W.N.B.A. Will Hold ‘Virtual’ Draft in April

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The W.N.B.A. plans to hold its draft as scheduled in April, using video conferencing in hopes of recreating the moment so many athletes say they dream about: when a league commissioner hands them a jersey and their professional lives begin.

“We want to make sure that the players who are the draftees get their moment in the limelight,” the W.N.B.A.’s commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, said in a phone interview on Wednesday from her New Jersey home, where she has worked remotely for nearly two weeks because of the coronavirus outbreak that has brought the sports world to a standstill.

The draft is scheduled to be televised on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. Eastern time on April 17, with streams from players wherever they are and Engelbert “somewhere in New Jersey, announcing the draft picks live.”

“And that’s an honor for them,” she said. “So that while it’ll be virtual, and I won’t be with them, maybe they’ll be with their families and could be streamed in at home.”

In a way, it’s not much different from the usual draft — teams are typically not all in the same place anyway — but it presents an unusual blend of opportunity and challenge for the W.N.B.A. in what looked to be a pivotal year for gaining fans and raising its profile. This was to be the debut season of the Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu. This year was also expected to bring a possible seventh straight gold medal for the U.S. women’s basketball team at the Olympics and increased promotional and financial investment from the W.N.B.A. in its players.

While the coronavirus pandemic has threatened the season, the league is keeping its options open.

“One thing I learned is, don’t take any plans off the table prematurely,” Engelbert said. “Everything’s changing hour by hour, if not day by day.”

No decision has been made about when or if the season will start this year. The regular season was originally planned to start May 15.

For the league’s coaches and general managers, the April 17 draft date will still allow them to finish scouting and arranging deals. Nicki Collen, the head coach of the Atlanta Dream, said that with the team staff living all over the country, much of the work was done by teleconference, anyhow.

The Liberty have the first pick in the draft, followed by the Dallas Wings, the Indiana Fever, the Dream and the Phoenix Mercury.

“Draft preparation has not changed too drastically, as video has always been an extensive part of the evaluation process,” said Cheryl Reeve, the head coach and general manager of the Minnesota Lynx.

Reeve, whose team has the sixth overall pick, said the cancellation of the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament did affect how teams could prepare for the draft.

“What we miss is watching the next class of W.N.B.A. talent rising up, making big plays to help her team win on a big stage,” Reeve said. “But most of the evaluation work had already been completed prior to the N.C.A.A. tournament.”

As for underclassmen who wish to declare early for the draft — eligible if they turn 22 any time in 2020 or if they are four years past their high school graduation date — the deadline remains April 7. The league’s dates for training camp to begin, April 26, and the regular season’s tip in mid-May, however, seem unrealistic, given widespread orders to stay home and limit contact with other people. Whether the league can play at all this year will be decided in large part by outside forces, like government and health officials who have urged against large gatherings.

The N.B.A., whose team owners partially own the W.N.B.A., postponed its season on March 11 after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. Engelbert was meeting with her team in the W.N.B.A. offices that night when she heard about the shutdown. But seeing how the virus was advancing, she had already begun planning for such an eventuality.

The next morning, she checked in with Terri Jackson, head of the W.N.B.A.’s players’ union, and started generating plans for a season delayed by 30 days, 60 days or 90 days. A day later was supposed to be a work-from-home test for league officials. Instead, it became the first day of a new reality, with everybody working from home.

Should men’s and women’s pro seasons eventually start and overlap dates, Engelbert noted that there are just a few W.N.B.A. teams that play in N.B.A. arenas, making the N.B.A.’s plans less of a stumbling block than they would have been in the early days of the league, when more teams shared space. Only the Sparks (Staples Center in Los Angeles), the Lynx (Target Center in Minneapolis) and the Liberty (Barclays Center in Brooklyn) were scheduled to play in N.B.A. arenas in 2020.

Even those overlaps could offer chances to expand the league’s footprint, both by playing some home games in alternate venues or by pairing W.N.B.A. games in doubleheaders with N.B.A. games.

“One of our transformational goals is to expand the fandom, expand the reach of the W.N.B.A. beyond our 12 cities to get more exposure to our players in our potential fan population,” Engelbert said. “So we could actually be creative here and think about other cities.”

The postponing of the Tokyo Games also provides the league with three extra weeks this summer that had been off-limits when the season was originally scheduled. The W.N.B.A. typically goes on a midseason hiatus in Olympic years so that its players can compete in the Games. The U.S. women’s basketball team has won six consecutive gold medals, dating to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Playing games this year is paramount, Engelbert said. Even if the league must play in empty arenas for safety’s sake, she said, she and her team are reimagining what experiencing live sports might look and feel like. It could mean playing games in one, centralized location that has been cleared for fans or playing in front of no fans in person but emphasizing other live forms of engagement, like social media.

“Getting live sports back on television, I think we have almost a public service responsibility to do everything we can,” Engelbert said. “Because it’s clear that everybody’s missing live sports.”

Source : nytimes