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WNBA to start 25th season May 14, with teams back at home arenas

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The WNBA released its 2021 schedule Tuesday as the league gets set to celebrate its 25th season starting May 14.

The 12 teams will play 32 regular-season games, which includes a break from July 12-Aug. 14 for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The television schedule will be released at a later date.

The WNBA had a 22-game regular season last year in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida. This year, teams will be back at home arenas. For the defending champion Seattle Storm this season, that will be at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Washington, as refurbishment work continues on Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle. The Los Angeles Sparks will play home games at both the Los Angeles Convention Center and Staples Center. And the New York Liberty's home games are now played at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

"As we tip-off this historic season with teams returning to play in their home markets, we celebrate the impact the WNBA has made on generations of young and diverse athletes and on sports and society since 1997," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. "Together with our fans and partners, we look ahead to how the outstanding athletes of the WNBA will continue to provide the best women's basketball in the world while also driving change, striving for justice and equality, and impacting future generations."

Engelbert was asked in a teleconference Tuesday afternoon about what she expected in terms of attendance.

"I think it's right now nine of our 12 markets, but we're negotiating on the 10th because you have to negotiate locally as well as with the local health officials," Engelbert said, although the league didn't identify which markets those were. "It'll be reduced, and we're hoping as we go into the Olympic break and come off of that, maybe we can have more full arenas."

There will be four games on Friday May 14, starting with Indiana at New York, as last year's No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu is expected back for the Liberty after missing most of last season with an ankle injury.

Last year's WNBA Finals teams meet May 15 as Las Vegas visits Seattle, a game that also pits the top two finishers in the MVP race last season: winner A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart. The Storm won their fourth championship, and Stewart was the WNBA Finals MVP.

May 15 also will feature Chicago, which signed two-time MVP Candace Parker as a free agent earlier this year, at Washington, the 2019 champion that hopes to have two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne back after she missed the 2020 season. Washington also hopes to see 2012 MVP Tina Charles make her Mystics debut; she sat out last season on a medical exemption because of extrinsic asthma.

Parker, who played 13 seasons with Los Angeles, will return there to play the Sparks on June 5 after facing them twice in Chicago in May. Parker opted to leave Los Angeles for her hometown of Chicago, which has been to the WNBA Finals (in 2014) but hasn't won a title. Parker won the league championship with the Sparks in 2016.

The 2021 schedule also seeks to reduce the number of trips teams take, including the use of a "series" model in which some teams are scheduled to play back-to-back games in the same place.

The WNBA will finish the regular season Sept. 19. The playoff format remains the same, with eight teams advancing to the postseason. There are single-elimination first- and second-round games, followed by best-of-five series for both the semifinals and WNBA Finals.

Engelbert said the league has watched and learned from the NBA in regard to having games in home markets again. She also was asked whether it's a goal for the WNBA to get as many players and staff vaccinated for COVID-19 before the season.

"It always starts with vaccine education, vaccine awareness, and then certainly there will be players who have already been vaccinated who are now speaking out about that, doing public service work around that," Engelbert said. "So I think, of course, this is a personal health decision for each player and staff member. We think the vaccine offers a lot of hope for the future of the protocols and the loosening of the protocols."