Why the WNBA Finals schedule is so different than in past seasons

UNCASVILLE, Connecticut — The WNBA schedule is often filled with quirks, and the 2022 postseason is no different. It’s a complicated endeavor to squish games into broadcast windows and arena availability, hence why the stretch of off days between certain games seems out of whack this week.

The best-of-five series started with the league’s standard Game 1 on Sunday and Game 2 on Tuesday. Those were both in Las Vegas. When the series switched to Connecticut, there was only one day between games and the league paid for charter flights to get the teams across the country to avoid commercial travel problems that are a common headache.

Yet, with the Sun keeping the series alive on Thursday night, there are two full days from Game 3 until Game 4 on Sunday. All in rural Connecticut even though teams just traveled across the country on the rest day. That short turnaround threw some players off guard, possibly because of the juxtaposition.

“I didn’t understand that there was only a day break between [games] two and three, which I thought it should be two. [But that’s] neither here nor there,” Aces point guard Chelsea Gray said at shootaround before Game 3.

If the series goes a full five games — and the Sun sure made it look like it could — there will again be only one day between Game 4 and Game 5 to travel. And that decider won’t even be at the Aces’ house.

“Arena availability is complex in this league, and we did the best we could with the footprint we had with the FIBA World Cup this year,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said ahead of Game 1 in Las Vegas.

The Finals schedule isn’t much too different than 2021 — other than being held earlier because of the FIBA World Cup next week — but it is a switch from the five Finals preceding it.

A violinist plays the national anthem prior to Game 3 of the 2022 WNBA Finals between Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, on Sept. 15, 2022. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Arena conflicts to close out 2022

Team front offices often have to plan around already scheduled events at their arenas since they do not own them. They have been kicked off their home court for stretches (the Los Angeles Sparks to start the 2021 season) and for elimination playoff games (the Phoenix Mercury in the first round of the 2021 playoffs). That’s why Engelbert has said an expansion team will need to offer “the right arena situation.

Both Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas and Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, have events going on that might have impacted the Finals schedule.

On Friday night at Mohegan, comedian Daniel Tosh and his “Leaves and Lobster Tour” are coming through, and on Saturday, it’s Il Volo in concert. That kicks practices 10 minutes away to a different arena. Both teams took Friday off instead.

If and when it moves 2,659 miles back to the desert, the teams will move up the Vegas strip to the MGM Grand Garden Arena due to a scheduling conflict with a private event at Michelob Ultra. MGM’s arena has capacity for 16,800, more than the 12,000 max for concerts at Michelob Ultra. The Aces sold out their first two games with 10,200 fans. Even though it can hold more people, the Aces are at a disadvantage in that it isn’t the arena they call home and where they play most games.

Travel crunch avoided in past years

The single travel day was a factor last season, but absent in the five Finals schedules before it. (The 2020 season is not considered in this analysis since it was held in a bubble in Bradenton, Florida, and travel was not an issue. Games were every other day.)

The 2021 schedule was Sunday-Wednesday-Friday-Sunday. That’s three non-weeknight tipoffs. With one day between Game 2 in Phoenix and Game 3 in Chicago, the league stepped in and paid for a charter flight between cities for that trip only. There are 1,721 miles between arenas and two time zones instead of three.

In 2019, when the Sun faced the Washington Mystics, there were a whopping five days between those games. It was so long teams could have taken a train up the coast and been OK. The turnaround to a Game 5 was one day.

In 2018, there were three days when the series shifted from Seattle to the District. In 2017, it was three days for Minnesota-Los Angeles and then three days again between Games 4 and 5. In 2016, it was three and four days, respectively, for the same teams. And in 2015, it was three and three for Minnesota and Indiana.

No teams were as far apart in distance than the Aces and Sun. The WNBA plans out dates in advance and this year had to fit the season in before the World Cup tips off on Sept. 20. As it is, players in the USA Basketball pool who are here in Connecticut might be late already and certainly will miss the first game if it goes a full five.

ESPN's Andraya Carter, Ryan Ruocco, Rebecca Lobo and Holly Rowe before Game 1 of the 2022 WNBA Finals between the Connecticut Sun and the Las Vegas Aces at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas on Sept. 11, 2022. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
ESPN's Andraya Carter, Ryan Ruocco, Rebecca Lobo and Holly Rowe before Game 1 of the 2022 WNBA Finals between the Connecticut Sun and the Las Vegas Aces at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas on Sept. 11, 2022. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images) (Ethan Miller via Getty Images)

WNBA and TV broadcast windows

It’s more than likely the league is partly at the whims of its longtime broadcast partner when it comes to playoff scheduling. CBS Sports, Prime Video and more have joined in airing WNBA games, but the ESPN networks air the postseason exclusively. This is the first of 26 seasons that the company is airing all games on either the main ESPN or ABC.

The Finals usually begin at the end of September or early October, where they compete with the NFL and college football. But this year, Game 1, which aired on ABC Sunday, competed with the NFL’s opening weekend.

“Our strategy is to find the best broadcast windows with our partners and get the most visibility and coverage we can get with Google and ESPN and why we have ramped that up, and CBS as well,” Engelbert said ahead of the Finals. “The more windows we can get, like on ABC, we are going to do even though we are going to compete obviously against a popular league like the NFL.”

Game 1 viewership still did well, peaking at 872,000 viewers to earn the status of the most-viewed Game 1 in five years. There are too many variables to determine the significance of that number, though viewership has been up this season. Engelbert said she understands the frustration over conflicts, but the WNBA is “always going to compete” with something.

“There are not easy solutions to that one, and it's not binary us or them,” Engelbert said. “We have to do the best we can at marketing our game, players have to do their best with play on the court and hope that our fans are going to come out and come out in big ways. And they have during all these playoffs.”

Game 3 brought out a modest 8,745 fans for a 9 p.m. ET start on a weeknight in the Sun’s rural small market. But tickets had already been selling faster for Game 4 on Sunday afternoon and fans in a nearby hotel lamented Friday morning how few tickets were available when they went to snag them. Because of the quirky schedule, Connecticut has time to pack its own house.