Breanna Stewart's return and Sabrina Ionescu's debut headline the opening act of the WNBA season, two women's basketball stars pitted against each other as the league opens the 2020 season.
Initially scheduled to begin May 15 but delayed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the WNBA season will now begin with a matinee between the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty on July 25 (ESPN, noon ET).
The Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks will renew their rivalry later that day (ABC, 3 p.m. ET) in perhaps an even more star-laden encounter, while the Washington Mystics begin their title defense against the Indiana Fever that night to round out the opening slate.
The WNBA released the 132-game 2020 schedule on Monday. The league will play three games a day at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, with Monday most often an off day. Players, coaches and staff will remain isolated on the IMG campus throughout the season. Each team will play 22 games in the regular season.
"This 2020 WNBA season will truly be one unlike any other, and we're looking forward to using our collective platform to highlight the tremendous athletes in the WNBA as well as their advocacy for social change," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement.
The regular season concludes on Sept. 12. The playoff format hasn't changed; the first and second rounds are single elimination, with five-game series for the semifinals and WNBA Finals.
In all, ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC will carry 24 regular-season games between July 25 and Aug. 13.
The game between the Storm and Liberty features far more star power than their combined 28-40 record a season ago would suggest. The Storm played last season without Stewart, the 2018 WNBA MVP who suffered a torn Achilles while playing in Europe. With Stewart and Sue Bird, who also missed last season with a knee injury, the Storm won the championship in 2018. An 11-time All-Star who turns 40 later this year, Bird is also expected back at full strength.
The Liberty finished with the league's second-worst record a season ago and then traded former MVP Tina Charles in the offseason. New York has seven rookies on its roster, including Ionescu, the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft. Ionescu set an NCAA record with 26 career triple-doubles -- nearly one every five games she played at Oregon. She had hoped to guide the Ducks back to the Final Four for a final chance to win a national title, but the pandemic wiped out the NCAA tournament.
The Liberty will play five nationally televised games on ESPN or ABC during the 2020 season. The Storm, Las Vegas Aces, Sparks and Mercury will each play six.
The first of those nationally televised games for the Sparks and Mercury on opening day is also expected to mark Diana Taurasi's return. Taurasi played just six games a season ago and scored in double digits just once, missing most of the season with a back injury. It will be the first game for the trio of Taurasi, reigning league scoring champion Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith. The Mercury acquired Diggins-Smith in a blockbuster offseason trade with the Dallas Wings.
After posting the best record in the Western Conference a season ago, the Sparks were swept by the Connecticut Sun in a best-of-five semifinal series. That exit came amid considerable turmoil, with general manager Penny Toler fired after reports of a racially charged postgame speech and Candace Parker curiously left on the bench for much of the final game. Toler was fired soon thereafter, but coach Derek Fisher remains.
The Mystics are on the opening day schedule after winning their first championship a season ago, but it remains to be seen if they will have either reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne or Charles. Both players are awaiting decisions on medical exemptions from the league's independent panel of doctors. Neither has thus far traveled to Florida.
The defending champions will also be without Kristi Toliver, who was traded to Los Angeles in the offseason, as well as Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders, who have opted to sit out the season.
The Fever were the last team to arrive at the IMG Academy, delayed by league protocols after two players tested positive for the coronavirus.