By: Lyndsay Helfrich
The WNBA’s 26th season is fully underway and with that comes another conversation about the expansion of the league. While asking about expansion is often a popular question to ask on WNBA Twitter if you’re looking for engagement (which often feels like disingenuous coverage of the league), the league itself has also been asking itself the same questions.
The Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has been cagey when discussing expansion in the past, but according to a recent article by Chantel Jennings of The Athletic, that stance has officially changed. In an interview with Jennings, Engelbert discussed potential expansion of the league, what all goes into the decision, and other priorities for the league office regarding the business itself.
Unlike many of the conversations around expansion, this one brought tangible excitement for a number of fans as it was a real acknowledgement that expansion is on the table, and for a league that has been growing by all accounts, that is exciting.
There is a lot to this conversation however, and below are some notes on the topic of expansion, why there is a need, where to expand to, and some reasons the league should focus inwards on existing issues in order to make sure that expansion is ultimately sustainable. Let’s go!
A Very Brief History of Team Numbers
The W has not always been this size and has had a fraught history with expansion. The WNBA tipped off in 1997 with eight teams: Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets, and New York Liberty in the East and Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Sacramento Monarchs and Utah Starzz in the West. In 1998, the Detroit Shock and Washington Mystics were added while the Orlando Miracle and Minnesota Lynx joined in 1999 to bring the league to twelve teams. Later in 1999, the WNBA announced the addition of the Indiana Fever, Seattle Storm, Miami Sol, and Portland Fire to bring the league to sixteen teams.
Things were good until they weren’t; the bursting of the dotcom bubble in the early 2000s meant that WNBA teams were no longer valued assets by their NBA counterparts and were either sold off and folded (Miami and Portland), or relocated in the case of Utah to San Antonio and Orlando to Connecticut (also making it the first WNBA franchise to be owned by a third party instead of an NBA franchise). More teams folded through the mid-2000s, while Chicago was awarded an expansion franchise. The Comets were folded in 2008, while the Atlanta Dream joined. Since then, we have hit a plateau.
(For more historical information on the WNBA, and women’s basketball in general, check out Across the Timeline)
Reasons for Expansion
The WNBA currently consists of twelve teams with twelve roster spots for a total of 144 roster spots; in reality, there are actually fewer as many teams do not carry a full roster due to salary cap restrictions (somewhere closer to 137 total spots). The small number of teams with small rosters essentially means that the WNBA is one of the most exclusive basketball leagues in the world in terms of chances to make a roster. This numbers problem has begun to reach new heights, with a record fifty players declaring for the 2021 WNBA Draft. The talent is there domestically, as we see consistently in women’s college basketball, and internationally, with more players from abroad beginning to come to the league.
The W consistently gets top end talent in part because it has become more popular (as well as being a domestic option to play basketball professionally, which American players have always wanted), meaning in many ways they are victims of their own success. One potential solution to this problem is expansion; more teams mean more roster spots, which in turn means more of the best talent gets to play in the league. The WNBA should want this as it would further burnish their reputation as the best women’s basketball league in the world; an excellent product is always necessary for sustainability and the product has rarely been better.
In Commissioner Engelbert’s interview with The Athletic, she highlighted that the WNBA is hoping to identify two cities for expansion over the next couple of years, with hopes that those new teams could be up and running for 2024 season. The league has not expanded since 2008, when the Atlanta Dream joined, which makes this possible expansion a big step forward for the league.
There are a number of factors the league has said it is taking into consideration when paring down the list of potential destinations. According to the article in The Athletic, the league is running every potential destination through twenty-five data points which are broken into five categories: demographics, psychographics, sports benchmarks, viewership, and fan data. Engelbert listed a city’s population, generational demographics and political situations all as things that are part of these considerations.
For a league that has expanded and contracted in the past and is looking for continued stable footing, the vetting of these cities will be important. Another consideration the league must make is in regard to the business side of the league itself and its teams; the valuation of each individual franchise and what it would cost to buy one or buy into the league in general varies for instance, and there are a number of current franchises which are struggling to be profitable.
WNBA franchises do not have the luxury of relying on large national TV deals like the major men’s leagues (more on that another time) and therefore must rely on ticket sales, sponsorships, streaming deals, and local TV broadcasts. This is not necessarily a problem for the potential of expansion, but it is important to keep in mind and it certainly appears the league is doing so. How a team makes money is an important factor in where new teams could land.
So where are we going?
In The Athletics’ piece, six cities were identified as being shortlisted for expansion: Portland, Nashville, Oakland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Toronto. For a number of these cities the draw is somewhat obvious; all six are home to other major professional sports franchises, and at least one of them (Portland) has had a WNBA team in the past. Most importantly, basketball is an important sport in all six of these cities, with women’s basketball in particular having deep roots in cities such as Philadelphia, Oakland, and states like Tennessee. The rise of Oregon women’s basketball and the improved status of basketball as a whole, on top of the success of the Canadian senior women’s national team, have made Portland
and Toronto even more attractive than they
may have been before. Judging loosely on the criteria listed above, it makes sense that these cities would be identified. All have significant enough population bases within the city or nearby, have reasonably young and up and coming demographics, and most of them are in reasonably liberal political situations. There is more momentum for some cities than others, with cities like Oakland already having a ready and waiting ownership group, proposal in hand.
