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How Sue Bird brought the WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup to life

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A basketball sporting a crown, a second desk of standings and half one million {dollars} mark what the WNBA hopes is its subsequent massive factor.

The Commissioner’s Cup is an in-season match meant to rally followers by cross-conference rivalries and enhance income alternatives for the WNBA. You’ll be forgiven in case you haven’t taken discover in its two-year existence. Some gamers are caught forgetting. However for a historical past of the WNBA’s latest vocabulary phrase, look no additional than Sue Bird.

The Seattle level guard, Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike and Mercury star Diana Taurasi have been masterminds behind the WNBA’s newest innovation by pushing for the distinctive occasion in the course of the 2019 collective bargaining settlement negotiations. A 12 months after the Commissioner’s Cup debuted within the WNBA, the NBA is now contemplating an in-season match to boost its common season.

For Hen, the expansion of the brand new occasion is simply one other contribution to her lengthy listing of game-changing achievements. The 41-year-old’s on-court accolades are almost unmatched: five-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time WNBA champion, two-time NCAA champion, the WNBA’s winningest participant and all-time chief in assists.

Because the WNBA progresses, these data might at some point fall. However Hen’s affect will final in her function as a key member of the gamers’ union who contributed progressive concepts to put the muse throughout a essential time for the WNBA’s progress.

Terri Jackson, the manager director of the Girls’s Nationwide Basketball Gamers Assn., referred to as Hen’s service as considered one of three union vice presidents “a present.”

“She understood her duty to the sport and to the ladies who’re enjoying proper now and the younger ladies who’re aspiring to be like her,” Jackson mentioned. “We within the ladies’s recreation know what our function is and he or she understands her attain and her influence and fairly truthfully, she was tremendously beneficiant these previous few years in serving in management and sharing that with us.”

Hen, who introduced her retirement on the finish of the season final month, will play her last regular-season recreation in opposition to the Sparks on Thursday at Crypto.com Enviornment. Will probably be the final Commissioner’s Cup recreation of the 12 months for each groups, who’re already out of the race to get the $500,000 in bonus cash, as gamers and followers proceed to have a good time Hen’s illustrious profession.

“Sue’s one of many GOATs,” mentioned Sparks guard Jordin Canada, who performed with Hen for 4 years in Seattle. “She’s a legend on this recreation. … It’s a protracted listing of issues she has completed in her profession and it’s only a testomony to how nice of a participant she is, however not solely that, however the particular person she is.”

Wanting again on her 21-year WNBA profession, Hen regrets not being extra concerned within the gamers’ union earlier, she advised The Instances in a cellphone interview. Like a lot of her friends, Hen spent her WNBA offseasons enjoying abroad. It felt like “out of sight, out of thoughts,” she mentioned.

After Hen stopped enjoying abroad in 2015, she grew to become extra curious concerning the union. She started as a participant rep. First vp Layshia Clarendon inspired Hen to run for a place on the manager committee.

It couldn’t have come at a greater time. As Hen’s vice-presidential time period started in August 2018, gamers have been deciding whether or not to opt-out of their collective bargaining settlement.

Serving to negotiate the 2020 CBA that was hailed for elevated salaries and better benefits such as 100% paid maternity leave and stipends for childcare and household planning has been one of the crucial rewarding components of being in participant management, Hen mentioned, together with the WNBA’s social justice campaigns during the 2020 bubble season that spotlighted Breonna Taylor and launched a campaign to elect Democratic senator Raphael Warnock.

The CBA negotiations have been tough, partially, as a result of the gamers needed to start out from scratch after earlier collective bargaining agreements left them feeling “caught,” Hen mentioned. Jackson mentioned the gamers put ahead 75 proposals.

Either side punched away on the listing and there was a second when gamers appeared to sign to the league they have been able to signal, Jackson remembered. Till Hen stepped in with a query: “However why?”

