How the Las Vegas Aces may have changed the WNBA
In the penultimate game of their first WNBA season–with the eighth and final playoff spot on the line–the Las Vegas Aces fell 107-102 to a determined Dallas Wings team.
The seconds ticked down, the 6,209 fans in attendance swelled to their loudest applause, and those watching at home heard the local play-by-play commentator say, “And now the Las Vegas Aces who forfeited that game, find themselves on the outside looking in.”
It was an ironic twist, one the Aces had to, in part, be prepared for. When the Aces opted not to play against the Washington Mystics after severe travel delays, their playoff run became inherently tied to every one of their remaining eight games.
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After Tuesday’s WNBA Draft Lottery, the Aces (formerly the San Antonio Stars) earned their third consecutive first-round overall pick and some revived criticism for not playing on August 3. In speaking with players before and after the league decided to issue a forfeit, it is clear the now infamous game–teasingly referred to as #planegate by some on social media–had and will continue to have major implications.
The players association is expected to exercise the option to opt-out of the current collective bargaining agreement by the October 31 deadline. With that final decision looming, and contract negotiations soon to follow, the decision to rest by a young Aces team will likely impact the future of the WNBA itself.
Understanding the Aces’ decision
The Aces have always maintained the decision not to play in the middle of a playoff race was due to health and safety concerns. “It was definitely an evolving situation,” Aces center and WNBPA treasurer-elect Carolyn Swords told High Post Hoops two days after the team opted out of the Washington game. She continued,
"“As we arrived with hours to spare it was the lack of sleep that was really an issue. We had a chance to consult with our medical staff, they were concerned with the lack of sleep. So, it was really difficult. It was a difficult discussion to have with ourselves and to really try to weigh everything. You know, we love to play in front of our fans, and we love to compete. But, at the end of the day, we didn’t feel like we could safely step on the court for the game. So it’s just an unfortunate situation.”"
Unfortunate indeed, as the Aces ended the season one game back of a playoff spot, making their aforementioned loss to Dallas a type of poetic justice to those who took issue with the Aces not playing.
However, the forfeited game also impacted the rest of the field vying for playoff positioning, as well as those hoping to get the number one draft pick in 2019.
“By the game not being played. For example. Just go back to that weekend. You know Washington then goes to Dallas fresh. And Las Vegas goes to Connecticut fresh,” Los Angeles Sparks head coach Brian Agler told High Post Hoops back on August 8.
At the time of the conversation, Agler already knew Washington had gone on to beat Dallas and the Aces lost to Connecticut, but the point of rest is well taken. In a season three weeks shorter due to the FIBA Women’s World Cup Tournament, every minute of additional rest matters.
“You can ask anybody, any of these teams … any type of day off or non-activity day is beneficial to you. So, could have things been different?” Agler said. “You know if they would have played I don’t know. Who knows? But I do know that when it affects one or two teams it really affects everybody when it’s in a tight playoff race like it is this year.”
The Mystics made the playoffs. The Mystics also steamrolled Agler and the Sparks in the second round, single-elimination game on August 22.
Additionally, with the Aces missing the playoffs yet again, the franchise was eligible for the 2019 WNBA Draft Lottery. And for the third straight year, the Las Vegas franchise (dating back to its final year in San Antonio) will pick first, something that wouldn’t have happened in Las Vegas had made the playoffs.
Had Las Vegas made the playoffs, Dallas would have been lottery-eligible, possibly impacting Liz Cambage’s decision to return in 2019. Thus, the impact of the forfeit will continue at the draft and in free agency as well.
CBA opt-out ahead
Although the Aces lost their travel battle when the WNBA declared an official forfeit on August 7, the Aces handed the WNBPA even more ammunition in future negotiations. The Las Vegas travel woes were an extreme example of tiresome circumstances most every player has dealt with during their WNBA career.
“It’s unfortunate for [the Aces] that they have to take a loss to get this point proven,” Seattle Storm guard and WNBPA vice president-elect Sue Bird told SB Nation in an August 10 article. “But it’s one of those things where in a year or two, or five or 10 years down the line — because it’s going to happen again, it’s commercial flying — now another team won’t have to forfeit. They sacrificed for the greater good of the league and for that I have a lot of respect.”
Bird and others are looking not necessarily for charter planes, but better, more proactive policies. “I think that the whole travel situation is probably going to raise a lot of questions and suggestions moving forward,” Los Angeles Sparks forward and WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike told High Post Hoops earlier this month.
She added, “It’s definitely something that is a call for action to have conversation between the players in the league to ensure that if these types of situations happen, we have guidelines [and] policies that keep the players safe and ensure that we can kind of tackle the situation however it needs to be handled.”
Part of that is looking at what the NBA currently has in place. “The NBA doesn’t have to deal with this because they have something already in their CBA that says that if they travel across two time zones [in a day] that they don’t have to play. And, they can opt to play,” Indiana Fever center Natalie Achonwa told High Post Hoops.
“People want to say, ‘Oh, it’s not an issue for NBA players.’ Well, that’s because it’s something that’s already stated for them. So, that brings light to it [as] something we need to focus on adding and making sure the health and the safety of the players is a priority in our CBA going forward.”
With the opt-out deadline coming, the Aces’ decision not to play on August 3 will likely spark an important and likely overdue conversation about travel and general player safety in the WNBA at an opportune time.
Before a game in New York earlier this season, Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve told the media, “Just because we’re resilient does not mean you should do it to us.” She was referring to the New York Liberty’s move to the Westchester County Center.
The quote seems apropos as the WNBA players prepare, yet again, to change the status quo.