WNBA

How scheduling a WNBA season works … and why Caitlin Clark’s early slate is so feverish

How scheduling a WNBA season works … and why Caitlin Clark’s early slate is so feverish

The teams taking the court in Las Vegas on Saturday could not have taken more different paths through the first two weeks of the WNBA season.

Indiana, the lottery winner that added its second No. 1 overall draft pick in as many years, will be playing its league-high seventh game in 12 days. The Fever traveled every other day, largely on commercial flights before full charters went into effect on Tuesday. Their opponents were the best, most veteran squads in the league.

Las Vegas, the two-time defending champions, kicked back at home the first two weeks of the season. The Aces’ four games in 12 days are among the league low, and they’re the only team yet to hit the road. All the contests were against lottery teams, although the stacked Mercury upset Las Vegas in a rematch Tuesday night. Still, the Aces will play Saturday’s matinee against the Fever on four days’ rest.

In the tricky world of sports scheduling, some teams were always going to have more difficult paths than others during the same stretch. It happened to be Indiana, which is drawing fans’ ire because of the expectations and excitement piled high on No. 1 overall pick Caitlin Clark. The Fever (0-5) will be seeking their first win Friday night in Los Angeles (1-2).

The WNBA announced the 2024 schedule on Dec. 18, five months before the first game of the year and a week after the Fever won the 2024 draft lottery. Because of the COVID-19 eligibility waiver, there was no guarantee Clark or any other college senior would enter the draft. Clark didn’t make her entrance official until Feb. 29.

Nor did that matter. Scheduling is a difficult challenge that incorporates various inputs, none of which is the talent level of an opposing team. That would also be hard to ascertain in the fall because winter free agency impacts each franchise’s ceiling. The league spends months plotting out schedules around various logistics.

Caitlin Clark has faced the best of the best early in the WNBA season. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The process begins in July or August when the league determines the start date, end date and tentpole events, such as the All-Star Game. Those in charge of scheduling at the league office request from teams arena availability and special dates such as “camp day” games (early weekday starts) or jersey retirement ceremonies. They also ask for input from broadcast partners on TV windows and team/matchup requests. In attempts to maximize viewership and interest, hitting the ABC or CBS weekend afternoon window is crucial.

A computer-based program is used to track all of the data, including the required number of games against an opponent on the road and at home, and provides checks and balances to the manual job of scheduling.

The league attempts to minimize high-game density and back-to-back games while maximizing efficient travel, which is why there are full-week trips to opposite coasts. However, it’s not always realistic.

The Fever are one of the first teams to feel the brunt of the larger, condensed schedule built around a one-month break for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Indiana, which drafted Aliyah Boston No. 1 in 2023, faced the same dominant Connecticut, New York and Las Vegas teams without a homestand to begin last season. The Fever’s first two games were also Connecticut and New York within three days, followed by a six-day break.

It was four games in 12 days, and they hosted Las Vegas in their fifth game on the 17th day of the season. This year, it’s nearly double that with seven games in 12 days and nine in 17.

Ahead of the 2022 All-Star Game, commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced the league would expand from 36 games to 40 games beginning in 2023. The collective bargaining agreement allows the league to increase the game schedule to a maximum of 44 per team and doing so provides more inventory to sell via media rights deals, which are a stepping stone toward future progress regarding salaries and continued charter flights.

It was a less bumpy adaptation in 2023 because there was no FIBA World Cup in September or Olympics in July and August to plan around. The footprint for games is approximately the same (18 weeks versus 16 last year), but the WNBA is taking a four-week break from July 17 through Aug. 15 for the Olympics. That leaves 12 fewer days in the regular-season calendar, so teams on average are playing approximately 2.86 games per week, up from 2.5 per week in 2023.

The Commissioner’s Cup, which was reduced to a more streamlined two-week competition beginning June 1, requires a certain number of specific matchups within that stretch that impacts planning. Each team plays five games against in-conference opponents with at least two each on the road and at home.

WNBA teams already face other annual summer scheduling complications. The CBA allows the league to run anywhere from April 1 through Oct. 31. Moving the start date earlier in the calendar means more potential overlap with the NBA and NHL playoffs, which impacts arena and TV window availability.

The Fever (Indiana Pacers), Sparks (Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers), Lynx (Minnesota Timberwolves), Liberty (Brooklyn Nets) and Mercury (Phoenix Suns) all share arenas with NBA teams. The Sparks (Kings) and Storm (Seattle Kraken) share arenas with teams in the NHL. Teams are often pushed out of their arenas already for summer construction, which is what led to the Sparks playing at Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid this month.

