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WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert: Free agency has ‘outpaced our expectations’

Less than a week into the first free agency under the new collective-bargaining agreement, the landscape of the league has transformed dramatically, creating a lot of buzz among anxious fans.

Less than a week into the first free agency under the new collective-bargaining agreement, the landscape of the league has transformed dramatically, creating a lot of buzz among anxious fans.
Less than a week into the first free agency under the new collective-bargaining agreement, the landscape of the league has transformed dramatically, creating a lot of buzz among anxious fans.
AP Photos

In past years, WNBA free agency was an afterthought. Rarely would a high-profile player make the decision to leave her respective team, let alone would it be trending on Twitter.

But that’s not the case this year.

Less than a week into the first free agency under the new collective-bargaining agreement, the landscape of the league has transformed dramatically, creating a lot of buzz among anxious fans.

It all started Monday, the first day of free agency, when five-time All-Star Angel McCoughtry signed with the Aces and Kristi Toliver left the defending champion Mystics to sign with the Sparks. Then, former Sun guard Layshia Clarendon signed with the Liberty and DeWanna Bonner ended her decade-long run in Phoenix, forcing the Mercury to sign and trade her to the Sun.

Most recently, the Wings sent Skylar Diggins-Smith to the Mercury for a trio of first-round picks.

This high-profile player movement is unprecedented. To put it into perspective, Toliver’s departure from the Mystics is only the fifth time a starter left a championship team as a free agent — and the first time a player has done it since she left the Sparks after the 2016 season.

“It’s entertaining to me,” guard Diamond DeShields said Thursday at a women supporting women panel hosted by the Sky. “I like to watch it, it’s like watching a movie almost. I know I’m not moving around, so for me at this point in time, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s see what happens around the league.’ It’s interesting.”

“It’s really cool,” said free agent center Stefanie Dolson, who has agreed to re-sign with the Sky. “A lot of players, for myself included, we timed it up with the new CBA, so we all kind of knew there was going to be a lot of people trading teams and stuff. ... It’s always cool to see big-time players kind of get switched around.”

And here’s the thing: It’s not done yet. There are still several players whose futures remain in question, including Tina Charles, whom the Liberty designated as a core player.

Engelbert expected some player movement, but she didn’t see this coming.

“It actually has outpaced my expectations,” Engelbert said.

Welcome to the new era of the WNBA.

This free agency frenzy can be attributed to several changes that have been instituted this year by the new CBA. For starters, top veteran players can earn 85 percent more than past season and team saw a salary increase of 30 percent. The league also lowered the amount of times teams can use a core designation (equivalent to an NFL franchise tag) on players.

Having a buzz in the offseason is key for the WNBA moving forward. In the past, the league typically went radio silent after the season ended. But over the last few years, more and more players are opting to stay stateside, rather than play overseas (though more than half the league opts to play year-round.)

Could this newfound momentum propel the league in a new direction?

That’s what Engelbert hopes.

“Ultimately, if you want to build value in our 12 franchises and you want to raise money through corporate sponsorships and media deals, you gotta have players’ stories, rivalries that [fans] want to watch, they want to follow,” she said. “And so this free agency cycle has done exactly that.”