'Just being treated like a professional athlete': The next chapter of the WNBA, according to players and coaches

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Many best-of lists have been written to celebrate the WNBA's first 25 years: Best players, best jerseys, best teams, best moments. There is much for the league to celebrate today.

At the same time, coaches and players, current and former, are looking to the future, what the next quarter-century should look like for the league.

"We want the best league and the best players," said Hall of Famer and Indiana Fever general manager Tamika Catchings. "We want people, while they're in the WNBA, and after they leave, to still want to support and feel part of the WNBA."

Others put what they'd like to see from the league in the future in a different way.

"Quality of life and each team being on a level playing field," said Devereaux Peters, who played in the league from 2012 to 2018.

"Supported in every single sense of the word," said Alana Beard, who played 15 seasons with the Washington Mystics and the Los Angeles Sparks.

For Las Vegas Aces forward and 2020 league MVP A'ja Wilson, and other current players such as Dallas Wings guard Moriah Jefferson: "just being treated like a professional athlete."

So, ESPN asked the WNBA community about how the league could help its athletes feel like professional athletes. A few themes emerged.

The new CBA has not addressed all travel woes

The new collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2020, has helped improve some previous issues with travel: Teams now fly premium economy, and players get individual hotel rooms. But, teams are still traveling on commercial airlines.

"Say you have a game on Monday and Wednesday, and you're flying commercial in between," Peters said, "you don't know what is going to be happening in between, especially with flights today and with delays."

Just being able to "get from city to city comfortably and being able and ready to play" is something Connecticut Sun forward Brionna Jones wants improved. Younger sister and Sun teammate Stephanie Jones said, "Travel and time to recover between games. Sometimes it's a quick turnaround."

"That's a lot to put your body through," Peters said. "We go through enough playing year-round. We need to be doing everything we can to preserve our bodies."

Aces president of basketball operations and head coach Bill Laimbeer also spoke about the turnaround times. There was just one day between Games 4 and 5 of the 2021 WNBA semifinals, when the series moved from Phoenix to Las Vegas. "That's a fast turnaround for both teams, and travel," he said. "I'm certain fatigue is going to be part of this situation."

When the Sun-Sky semifinal series shifted from Connecticut to Chicago ahead of Game 3, the Sun team was split among three flights departing from two airports -- so the players could avoid sitting in middle seats, for a more comfortable journey. Chicago's team and staff were similarly split among three flights taking off from three airports.

"That's what this league goes through," Connecticut coach and general manager Curt Miller said. "That's what these amazing women, the best in the world at what they do, go through."

And after the Phoenix Mercury clinched their spot in the WNBA Finals, the team had just one day to fly back home and prepare to host Game 1 against Chicago.

"We didn't even touch the court before the Finals," the Mercury's Diana Taurasi said after Phoenix lost the game. "So, yeah, that's just disappointing because everyone's tired, but you at least want to be a little bit prepared."

For the one-day gap between Games 2 and 3, when the series shifts to Chicago, the league paid for chartered flights for both teams.

"As far as travel is concerned, the most important thing is to put the best product out there," Chicago coach James Wade said. "I think chartering helps facilitate that. Hopefully, it's a sign of good, of better things to come."

Sound body, sound mind, sound playing

Beard spent two years off the court rehabbing what doctors told her could be a career-ending ankle injury. "For the most part, everything I spent to get back to an elite level came out of my pocket," she said. "I was bringing on a nutritionist, an acupuncturist, an athletic functional trainer ... a sports therapist.

"These are the things players need to be able to excel at a high level every single day."

Peters said franchises have varying medical staff and facilities. In her experiences with one team -- she declined to identify the franchise -- her physicals were a full-day affair. "You're going to see all these different doctors. They don't miss anything," she said. "If there's anything you thought you were going to hide, it's not happening. They check everything. You're getting X-rays, so there is a baseline. If you were having any issues, you'll get an MRI. Eye doctor. Dentist. You see everyone."

For another team she played with, "I was late, arrived late after playing overseas. They had me drive almost an hour to this facility in the middle of nowhere to go see the doctor. My physical was maybe 15 minutes. They walked in, they asked me my medical history. They did the normal knee check, flexion and tension-type of thing. No X-rays. No MRIs. They did nothing."

Minnesota Lynx center and four-time defensive player of the year Sylvia Fowles talked about sharing training resources with players. "Everybody's got aches and pains," she said. "You only have two trainers to tend to 12 players. Sometimes you're like, well who needs it more? Can I get through this week, without having to take up somebody [else's time with the trainer] who needs it? We definitely need a better staff of masseuses, chiropractors, physical therapists, trainers and stuff like that."

Brionna Jones asked for better facilities for recovery after games. "Sometimes you don't have accessibility to ice baths and stuff like that," she said.

"If we don't get the rest that we need or we can't recover the way that we need to recover, then we're not producing," Fowles said. "At the end of the day, we're human as well, and if we're not at our best, then we can't produce at our best."

