Liberty hits jackpot in Vegas winning Commissioner Cup

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
The New York Liberty came into Michelob Ultra Arena Tuesday and shut down the Las Vegas Aces' high-powered offense in winning the WNBA Commissioner's Cup 82-63.

LAS VEGAS — There was more than revenge to motivate the Las Vegas Aces Tuesday night when they faced the New York Liberty for the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup.

It was also about money.

But revenge will have to wait a couple of days. The Liberty came to Vegas Tuesday night and hit the jackpot of sorts, beating the Aces again, this time 82-63 in front of 8,967 at Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay. In doing so, the charter franchise, which started play in 1997, collected its first piece of hardware. And perhaps more important, the Liberty players, not the Aces, cashed in, as each player received $30,000.

Not a bad chunk of change for a single night’s work in a league where the average annual salary is $113,295. 

The Aces hoped to avenge the 99-61 Beatdown in Brooklyn by the Libs on Aug. 6. Instead, they’ll regroup and try to even the score on Thursday when the Liberty return to MUA. Let’s hope nobody was planning a cruise to Mexico or a trip to the dealership to buy a car with that 30 grand they wound up not getting. 

They did pick up $10,000 per player so the evening wasn’t a total loss. And the game didn’t count in the league standings so there’s that.

Money is the No. 1 issue facing the WNBA. It is at the root of the league losing an average of $10 million a year. It’s why player salaries can’t be upped significantly to keep them from traveling overseas to play in the offseason. It’s why the league charters flights on a limited basis during the season instead of it being standard operating procedure for all teams all the time, not just in the playoffs.

And oh yes, the playoffs. When the Aces won the WNBA title last year over Connecticut, you know what the bonuses were for each player? The princely sum of $11,356. You can’t even buy a decent used car with that.

When the Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup back in June, each player earned roughly $156,000, give or take a loonie or twoonie. Yeah, I know the NHL has been around a lot longer than the WNBA and compared to the NBA, hockey players still lag behind financially. But it illustrates how wide the financial chasm is between women pro athletes and their male counterparts in team sports. 

And you know what’s sad about this? The WNBA product has never been better. It’s not the league of broken jumpers and bricked layups we remember back in the late 1990s when it was launched. A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart are great players who no doubt will one day join Aces coach Becky Hammon in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Fans show up. TV ratings continue to climb. It’s quality family entertainment that is all-inclusive. You can attend an Aces game for 10 bucks and maybe score some free pizza if an opposing player misses two free throws which happened Tuesday when Courtney Vandersloot bricked a couple of tries from the line two minutes in. 

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert is not in an enviable position. Despite her league’s improved status, it’s not able to make the financial advances it needs to for its players or to attract stars from other countries as free agents. 

Some may think expansion is an answer. Let’s say you put a team in Oakland and you get a eight-figure expansion fee. That’s not addressing the problem long-term. It’s about attracting more investors with deeper pockets who are willing to spend on the existing 12 teams and absorb the losses. 

Aces owner Mark Davis believes in the WNBA and he’s not afraid to open his wallet. The team’s practice facility in Henderson next to the Raiders’ headquarters would be the envy of a lot of NBA teams and the players credit where they train for having a major role in their success on the court this season. Las Vegas owns the best record in the WNBA at 27-3.

Liberty owner Joe Tsai also believes in the WNBA. Tsai, who also owns the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, is willing to invest in the women’s game. It’s little wonder the two owners who are trying to win are actually winning. And when the WNBA Finals are held in October, it will not be a shock if these two teams are facing each other for the title and that $11,356 each player will earn for winning. Hopefully, the winner’s share will go up this year.

Chelsea Gray, the Aces’ all-star guard, chose her words carefully when asked if the league was doing enough to generate more revenue for the players.

“You trying to get me fined?” she said half-jokingly. “I think there’s always room for improvement. I’ll just leave it there.”

Engelbert said Tuesday that she is hoping to get her league on more solid financial footing, get player salaries up, get them on charter flights all the time and get more TV exposure.

“We’ve been doing a good job of growing revenue,” Engelbert said. “We need teams to keep getting more fans in the seats. Vegas has done a great job of that. 

“Media deals come up only every so often. The biggest challenge is the undervaluation of women’s sports. Our quantitative metrics are there. We’re on ABC, ESPN and CBS and we’re doing really well. And now, hopefully over time, we’ll get better recognition.”

The WNBA’s media rights deal ends in 2025. Engelbert is hoping the next deal will reap the rewards the players want and deserve.

“Everything I do every day I come to work with my team, we know this is all about obtaining a great set of media rights,” she said. “Media rights are no longer one linear package. Obviously that whole industry is being disrupted with streaming services and long-form and short-form content. 

“The more our players get recognized, the more rivalries develop, the more people will want to watch.”

The Vegas-New York rivalry is real. it continues Thursday, picks back up in Brooklyn on Aug. 28 and likely will culminate with these two teams in the WNBA Finals.

But on this night, the Liberty, not the Aces, held all the cards. I just hope they don’t blow their winnings in the casino.