Concert schedules and even conventions have also forced teams to move games. At the 2022 All-Star Game, where Engelbert made the extended schedule announcement, the skills competition was held without fans at the city’s McCormick Place Convention Center while a Pampered Chef National Conference finished up at the Sky’s Wintrust Arena.

Teams and broadcast partners review the first draft of the schedule for any errors, and all stakeholders must give a sign-off on the final schedule before it’s released to the public. That includes the WNBA Players Association, which can submit comments to the league for consideration under CBA guidelines.

Many players still go overseas in their WNBA offseason, though beginning this spring they were required to show up on time for training camp or else be suspended for the season under the prioritization clause. In the past, teams might play a handful of early games without key pieces of their starting lineup.

That’s not a luxury the Fever had this time around while facing the league’s best at full strength.

The Fever are the only team within the first two weeks that will play all three of the top 2023 MVP candidates, whose teams finished 2023 first through third in the standings. The Fever already played reigning MVP Breanna Stewart and the Liberty (32-8 in 2023) and Alyssa Thomas and the Connecticut Sun (27-13) twice each. A’ja Wilson, a two-time MVP, and the Aces (34-6) on Saturday complete the trio.

Veteran Fever guard Erica Wheeler said already facing “probably the best defense” they’ll see all year in Connecticut and one of the best offenses in New York will help them fix issues now rather than when it’s too late.

“Whatever mistakes that we [are] going to make and learn from, we're going to already get it out [of] the way early and be able to fix it, versus down the line when we play at Connecticut halfway through the season and we just get shocked by it,” Wheeler said ahead of the home opener against New York.

They played every other day until this weekend, when they’ll confront their first back-to-back. Indiana plays the Los Angeles Sparks and No. 2 overall pick Cameron Brink on Friday at Crypto.com Arena. The game was moved from Long Beach State. The Fever will fly via charter to Las Vegas that night and play the Aces on Saturday night.

The West Coast trip they’re on launched the full charter program that’s newly implemented by the league office, but even flying charter to maximize recovery and practice time won’t help them meld in private rather than in front of millions of interested eyes. Yet they’re coming closer with two losses of a combined six points heading into the weekend.

“We don’t have the time to have a bunch of practices to get that flow or whatever, and we are doing that in the games effectively,” center Temi Fagbenle, a free-agent acquisition who hasn’t played in the WNBA since 2019, said after a four-point loss to the Sun on Monday. “It’s difficult, but we’ve got to get it done somehow, right? Day by day, we try to focus on the details, the little things. And each day is like an opportunity to get better. We really have to seize each day.”

Indiana’s slate is drawing the most attention because of Clark and the nearly 2 million on average watching the Fever’s national games. Though Indiana is the only team to face the top three, it isn’t the only one up against high-density scheduling, tough travel or strong competition early.

The Mystics (0-4) are also looking for their first win. They played six games in 12 days without a homestand. Two games were against the Liberty and Sun and two more against Seattle, a newly formed superteam. The Liberty (4-0) and Storm (2-3) each play six games in 12 days, but largely against teams at the bottom of the standings.

Indiana and Chicago (2-1) are the only teams that have faced three of the four teams that finished .500 or better this early in 2023. The Sky played Dallas (22-18 in 2023) twice, beat the Liberty on Thursday night and will play the Sun next. Chicago, which features No. 8 overall pick Angel Reese, also did not have a homestand in the early stretch, but is hosting the Sun on Saturday to begin a three-game stand.

Minnesota (2-0), Phoenix (2-1) and Washington play at least two of the top four teams within the first 12 days.

Other teams will have similarly tough runs later in the season. The Liberty, who could have multiple players on the Team USA roster, exit the Olympic break to play Las Vegas, Dallas (twice), Connecticut and Phoenix in a 10-day stretch. They will play eight games in 17 days when the league starts up again.

There’s no way to make every player and team happy, no matter the schedule. Aces guard Kelsey Plum took issue with their 2023 schedule because the champs opened the season on the road for the first two games. Within the first week, they played three games in four days.

In August, the Aces opened the first two weeks with games every other day, including three against the powerhouse New York Liberty. They split the season series, 2-2, and lost the Commissioner’s Cup championship game to the Liberty.

“Every team should have a rough stretch,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said during the WNBA Finals. “You shouldn't go through the season just skipping along. You should hit a rough patch, and when you hit the rough patches you get to see what you’re made of.”

Indiana is finding out earlier and more harshly than most other teams.

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