'WNBL can thrive': Lauren Jackson unveils new-look season for Canberra Capitals' title defence

The Capitals will be chasing their third consecutive title when the season starts in November. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
The Capitals will be chasing their third consecutive title when the season starts in November. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The Canberra Capitals are preparing to start their WNBL bid for a title three-peat in empty stadiums as party of a competition relaunch, which will give players the perfect launching pad to the 2021 Olympic Games.

The WNBL's plans to curb the impact of coronavirus will be unveiled on Wednesday morning.

The season start date has been moved back a month from October to November to allow as much time as possible for border and travel restrictions to be changed, with games before Christmas expected to be played without fans in the stands.

But there will still be 21 games in the regular season, with the grand final series to finish at the end of March, leaving a small window for Australian Opals preparations for the rescheduled Olympics in Tokyo.

A broadcast deal is being finalised to ensure fans will be able to watch even in the lockout and free agency is expected to begin in the coming weeks to give teams a chance to plan.

The Capitals had hoped to start the 2020-21 season in front of packed crowds after winning their second title in a row last season.

The WNBL will allow crowds to return earlier if government restrictions allow for it, but the lack of fans will see clubs take a financial hit.

WNBL boss Lauren Jackson says the measures were in place to give teams, broadcasters and officials a chance to plan, but details were flexible pending government decisions.

"I'm proud and happy we've been able to get this together to give clubs some clarity," Jackson said.

"We've spent the last few months working through this with the clubs and commission members. With the Olympics moved to next year it's a boost as well.

"There's some uncertainty still around. Who knows when players will be able to go overseas again? So it was important to keep 21 games in the season to give athletes a chance to prepare to go to the Olympics next year in tip-top shape. We wanted to ensure the integrity of Australia's longest-running elite women's sporting competition is not compromised."

The Capitals are waiting for the free agency period to begin to be able to start re-signing and recruiting players to chase the first hat-trick of titles in the club's history. The Capitals have played home games at the National Convention Centre and the AIS Arena in recent years, but no crowds could see them move to smaller venues with cheaper hiring fees.

The league could push ahead without imports given the travel restrictions, which could affect Canberra's recruitment strategy. The league's MVP, Kia Nurse, had not planned to come back, but grand final MVP Olivia Epoupa would have been a boost if she could return form France.

General manager Lucille Bailie said: "We're excited. As a business we have to understand what our product is. We'll adapt as the advice changes, it will take some creative thinking around venues that are necessary.

"We're not at the point of looking at venues, but we can put our creative hats on with this information from the league that allows us to talk to stakeholders about what the best fit would be."

The Capitals won their ninth WNBL title in front of a sell-out crowd at the AIS Arena in March, continuing the club's impressive resurgence.

"We're growing with sponsorships, merchandise and crowds. To be sustainable we need to look at the future and adapt our product," Bailie said. "We still want to engage those couple of thousand people who come to our game, so we're looking forward to that next level of information about broadcasting.

"The WNBL and Lauren have a done a fantastic job getting this much detail to give the clubs something to look forward to. I'm reasonably confident with our creativity, we can adapt our product to full engage our stakeholders. People love the Caps product."

The WNBL will meet with the players association and broadcasters in the coming weeks before finalising free agency and a competition schedule.

"Women's professional sport in Australia has taken giant leaps forward over recent years and it's extremely important to Basketball Australia that the WNBL doesn't regress during these times of global adversity, in fact we want the opposite to occur," Jackson said.

"Australia is the envy of the basketball world for the quality of talent we produce both on and off the court. With an eye on the Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 Women's Basketball World Cup in Sydney, having a strong domestic league while providing opportunities for our current and emerging talent is our priority."

WNBL CAN THRIVE AGAIN: JACKSON

Jackson is adamant women's basketball can thrive in Australia as she continues putting pieces of the puzzle together to "elevate the status" of the game.

The WNBL is negotiating with broadcasters about a potential deal for the 2020-21 season and beyond, while the league will also host an awards function after criticism of the most valuable player announcement this year.

Jackson, Australia's greatest basketballer, and Basketball Australia officials have used the coronavirus shutdown to discuss the major WNBL issues and have shifted the season as part of several changes.

Securing a broadcast partner would be a huge boost for Australia's longest-running elite female competition, which has been plagued by live-streaming problems in the past 12 months and limited television coverage.

"We're doing everything we can in the front office to raise the standard of the league," Jackson said.

"With that comes the events and recognition of the players and coaches ... it's really important that we just keep building. We've got so much to look forward to, so many opportunities.

"The game is going great at the moment with the women's World Cup coming to Australia. We want to do everything we can to elevate the status of the game again and take it back to where we believe it should be.

"My first year in the job has been a learning experience, but I've loved every minute of it. Every day I feel more passion and enthusiasm for where we're taking the game. We want it to be something everyone can be proud of."

Jackson won titles in Australia, the United States, Europe and Asia and was a four-time Olympian before retiring in 2016.

Now she is putting all of her focus on helping revive the competition which launched her career. The WNBL has been largely overshadowed in recent years by bright lights of the women's Big Bash, AFLW and the NRLW. A broadcast deal is key to keeping pace with cross-code rivals.

"We're working towards visibility. We want visibility for our athletes and for the league," Jackson said.

WNBL 2020-21 DETAILS

Opening round: November 20-22

Last round of regular season: March 3-6

Play-offs: March 12-21

Grand final series: March 25-31