The Sparks finished the WNBA regular season with the best record in the Western Conference and tied for the best home record.
Their season could come to an end Sunday without playing a single game in their usual home arena in the WNBA semifinals.
It’s not fair but that’s life in the WNBA, where what’s in the best interest of players and teams isn’t always a priority for the league.
Take Sunday’s elimination game against the Connecticut Sun for example. Prior to the season, Staples Center gave the team and league a set of dates that were not available because of events already booked. Sunday’s Emmy Awards are being held across the street at Microsoft Theater but Staples Center is being used for the event as well. This has been on the venue’s calendar for over a year and the league has known about it for as long.
Staples Center, however, is available to host the Sparks’ home playoff game one day later on Monday.
ESPN, which is the broadcast home of the WNBA playoffs, is scheduled to air the game Sunday on ESPN2 but often has to adjust to schedule changes for a variety of reasons. While “Monday Night Football” will be airing on ESPN, replayed programming that could easily be preempted is currently scheduled to air on ESPN2, ESPNews and ESPNU, not to mention ESPN+, their popular streaming service which aired all the FIBA World Cup games.
Staples Center and ESPN officials said they would have hypothetically been open to having the game played on Monday instead of Sunday but that was never presented to them as a possibility. The Sparks’ home playoff game was always going to be played Sunday in the eyes of the league and it was up to the Sparks to find a place to play it even though they knew Staples Center was not available when they put together the schedule. Pushing the playoff schedule back 24 hours to accommodate the team was a non-starter.
The Sparks, which average over 10,000 fans per game, settled on the 4,000-seat Walter Pyramid at Cal State Long Beach. This is actually the fifth playoff game since 2015 the Sparks have had to play away from Staples Center and will be the fourth held in Long Beach with the other one taking place at USC’s Galen Center.
A previously booked event prevented the Sparks from practicing at their temporary home Saturday afternoon, forcing them to go to a local community college. The first time many Sparks players will set foot on their “home court” will be for the start of Sunday’s elimination game.
“It’s the reality of the league at the moment,” said Sparks coach and former Lakers guard Derek Fisher. “I’ve been a Sparks fan for many years and they’ve had to play games at USC and Long Beach State before. It’s weird. We won’t have a chance to practice at Long Beach State or shoot around there. I considered having us spend the night at a hotel in Long Beach, like it’s a road game instead of sleeping in our own beds like a normal home game. I don’t know how or why this is happening or has happened in the past but I hope it’s not this way past this year and we can figure out a way to fix this.”
The end of this postseason marks the WNBA’s last under its current collective bargaining agreement and there are many issues the Women’s National Basketball Players Assn. and the league will have to hash out moving forward. Issues like this, along with team travel conditions, are at the forefront of the minds of many players in the playoffs. The WNBA threw the Sparks and Las Vegas Aces a bone last week when they paid for their charter flights to Connecticut and Washington for the start of the semifinals.
Both teams returned to the normal realities of WNBA travel after falling behind 0-2 in their series. For the Sparks that meant a two-hour bus ride from Uncasville, Conn., to Boston after the game and a 5:45 a.m. bus from their hotel to Boston Logan International Airport for a 7:45 a.m. commercial flight back to Los Angeles.
“We want to play at home but that’s something we can’t control right now as players,” said Sparks forward Candace Parker. “That’s something we’ll talk about and discuss later. Our CBA is coming up and I’m sure there will be some discussions about this. I would hope that the league would work towards having teams play their playoff games in their home arenas. I think there are definitely instances where they can do more and we’ve spoken up about it. They know we want to play this game at home.”
Staples Center is the home of the Lakers, Clippers, Kings and Sparks. The busiest period for the 20-year old arena came in 2012 when the Lakers and Clippers advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs and the Kings were on their way to their to winning their first Stanley Cup. The arena hosted six playoffs games in four days with the Lakers, Clippers and Kings hosting two games each. At no point was hosting one of their playoff games at another venue considered and there were contingency plans in place for games to be moved back a day if the first game of a doubleheader went long. Professional leagues make those kinds of adjustments to accommodate their professional athletes on playoff teams. They don’t tell them to find a college arena free to host their biggest game of the season.
“I’m new to this,” Fisher said. “I hope that people aren’t ignoring what’s best for the players and what’s best for the growth of the league. Whether that’s a team earning home court and not being able to play at home or a fan buying season tickets to see the Sparks at Staples Center and having to drive to Long Beach to see their team play a home playoff game. That’s unfair, not to just to the team but for the fans. After this season hopefully we won’t have to worry about this again.”