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

A basketball with a crown, a second ranking and half a million dollars mark what the WNBA hopes to be as their next big thing.

The Commissioner’s Cup is an in-season tournament designed to attract fans through cross-conference rivalry and increase revenue opportunities for the WNBA. You are forgiven if you have not taken notice of it in its two-year existence. Some players get caught forgetting. But for a history of the WNBA’s latest vocabulary, look no further than Sue Bird.

Seattle point guard, Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike and Mercury star Diana Taurasi were the thought leaders behind the WNBA’s latest innovation by pushing for the unique event during the 2019 collective bargaining hearing. A year after the Commissioner’s Cup debuted in the WNBA, the NBA is now considering an in-season tournament to spice up its regular season.

For Bird, the growth of the new event is just another addition to their long list of groundbreaking accomplishments. The 41-year-old’s on-court accolades are nearly second to none: five-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time WNBA champion, two-time NCAA champion, WNBA’s most successful player and all-time top assist.

As the WNBA progresses, those records could one day fall. But Bird’s influence will continue in her role as a key member of the players’ union, which brought innovative ideas to help lay the foundation at a critical time in the WNBA’s growth.

Terri Jackson, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Assn., called Bird’s service as one of the union’s three vice presidents “a gift.”

“She understood her responsibility to football and the women who are playing right now and the young women who are striving to be like her,” Jackson said. “We in women’s football know what our role is and she understands her reach and influence and quite honestly she’s been tremendously generous over the last few years in serving in leadership and sharing that with us.”

Bird, who announced her retirement at the end of the season last month, will play her final game of the regular season against the Sparks on Thursday at Arena. It will be the last Commissioner’s Cup game of the year for both teams, already eliminated from the race for the $500,000 in bonus money, as players and fans continue to celebrate Bird’s glorious career.

“Sue is one of the GOATs,” said Sparks guard Jordin Canada, who played with Bird in Seattle for four years. “She is a legend in this game. … It’s a long list of things that she’s accomplished in her career and it’s just a testament to what a great player she is, but not only that but the person she is.”

Looking back on her 21-year WNBA career, Bird regrets not being involved in the players’ union earlier, she told the Times in a phone interview. Like many of her peers, Bird spent her WNBA offseason playing overseas. It felt like “out of sight, out of mind,” she said.

After Bird stopped playing abroad in 2015, she became more curious about the union. She started out as a player spokesperson. First Vice President Layshia Clarendon encouraged Bird to apply for a position on the Executive Committee.

It couldn’t have come at a better time. When Bird’s tenure as vice president began in August 2018, players were deciding whether to step out of their collective bargaining agreement.

Helping negotiate the 2020 CBA, celebrated for higher salaries and better benefits like 100% paid maternity leave and childcare and family planning stipends, has been one of the most rewarding parts of player leadership, Bird said, along with the social aspects of the WNBA Justice campaigns during the 2020 bubble season that put Breonna Taylor in the spotlight and launched a campaign to elect Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.

CBA negotiations have been difficult in part because players have wanted to start from scratch after previous collective bargaining agreements left them feeling “stuck,” Bird said. Jackson said the players had 75 suggestions.

Both sides hit the roster and there was a moment when league players seemed to signal they were ready to sign, Jackson recalled. Until Bird stepped in with a question, “But why?”

“Sue said, OK, we’re nearing the end, we’ll be done with this, but we don’t want any what-ifs,” Jackson said. “We don’t want regrets.”

USA's Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird pose with their gold medals during the awards ceremony.

USA’s Diana Taurasi (left) and Sue Bird pose with their gold medals during the medal ceremony for women’s basketball at the 2020 Summer Olympics on August 8, 2021 in Saitama, Japan.

(Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

Despite months of negotiations, the agreement celebrated on Good Morning America in January 2020 is not perfect. Two years after the end of the seven-year contract, questions about a prioritization clause restricting lucrative opportunities abroad from next season have some players in doubt. Players are still arguing with the league over travel accommodations, which include extra legroom but no guaranteed charter flights.

The current contract expires in 2027.

“I joke, that’s the CBA before the CBA,” Bird said. “We needed a fundamental CBA that could be a starting point for further growth.”

The key growth area that could solve many of the league’s problems is revenue. The salary cap was increased by about 30% in the last CBA, but the agreement only granted a 50-50 revenue share if the league met certain revenue growth targets from broadcast agreements, marketing partnerships, and licensing deals.

The creation of the Commissioner’s Cup should help the league achieve its goals. Jackson called it “the game within the game” as Bird, Taurasi and Ogwumike wanted to provide a real solution to repeated calls for a “new model”. Inspired by similar tournaments during the season in overseas leagues, the two-year-old format designates 10 regular-season games for each team as cup games, and the top team in each conference plays an additional game with $50,000 in bonus money at stake.

The first-year tournament, which ended with the Seattle Connecticut Sun and Bird joking that the trophy was worth as much as the team’s bonus money, felt like an afterthought as players were slow to shift their focus away from the traditional stakes of the turned away from the regular season.

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

Seattle storm guard Sue Bird shoots in front of Indiana Fever guard Danielle Robinson in the first half in Indianapolis on Tuesday.

(Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

Sparks forward Katie Lou Samuelson, who won the Commissioner’s Cup as a member of Storm last year, said awareness is growing in the competition’s second season. But with a WNBA-record 36 regular-season games left, the trophy isn’t always at the forefront of every player’s mind.

Part of the appeal of current form is that there is minimal disruption to an already difficult schedule. It just adds one more game for the two finalists. But even the small scale has yet to make big waves.

In-season tournaments are already enjoying success abroad, including the Spanish top flight, where Samuelson and Storm Warden Jewell Loyd play for ten-time Queen’s Cup winners Perfumerías Avenida. The competition brings together the top eight teams in the 16-team league in a single-elimination weekend tournament. It can be grueling – three games in three days – but the hunt for a trophy and a bonus, along with bragging rights in town, has kept the event’s popularity in Spain alive.

Loyd sees a future where the Commissioner’s Cup could also grow into a grand spectacle.

“The biggest thing about the WNBA is how you market things,” said the three-time All-Star. “That’s a big part of understanding who you’re marketing to, how you’re marketing it, what it’s about.”

The Commissioner’s Cup is currently sponsored by Coinbase, and Bird hopes sponsorship opportunities will increase to expand the event to accommodate more teams, gathering in a single location to “become an event that looks a lot like we see a women’s Final Four.

“Like a real moment,” she continued, “an event that people want to be a part of.”

Bird lifted the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup trophy last year but will soon take a backseat as she watches the league continue the tradition into its next era. Passing on this torch will be further support throughout their record-breaking career. How Sue Bird brought the WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup to life

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