“Sue mentioned OK, we’re near the top, we’re going to be accomplished with this, however we don’t need any what-ifs,” Jackson mentioned. “We don’t need any regrets.”

United States's Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird pose with their gold medals during the medal ceremony.

United States’s Diana Taurasi, left, and Sue Hen pose with their gold medals in the course of the medal ceremony for girls’s basketball on the 2020 Summer time Olympics on Aug. 8, 2021, in Saitama, Japan.

(Charlie Neibergall / Related Press)

Regardless of the months of negotiations, the settlement celebrated on “Good Morning America” in January 2020 shouldn’t be good. Two years into the seven-year contract, questions on a prioritization clause that limits profitable abroad alternatives beginning subsequent season have some gamers second-guessing. Gamers are nonetheless feuding with the league about journey lodging, which embody further leg room, however no assured constitution flights.

The present deal expires in 2027.

“I joke that is the CBA earlier than the CBA,” Hen mentioned. “We wanted one which was going to be a foundational CBA that may very well be a place to begin for progress past.”

The main space for progress that might resolve lots of the league’s issues is income. The wage cap elevated by about 30% within the newest CBA, however the settlement solely granted 50-50 income sharing if the league reaches sure income progress targets from broadcast agreements, advertising partnerships and licensing offers.

Creating the Commissioner’s Cup was supposed to assist the league get towards the objectives. Jackson referred to as it “the sport inside the recreation,” as Hen, Taurasi and Ogwumike needed to offer an actual resolution to the repeated requires a “new mannequin.” Impressed by comparable in-season tournaments in leagues abroad, the two-year-old format designates 10 regular-season video games for every group as Cup video games and the highest group in every convention will play a further recreation with $50,000 of bonus cash at stake.

The primary 12 months’s match, which ended with Seattle routing the Connecticut Solar and Hen joking that the trophy weighs as a lot because the group’s bonus cash, felt like an afterthought as gamers have been sluggish to shift their focus from the normal regular-season stakes.

Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird shoots in front of Indiana Fever guard Danielle Robinson.

Seattle Storm guard Sue Hen shoots in entrance of Indiana Fever guard Danielle Robinson within the first half in Indianapolis on Tuesday.

(Michael Conroy / Related Press)

Sparks ahead Katie Lou Samuelson, who received the Commissioner’s Cup final 12 months as a member of the Storm, mentioned consciousness is rising within the competitors’s second season. However with a WNBA-record 36 regular-season video games to play, the Cup isn’t at all times on the forefront of each participant’s thoughts.

Half of the present type’s attraction is that there’s minimal disruption to an already tough schedule. It solely provides yet another recreation for the 2 finalists. However the small scale has additionally but to make actual waves.

In-season tournaments are already profitable abroad, together with the highest Spanish league during which Samuelson and Storm guard Jewell Loyd play for 10-time Queen’s Cup champions Perfumerías Avenida. The competitors gathers the highest eight groups within the 16-team league for a single-elimination weekend match. It may be grueling — three video games in three days — however the hunt for a trophy and a bonus, together with metropolis bragging rights have sustained the occasion’s reputation in Spain.

Loyd sees a future during which the Commissioner’s Cup might develop into a significant spectacle as properly.

“The most important factor within the WNBA is the way you market issues,” the three-time All-Star mentioned. “That’s a giant a part of it, understanding who you’re advertising to, the way you promote it, what’s it about.”

The Commissioner’s Cup is presently sponsored by Coinbase, and Hen hopes sponsorship alternatives develop to increase the occasion for extra groups that meet in a single location to develop into “an occasion nearly like a approach we view a Girls’s Ultimate 4.

“Like an precise second in time,” she continued, “an occasion that individuals need to be part of.”

Hen raised the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup trophy final 12 months however will quickly slip to the background as she watches the league proceed the custom in its subsequent period. Passing this torch shall be one other help throughout her record-breaking profession.