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Prior to Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday between the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun, commissioner Cathy Engelbert addressed the media during her annual Finals press conference. As per usual, Engelbert addressed a wide range of topics, including the league's prioritization rule and expansion. She also reaffirmed the league's support for Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, who remains detained in Russia. 

Here is a round-up of some of Engelbert's key comments:

Reaffirms support for Griner

Brittney Griner was first detained in Russia on drug charges in February and was sentenced to 9 1/2 years in prison in August. While the U.S. State Department is working to negotiate a potential prisoner swap, it's unclear when or if that will happen. Engelbert confirmed the league is working with the government and doing everything in its power to support Griner. 

So as we prepare to start this great series, it's important to reiterate that we are always thinking of Brittney Griner and our commitment to bring her home safely and as quickly as possible. That has not wavered. We continue to work with the State Department and the U.S. government and administration and others on this very complex situation. I recently received a handwritten letter from BG and I am so inspired by her courage in the face of enormous adversity. We are fully focused on getting her home safely and she remains such an important part of the WNBA family.

Standing firm on prioritization rule

Next season, the league's prioritization rule will take effect. In 2023, players must report to their team by opening night or they will be ruled ineligible for the entire season; in 2024, players must report by training camp. In recent days, some players have expressed frustration about that rule because it could create conflicts with their overseas teams and will limit the amount of time they can spend with their families. 

Engelbert made it clear, though, that the league is not backing down -- even if it means that some players decide to leave the WNBA. 

As everyone knows, the owners really stepped up on the compensation side for the players in this collective bargaining cycle and I think the quid pro quo for that was prioritization – showing up on time for our season. Quite frankly, after 36 years in my working world there was never once where I wasn't required to show up on time. So I think the owners were very steadfast in their commitment. 

For our veterans we want them to come back and be with the team and build the chemistry that's needed to build a championship culture. I think that was something the owners really stepped up and was really important to them and I support them wholeheartedly in that. But we understand players are going to make the best decisions for them and their families, we see that time and again. 

But as I mentioned, we're chipping away; we close to doubled the prize pool for the winners of the WNBA Finals. The total pool now matches the Commissioner's Cup pool of half a million dollars for playoff bonuses. There's a variety of other things such as we'll spend close to 1.5 million dollars on player marketing agreements with players this year. So trying to chip away at giving players a reason to stay home and a reason to prioritize the WNBA. But I understand and we're eyes wide open that there are some players who may not choose to do that. 

No significant updates on expansion

The WNBA is going to expand in the near future, but the when and where are still unclear. Engelbert noted the league has narrowed the list of potential cities down to about 10 and confirmed that Oakland/the Bay Area is on the list, but did not offer any significant updates. She still hopes to make an official announcement before the end of the calendar year but did not give a firm commitment to doing so. 

"In expansion, we continue to do very hard work on expansion as I probably mentioned over the past six months or so, we took those hundred cities we were looking at on the psychographics, the demographics, the current WNBA fan base, the merch buys, NCAA viewership, arena availability, committed ownership groups and we have narrowed that probably to about ten, and we're going to continue to work on that hard and hopefully can announce expansion over the next couple years.

So we're not in any rush as I say, coming off two kind of tough COVID years for ownership. We want to make sure the new ownership group is set up for success. So we will announce it when it's right, when we have reached agreements with different ownership groups. But we continue to work hard on it but it's been a pretty intense season and we'll work even harder in the off-season.

Yeah, I would say I would love to announce by the end of the year. These are complex situations to build expansion in cities. Again, you need to find the right owners with the right capital. We have to run an expansion draft, we have to let our GMs know in advance and head coaches what that's going to look like. We are working on all of that. We have work streams around all of that. We have a process and a lot of interest. The great thing is we have more than ten cities interested and we continue to do calls in those cities with potential ownership groups and take potential bid situations seriously."

Preseason game coming to Canada as league looks to expand global reach

The WNBA is still based entirely in the United States, though there's a chance that could change with expansion if Toronto is one of the chosen cities. In the meantime, the league is trying to expand its global reach, and as part of that process, there will be a preseason game played in Canada for the first time ever next season. 

Further details such as the date, location and teams involved will be announced at a later date. It's possible that said game could be used to test the viability of an expansion team in Canada, though Engelbert did not specifically cite that as a reason for hosting a game there. 

Furthermore, the league hopes to eventually play more games outside of the country just like the NBA does with its Global Games series.

"I think we have been looking at Canada for a while. In fact, pre-pandemic we were planning to play a preseason game in Canada and obviously literally in like the coming off the CBA in January of 2020, talking with Canada and made a visit up there. Women's sports are very, very popular up there and they have been very successful in basketball, soccer and hockey.

We have players from Canada in our league, so that's helpful as well. I think the ease of the travel there during, again, an intense training camp time that we had made Canada attractive to us, and again, it's the damn graphics and youth and diversity of the country in some of those cities is the reason why we'll start there. But we would love to get over to Europe, Asia, do an EMEA, do an Asian tour at some point in the future as we build the economics of this league and the success of these players global brands."