Sports innovation is on the rise everywhere, and the 25th season of the WNBA is no exception. Second-year commissioner Cathy Engelbert officially introduced the Commissioner’s Cup this season, although she’s been hinting at an in-season tournament since she took the role last July. The WNBA first announced the Commissioner’s Cup over a year ago before Covid-19 halted sports and much of the world.
“We are incredibly excited to introduce a first-of-its-kind in-season tournament for our league and present more regular-season games on ABC, increasing the WNBA’s national television exposure,” said Engelbert last year.
This year, a milestone year for the league, the WNBA has finally gotten the 60-game Commissioner’s Cup underway. Instead of ABC, they have a new final destination for the Cup Championship. On May 12, the league announced a multi-year deal with Amazon Prime, which includes 16 regulars season games (nine Commissioner’s Cup games) and the Cup Championship on August 12 in Phoenix.
“The WNBA is one of the premier professional sports leagues in the world and serves as an inspiration to millions of young and aspiring athletes everywhere,” said Marie Donoghue, vice president of Global Sports Video at AmazonAMZN. “I am delighted we are bringing these outstanding athletes and games to Prime Video.”
So what is the Commissioner’s Cup?
It’s an in-season tournament with a $500,000 prize pool and an additional $5,000 bonus for the championship MVP. Players on the winning team will be awarded up to $30,000 each, while the runners-up stand to make $10,000 per person.
All 12 WNBA teams will have 10 regular season games designated as Commissioner’s Cup matchups for a total of 60 games across the league-leading up to the July 12 Olympic break.
This competition within a season is one of several innovations we’re seeing across women’s sports. The NWSL introduced the Challenge Cup in 2020. The PWHPA introduced a groundbreaking points system, and Athletes Unlimited has an entirely new 5-week professional league with top-earning players serving as general managers for their team each week.
In addition, it brings back relevance to WNBA conferences. The league opted to move away from Eastern and Western Conference champions in 2016. Instead, the top eight teams in the league, regardless of conference, made the playoffs. With the conferences now holding weight for the Commissioner’s Cup, we might see a return to conference rivalries.
“It’s a great way to keep people very involved with these extra games. These Cup games (build) up the excitement of the best team in the West and the best team in the East for prize money,” said Sun guard Kaila Charles. “You know it’s gonna be really competitive because people want to win the money!”
For the WNBA, the Commissioner’s Cup is also a way to attract new sponsors and a new set of viewers. The first Amazon Prime game was an overtime thriller between the New York Liberty and the red-hot Atlanta Dream. The Dream extended their winning streak to 4 games with a 90-87 OT win behind the late heroics of guard Courtney Williams.
Fans have taken to social media to say the viewership experience on Amazon Prime is superior to WNBA League Pass. Of course, not all fans are thrilled due to local blackout restrictions and limitations for International fans another platform limit viewership in places like Canada.
Within the WNBA, players seem curious in the Commissioner’s Cup, although it doesn’t seem to be a main focus.
“It’s not something we place emphasis on specifically,” Connecticut forward Brionna Jones told me Sunday. “If it’s a Commissioner’s Cup game or a regular game, we’re going in just as hard and just as willing to fight.”
That said, a $500,000 pool to be split among active players is nothing to sneeze at. “I mean, we’ve definitely talked about that. We all want a piece of that,” said Jones with a laugh.
Through three Cup games, Connecticut sits atop the Eastern Conference. The Seattle Storm are currently 4-0 in Western Conference Commissioner’s Cup games.
The inaugural Commissioner’s Cup Championship will be played on Thursday, August 12, at Phoenix Suns Arena in Arizona.