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WNBA, players union agree on return-to-play plan

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks at a news

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks at a news conference before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals between the Connecticut Sun and the Washington Mystics in Washington on Sept. 29, 2019. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

The WNBA is back in business.

The league officially announced Monday, in agreement with its union, that they will host a 22-game regular season followed by a regular playoffs format. All games would be played without fans in attendance at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

Under the new plan, teams would hold training camp in Florida and could start play as early as July 24. The season must end by Oct. 31.

 A key provision in the agreement is that the league has agreed to play its players 100 percent of their salary, despite the truncated season. The WNBA season originally was scheduled to start May 15, but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The WNBA and its Board of Governors believe strongly in supporting and valuing the elite women athletes who play in the WNBA and therefore, players will receive their full pay and benefits during the 2020 season,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a news release Monday.

“Our players will be all together for the first time in WNBA history in a single site," Engelbert said on ESPN Monday night. "There will be a lot of eyes on us. Let’s think about how strong our platform can be.”

In January, the league and union came to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement that elevated the salary structure and then in February had the most active free agency period the WNBA has had. With the Liberty poised to take Sabrina Ionescu with the No. 1 pick, the league seemed ready to make a big leap in fan popularity this season before the virus shut everything down.

The WNBA would later hold its draft virtually and the Liberty did take Ionescu with the top pick.

Although the news release did not address living conditions, ESPN has reported that the plan is for a controlled bubble-like environment without fans, similar to what the NBA is doing in Orlando. Players would stay in multiroom villas and children would be allowed with one caretaker.

“Testing, temperature checks, being in the same environment on a campus where we can have our players all together," Engelbert added. ". . . Health and safety is clearly our No. 1”

The plan is also said to include opt-out options for players who are concerned about the safety of playing while the country is in the middle of a pandemic. Players with high-risk medical conditions can decide not to play and still receive full salary. Players without medical conditions can choose not to play without punishment, but would not be paid.

 There have been no specifics released about testing and other precautions that the league plans to take.

 The league also announced Monday that it will work with the players on their commitment to social justice reform. The WNBA recently said it will make donations from sales of its “Bigger Than Ball” women’s empowerment merchandise to the Equal Justice Initiative.

“The WNBA opposes racism in all its forms, and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are the latest names in a list of countless others who have been subject to police brutality that stems from the systemic oppression of Black Lives in America, and it is our collective responsibility to use our platforms to enact change,” Engelbert said in the release.

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