The WNBA practiced social distancing by hosting the first virtual Draft on Friday, April 17 on ESPN. One of the few athletic events that was not impacted by the COVID-19, the Draft was mainly broadcasted from the houses of league commissioner Cathy Engelbert and the Draftees.
“We felt it was really important to move forward with the virtual draft because the prospects, they worked so hard, they didn’t get their NCAA tournament,” Engelbert said. “To hear their names called tonight, I think we’re gonna make dreams come true for sure.”
On Tuesday, the league announced that it was the most watched Draft in 16 years with 387,000 viewers.
During the Draft, the league gave tributes to the passing of NBA icon Kobe Bryant and former NBA commissioner David Stern. The WNBA also honored the memory of Gianna Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli, and Payton Chester by making them honorary draft picks. The three young athletes were also victims of the helicopter accident that took Kobe’s life in January.
“It would have been a dream come true for her. She worked tirelessly every single day. She wanted to be one of the greatest athletes of all-time, just like her daddy,” Vanessa Bryant said while donning Kobe’s WNBA hoodie. “Thank you for honoring my little girl.”
The League also launched the Kobe and Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award, it will be given out annually to a person or group who made a significant effort to the advancement of women’s and girl’s sports.
To pay homage to those fighting against the pandemic, the WNBA, the WNBPA and State Farm partnered to donate to the organization Direct Relief by giving $20,000 for every first-round draft pick.
“The players and myself really wanted an organization that is providing … essential medical items to help workers respond to COVID-19,” Engelbert said.
ESPN commentator Holly Rowe interviewed draft picks live, taking the viewers to the homes of every first-round pick. The New York Liberty selected the reigning Naismith Player of the Year Sabrina Ionescu as the first overall pick. Ionescu noted how she is eager to develop every aspect of her game, she also complimented the guards on the New York roster.
“Being able to enter an offense where it’s really familiar to what I’ve been playing for the last four years is exciting,” Ionescu said. “I’m just excited to continue to grow my game in that aspect.”
The Liberty had two more first round picks, choosing UCONN forward Megan Walker and Louisville guard Jasmine Jones. The Dallas Wings was another big first round winner with three picks, drafting Oregon forward Satou Sabally, Princeton forward Bella Alarie and South Carolina guard Tyasha Harris.
Former UCLA guard Japreece Dean was drafted to the Chicago Sky in the third round; she averaged 13.7 points and 3.6 rebounds per game during her senior season.
Engelbert noted that she had been in contact with international leagues and hopes to collaborate with them in terms of game scheduling. Many leagues that WNBA players compete in during their off season suspended games in March.
To prepare for the pandemic-induced uncertainty, Engelbert has worked out different scenarios so the league can endure.
“I do believe that [COVID-19] will change sports forever from the perspective how you engage fans and how fans come into the arena,” Engelbert said. “Thinking about fan engagement, how we do a better job of engaging fans at home, because maybe there’s a scenario where more fans stay at home.”