. Minnesota.

We finally have start dates for the North Division playoff series. The NHL released its full first-round schedule today, and the Edmonton-Winnipeg matchup starts Wednesday, May 19 at 9 p.m. ET while the Toronto-Montreal series opens the next night at 7:30 p.m. ET. The first playoff game, which had already been announced, is still the Washington-Boston opener Saturday at 7:15 p.m. ET. The Pittsburgh-Islanders and Florida-Tampa Bay series both start Sunday, Carolina-Nashville begins Monday, and the two West series (matchups TBD) get going Sunday and Monday. See the full schedule and TV info for every series here.

Canada named its women's hockey coach for the 2022 Olympics. Troy Ryan was an assistant on Laura Schuler's staff in 2018, when Canada lost the gold-medal game in a shootout to the U.S. He was supposed to coach Canada at the 2020 world championship in Nova Scotia, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic and the event was postponed this year. The plan now is to hold it somewhere in Canada in August, and the Canadian team is aiming for a training camp in July. In the meantime, many Canadian players will compete in the Secret Cup — a May 24-30 tournament in Calgary that's part of the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association's Dream Gap Tour. Several tour stops have been held in the U.S. this year, but Canadians couldn't participate because of border restrictions. Read more about the Secret Cup here. Read more about Ryan and the Canadian national team here.

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