Beard said, "I'm a firm believer that the body can't work if the mind isn't in the right space and healthy. There needs to be a holistic education from the league. Not just for the players. I'm talking about from the GM and the person running a team, the CEO, to the last person who walks in the locker room, the equipment manager. I believe it's important for everyone to understand the journey of an athlete and what we tend to go through from a mental perspective."

Peters returned to her belief that every team should be on a level playing field.

On some teams, "You're not making your own appointments. They're going to make it for you and get it done immediately and push you to the front of the line if you need."

She also talked about non-medical support. On one team, "You don't touch a bag on trips. Your bags are packed for you from the facility. Shoes, socks, extra anything. But with another team we were literally carrying our shoes on the plane with us, and jerseys, so if the bags were lost ... it was AAU again."

A longer postseason

In January 2016, the WNBA announced it was changing the playoff format. It would do away with best-of-three semifinal and final conference series, and instead have two single-elimination rounds followed by best-of-five semifinal and final series. Terri Jackson, who took over as executive director of the WNBPA in May 2016, said that when the WNBA informed players in late 2015 -- their consent was not required for this change -- they pushed back. The single-elimination part of the change rankled them.

"When I started in this job that's the first thing I heard from the players: 'Fix this playoff format,'" Jackson said. "It's got to change. I'm so glad that the fans in the last two years have been so fired up about it."

"I think we shoot ourselves in the foot with the playoff format," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. "It's the best time of our season, but we're limiting games played. We don't get to see as many of the great series that people tend to get emotionally involved in."

Connecticut's Miller said, "While this benefits 1-2," including his No. 1 seeded team, "you've seen some teams that have outstanding seasons -- including us in 2017 and '18 -- be a 3- or 4-seed, work their tails off for four or five months, and in one [disappointing game], you're out."

There are any number of reasons why the WNBA doesn't adopt a longer postseason format -- and the league recently declined to comment -- but for Miller, and others, "We're a pro league, and we believe we deserve series.

"And just get rid of the byes."

Give more women more opportunities to play

The WNBA launched in 1996 with eight teams and eventually peaked at 16 franchises before financial issues in 2000 cut it down to the current 12. Some former players want to expand the league.

"A lot of really good players are not getting the opportunity to get a real chance at making a team," said Monique Currie, who spent 12 seasons in both the WNBA and international leagues. "And then there just aren't enough roster spots. And then a few teams will struggle when the playoffs come because they don't have a bench!"

Hall of Famer and current New Orleans Pelicans VP of Basketball Operations Swin Cash said, "We're at a time when people feel like there needs to be movement, and you've got to hit it. There have been other times and reasons why it wasn't the right time. Even when I played, there was a feeling of, 'Let's keep our heads down and just keep our league.' I think that is over."

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said during Game 1 of the 2021 Finals that the league continues to look into a variety of metrics to determine which cities could house new franchises. "Looking at how those cities are already supporting the WNBA, whether it's viewership, merch sales or other things," she said, "or whether they're supporting women's sports or women's college basketball, are great indicators of how it would get supported if a WNBA team were to go in that market."

Increase the WNBA's visibility

The 2021 season was the WNBA's most-watched season since 2008 for its television partners -- ABC, CBS, ESPN and ESPN2 -- with viewership up 51% over last year. The league also set records for online merchandise sales as well as social media engagement. And Candace Parker became the first WNBA player ever to grace the cover of an NBA 2K game.

But Currie wants more consistency. "Sometimes I don't know where to watch a game," she said. "This doesn't encourage the casual fan to really invest in watching the game. What's the solution here? Not sure, but I would say at least having one platform where I know I can always go to watch WNBA content."

League Pass, which allows subscribers to access games, is still an issue for some, and not just because of varying blackout restrictions. "We work so hard for the endorsements we have in the league," Minnesota forward Napheesa Collier said. "We should be putting those on commercials. [Instead, we're] playing the same highlights over and over again on those commercials for League Pass."

Collier also said that the league could promote its players better: ​"It is cool that you hear a lot of people's stories because we do have such diversity. [But] they could do a lot more promoting and social media stuff and just be like a little bit more proactive with that."

Beard said, "It's important to give younger players coming into the league, who are not as highly talented as [Sabrina] Ionescu [their story]," she said, referring to the New York Liberty guard, one of the most publicized players in the league.

"With that story being told, it now opens up that individual who doesn't necessarily have a platform to potential opportunities."

Catchings said, "One of the biggest things from a league perspective is to continue to cross-promote with the NBA. We're still trying to figure that out with the NCAA. Those young women are going to be funneled into the WNBA, and we should be doing more to promote them and celebrate them together."

"There needs to be more W content," Currie said. "More storytelling. A deeper dive into what makes W players different and special."

"At the end of the day, I think it's one of those things where exposure matters and to be seen in order for people to like us," said Wilson.

Mechelle Voepel and Melanie Jackson contributed reporting