What is most interesting about this list for me is the omission of (at least) two cities: Houston and Charlotte. Houston and Charlotte both were home to iconic WNBA franchises, with Houston being home to the first WNBA dynasty in the Comets. It has become clear to many in WNBA circles that some of Houston’s lack of representation has less to do with the city’s appetite for basketball and more to do with the growing elephant in the room in the league. After being put up for sale in 2008, and with no buyers, the League took over the franchise and disbanded the team. This is largely seen as a stain on the league, and the lack of recognition for the league’s first dynasty and one of the most historically important teams during the 25th Anniversary celebrations was conspicuous, and so is the apparent apathy towards bringing back the Comets. Beyond just their historical importance, there are practical reasons that Houston could work too. It has a large population, a young and vibrant population, a ready-made rivalry in the Dallas Wings, and a lot of talent in the league comes from the
Houston area already. Investment situation in Houston aside, it is disappointing to see the league be seemingly uninterested in bringing back such a franchise.
The Charlotte Sting for their part were less iconic than the Comets, but nevertheless, North Carolina is a basketball state and Sting’s Hall of Fame former point-guard Dawn Staley is coaching nearby. The Carolinas live and breathe basketball, and especially with the rise and success of South Carolina Women’s Basketball under Staley, a vibrant fan base is ready and waiting. Something that the WNBA has been doing, but needs to continue to improve on, is capitalizing on college fan bases. Women’s College Basketball is one of the fastest growing sports as far as viewership goes, but once your favourite players make it to the league, it can be difficult to follow (for myriad reasons); finding ways to tap into these passionate fan bases will be integral to the continued growth of the WNBA.
Bad pun notwithstanding, Drake’s IG story back in October 2021 not only got everyone talking about expansion in general, but the possibility of Canadian expansion in particular. Professional basketball has had an up and down history in Canada, but there is no doubt that the existence and (recent) success of the Toronto Raptors (and Vancouver Grizzlies while they lasted) have helped to grow the popularity of the game. Women’s basketball specifically has also been growing; Canadian women are represented in the WNBA and NCAA ranks while the senior women’s national team has managed to build itself into a top ranked program in the world. There are certainly advantages that a team in Canada could leverage; the Raptors, for instance, have every game nationally televised with deals through Sportsnet and TSN and a WNBA franchise could hope to get the same support. Aside from the Blue Jays, there is not a lot of significant competition for sports fans attention in the summertime and, as has been proven time and time again, when you put women’s sports on TV, people will watch. There is an appetite for women’s basketball, and the WNBA particularly, in Canada and the hope for expansion is palpable from many fans (myself included).
Hold up, wait a minute…
For everyone involved, the possibility of WNBA expansion is extremely exciting. More roster spots mean more talent can stay home, more teams lead to more fans and new rivalries, new markets can continue to bring investment and growth to the league and continue to strengthen their position as the most successful women’s professional sports league in North America. However, we should also pump the brakes a little bit, so to speak. Growth is exciting, but growth can also serve to exacerbate existing issues, and despite the historic new CBA in 2020 helping, there are still plenty of issues that need fixing if the WNBA wants to continue to sustain itself and grow in a sustainable way. Two issues, and very primary ones as it regards to expansion, are salaries and travel.
The first of the two, salaries, was addressed in the aforementioned 2020 CBA. Salaries were increased, as was the revenue sharing deal, and these things are good. However, it is still not good enough. While no one is expecting or asking for WNBA athletes to get NBA sized contracts immediately, there is still room for growth on the salary side and when considering the cost of living in a number of cities the WNBA is already in, and the ones they want to expand to (i.e. San Francisco, Toronto), salaries become even more important. I am confident this issue will continue to be addressed, and increased revenue in general will bring more money to the players, but since the players saw none of the $75 million capital investment and rumours of Commissioner’s Cup winners not being compensated as promised, player pay is still an issue worth mentioning.
Second, and possibly more important than salaries when discussing expansion, is travel. Currently, all WNBA players fly commercially. They are given extra leg room and are not booked in middle seats, accommodations made in the last CBA, but must ultimately fly with the rest of us (even during a global pandemic) and are subject to all of the airport and airline delays and hassles that come with that. This travel situation has become more and more of a visible problem over the past couple of seasons, with the Aces having to forfeit a game in the 2018 season citing safety concerns after substantial travel delays, and the Connecticut Sun needing to fly players on multiple planes to one game during the 2021 playoffs in order to accommodate the new CBA rules around travel. It is not lost on many of the players that they travelled better in college, when they weren’t allowed to be paid, and it is also not lost on the new class of team governors such as Mark Davis and the Tsai’s in New York. Both the Tsai’s and Davis have publicly advocated for the use of chartered flights and overall increased improvement in the travel situation. With expansion, it is important to consider where these cities are located and how easy it would be for players to travel as they have to do so commercially. While Toronto has a large international airport, you must also clear customs, and since players must fly with the general public, it can be assumed they would need to clear customs with the general public, and that would only add to the time it takes to get from one city to the next. Any expansion discussion needs to include discussion of the infrastructure around travel to and from that new expansion city.
There are a lot of factors to consider in WNBA expansion, and this discussion surely will not go away any time soon. Since the Commissioner has publicly acknowledged expansion and has expressed, she would like it soon it can be expected that expansion will take up more and more of the discussion surrounding the W. It will be interesting to see where the road of expansion ultimately takes the league but fans should buckle up for the ride.