Last year’s WNBA finals were deemed an instant classic. Lifted by an emotional Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike’s game-winning shot in the final seconds, the Los Angeles Sparks captured the title in a decisive Game 5 on the road against the Minnesota Lynx in front of a sold-out crowd at Target Center.
It was women’s professional basketball at its best. After the game, though, the league acknowledged a blight on the proceedings, one that could have influenced the outcome.
With 1 minute, 12 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the score tied 71-71, Ogwumike was credited with a field goal. But the WNBA later said officials missed a shot-clock violation at 1:14 and “the referees improperly failed to review the play under the instant replay rules.”
After Game 4, the league also conceded that referees had missed an eight-second violation by the Lynx in the final minute of the fourth quarter. The Lynx eventually won, 85-79.
Criticism of these gaffes was widespread in the WNBA community.
“These players are so invested,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said after Game 5, “and something must be done about the officiating in this league, because it’s not fair to these great players we have.”
Former WNBA champion Kara Lawson, who is a broadcaster at ESPN, the league’s television partner, posted on Twitter after the finals: “Last night was an accurate representation of the WNBA. Our top teams & players are REALLY good. Our top officials aren’t.”
With the WNBA’s 21st season beginning this month, the league is working to change a perception of referees who have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, instituting new financial and teaching benefits.
Many players and coaches understand officiating is an inherently thankless occupation, and in the WNBA, the referees must call a game notably different in style and rules from other levels of basketball. But there is also a sentiment that more streamlined officiating will equal a better and more enticing product.
“It’s about building competency with your referees,” said Don Vaden, WNBA’s vice president for referee operations and the supervisor of officials. “It’s disappointing whenever a referee misses a call. We’re like athletes. It’s something you have to learn from and grow moving forward.”
This year, the league added in-season training for referees, coupling on-court work with classroom and video sessions.
The league has also recently expanded its measures to evaluate referees. Using a software program called the Referee Engagement Forum, or REF, the league communicates with referees with the goal of improving their performance. Last year, REF had 2,800 posts of interaction between referees and his office, according to Vaden.
“We’re building on that to deepen awareness with people on staff to make them as good as they possibly can be,” Vaden said.
Referees make mistakes in every sport at every level. But the WNBA has had particularly embarrassing miscues in recent years, including wrong players shooting free throws and Elena Delle Donne being credited for a basket that never went through the net.
“I think it’s true for any league, whether it’s the NFL, Major League Baseball — it doesn’t matter what league it is — we want officiating to at least keep up with the game,” Reeve said Thursday. “Our league is no different.”
Several WNBA referees also work at the college level and in the NBA developmental league. Some around the game have suggested that the compact schedule of women’s basketball could be a factor in officiating lapses.
Vaden said officials have almost one month of training and preseason games to prepare for the WNBA season. But Stephanie White, who was on the coaching staff of the Indiana Fever from 2011-16, said she experienced an adjustment period early in the season for officials.
The WNBA style of play is quicker and more physical than in the NCAA. When White began coaching at Vanderbilt last season, she immediately noticed that college games were called much tighter by referees.
Lin Dunn, who coached the Fever from 2008-14, also recently re-entered the college ranks, as an assistant at Kentucky. She began to observe not only the difficulties in calling the WNBA pace, but the tight conditions referees work under.
“I wonder sometimes, they just finished calling a whole year of college and go right into the WNBA — when do they get a break?” Dunn said.
White compared it to the plight faced by women’s basketball players.
“You’re working all year long,” she said. “There’s not really a lot of time for player skill development, or for officials for growth in those areas. How do we continue to help them develop or advance? We have to be willing to help officials in terms of their growth.”
Perhaps in an effort to alleviate the burden, the WNBA and the National Basketball Referees Association, the union that also represents NBA officials, announced their first collective bargaining agreement in April. The contract includes a 66 percent increase in total compensation and establishment of a 401(k).
“I think it represents a new level of collaboration with the league and the bigger commitment from the league in promoting continuous improvement and demonstrating how seriously they take these referees,” said Mark Denesuk, an NBRA spokesman.
Isabelle Harrison of the San Antonio Stars, a second-year player, praised the league for sending officials to Stars training camp to demonstrate rules and answer questions, which she said she did not experience as a rookie with the Phoenix Mercury.
But frustration quickly surfaced once the season began. During the Stars’ season opener May 13 against the New York Liberty at Madison Square Garden, with 58.7 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Erika de Souza was called for an offensive foul, negating a jumper by Monique Currie. The referees went to the scorer’s table to review the sequence.
From the time the whistle blew stopping play to the time the official outcome was announced — a technical foul on de Souza and no basket by Currie — nearly six minutes had elapsed.
Moments later, the officials went to the monitors to review another play. In all, it took about 10 1/2 minutes to play the final minute of the second quarter. Through much of the dead time, players stood on the court, hands on their hips, while groans from the crowd rose in volume.
“It stops momentum,” Harrison said. “I think we were kind of in a flow. It just gets frustrating.”
Vaden said the rule of thumb was to keep replays to within two minutes, but the overall goal was to get a correct call.
Even after a lengthy delay, that is not always the case. The third quarter of the Liberty-Stars game began with Sugar Rodgers shooting a free throw, which was essentially a do-over. After the first video review near the end of the second quarter, Epiphanny Prince had been incorrectly allowed to attempt a technical shot awarded to the Liberty.
After the series of flubbed calls dampened the WNBA finals in October, the sight of referees starting this season by deliberately conferring to confirm a ruling was encouraging. But there still appear to be areas for improvement.
“If we want more exposure in this league and everything, we’re going to have to get our refs on the same page as everybody,” Harrison said.