Success is critical: breaking down the 2020/21 WNBL schedule

The longest running elite women’s national sporting league in Australia has announced its plans for the 2020/21 season, with Basketball Australia outlining the season structure in a release delivered on Wednesday, May 27.

Set to tip off on November 20 with each team playing 21 regular season games, the finals will commence on March 12, with the grand final series wrapping up by March 31.

With COVID-19 restrictions, delayed free agency, and the postponed Olympic campaign among the factors taken into consideration, Basketball Australia found itself with a number of decisions to make regarding the make-up of the WNBL’s upcoming season.

The start date of November 20 means the league will commence a full five weeks later than the 2019/20 season, with the grand final series taking place in the last week of March rather than the first. With the Tokyo Olympics now set to commence on July 23, the preparation time following the WNBL has been shortened, but the Opals will still have the best part of four months to prepare for their hunt for gold.

However one of the biggest questions that remains to be answered surrounds the broadcast of the league. Basketball Australia is planning for the league to play at least until Christmas in front of empty stands. Television broadcasts or live streams would then become the only way that fans would be able to see players in action for the first two months of the season.

“To enable the league and clubs to operate their businesses accordingly and to give fans and broadcasters clarity over the new season, we are prepared to start the 2020-21 Chemist Warehouse WNBL season without fans should current COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings remain in place,” Basketball Australia Head of Women’s Basketball Lauren Jackson announced.

“Should restrictions ease over the coming months, we will adapt accordingly with the view to our passionate members and fans being able to attend games when it’s safe and viable to do so.”

Broadcast discussions are reportedly continuing, with the league no doubt eager to improve on last season’s situation. A number of planned broadcasts failed to go ahead due to technical difficulties with streaming, fanning social media outrage on regular occasions. Furthermore, without the opportunity for fans to actually attend games for a significant portion of the season, streaming may become the only way for fans to actually view the league. This makes it essential that a more reliable streaming component of any broadcast deal be an absolute non-negotiable.

In a season that may yet see the likes of Sami Whitcomb and Liz Cambage return from overseas, alongside the already confirmed Alanna Smith, Basketball Australia cannot afford to waste this potential one-time opportunity to promote more of their Opals stars on a regular basis.

The question of when fans will be allowed back into arenas not only affects promotion and awareness of the league, but also teams’ bottom lines. With clubs heavily reliant on gate revenue to bolster their cash flow, the duration for which games are played without crowds could yet have a significant impact on the league. Wednesday’s announcement allows clubs to budget for a period up to Christmas without fans coming through the gates, however the fluidity of the current situation has the potential to impact all clubs, and to varying degrees given the wide disparity in backing and game day revenue across the league.

One subject that was not discussed in Basketball Australia’s announcement was that of import players.

It had been rumoured that the league would go ahead without import players, and at this stage teams are preparing for this eventuality. While the potential implications of this decision have already been discussed, it is one that needs to be finalised sooner rather than later.

Although it appears unlikely, should imports be given the all-clear for the coming season, the free agency plans of all clubs would suddenly be altered, and that is before even considering when the WNBA may start and finish. Should that league be delayed in completing its season, it could yet affect when the six Australians on rosters are able to return to the WNBL.

However, not only will the current situation impact upon the current season, Basketball Australia is also looking ahead to the 2022 Women’s Basketball World Cup, to be held in Sydney. Ensuring that women’s basketball has as large a profile as possible in the lead-up to the tournament will be paramount to ensuring the event is a success. The upcoming WNBL season is the first step in the campaign to continue growing the game. Enticing fans to the league over the next two seasons will help to ensure not only the success of the upcoming World Cup, but also continue the growth of the WNBL. The league has fallen behind other elite women’s leagues such as Super Netball, AFLW and the Big Bash in terms of public and media awareness, but the opportunity remains to promote women’s basketball as Australia gears up to host its first major tournament since the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“Women’s professional sport in Australia has taken giant leaps forward over recent years and it’s extremely important to Basketball Australia that the WNBL doesn’t regress during these times of global adversity, in fact we want the opposite to occur,” explained Jackson.

“Australia is the envy of the basketball world for the quality of talent we produce both on and off the court. With an eye on the Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 Women’s Basketball World Cup in Sydney, having a strong domestic league while providing opportunities for our current and emerging talent is our priority.”

The ever-changing situation throughout Australia, and indeed the world, means no plans are 100% set in stone at the current stage. But, having made an official announcement six months out from the anticipated season tip-off, Basketball Australia have shown an intent to get on the front foot and ensure that the WNBL is given a chance to survive and potentially thrive through incredibly difficult times.

Announcements have been made and plans have been put in place. What matters now is the execution of those plans. That will require all hands to the pump from not only Basketball Australia, but also the eight clubs.

The league is in an intriguing position whereby they are not only riding out the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but also building towards a major event, two situations that could not be more different. Getting through the former successfully will set all involved up well to capitalise on the latter. Should the WNBL come through this tumultuous period having completed a successful season, and with an Olympics and a home World Cup to look forward to, Australia’s longest-running national women’s sporting league could be set to embark on a golden era.