The WNBA is poised perfectly for expansion.
When the league started in 1997, it had eight teams: the Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, New York Liberty, Houston Comets, Sacramento Monarchs, Utah Starzz, Charlotte Sting, and Cleveland Rockers. Now in the 25th season, only four of those teams still exist, a sign of the carnage that plagued this league for the first 15 or so years of its existence.
The WNBA has stayed at 12 teams since 2010, the longest stretch of time it has remained at the same number by eight years. It used to be standard procedure for the WNBA to experience expansion, relocations, and folds, but in the past 11 years, zero teams have ceased operations, and just two franchises have moved: the Tulsa Shock converted to the Dallas Wings in 2015 and the San Antonio Stars became the Las Vegas Aces in 2017.
What’s the reason for this newfound stability in a once brutally-unstable league? Money. Viewership has been massively up the last few years, and it’s only getting better in 2021 so far. In turn, players are more visible than ever, and with the most recent CBA granting athletes greater salaries and raising the salary cap, it can only be assumed that the WNBA’s finances from top to bottom are in a much better place than 15 years ago.
The WNBA also learned from earlier expansion mistakes, adding franchises too quickly before having its ducks in a row. The W jumped from eight teams in 1997 to 16 by 2000 – a 100% increase in a three-year period. Almost half of the teams it added in the period have either since moved or disappeared entirely. In fact, only seven of the 16 teams in the 2000 WNBA are still hooping in the same cities today, and eight of the franchises have folded.
This also isn’t particularly unusual for a sports league in its early years.
“Look at the NBA’s first 20, 30 years, it’s exactly the same story,” David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah, told Kent Youngblood of The St. Augustine Record in 2018. “It’s also the same story of the early NFL, or Major League Baseball, or the NHL. All these stories are very similar. The reason I think this happens is that, professional, when they start, you are inventing an organization that didn’t exist before and doesn’t have any fans. Fans identify with players to some extent, but also to organizations. When you invent a league, initially nobody knows what they’re looking for. There is no history.”
Since the turn of the decade, rather than continue down that same path, the league has chosen to focus on strengthening what it has, and it has worked out almost perfectly. If you think about what the WNBA will look like in 2042, 21 years from now, it seems outlandish to believe more than half of the current 12 teams wouldn’t exist or play in the cities they currently do. It’s possible a few may disappear, but the league is at a place where it’s established in all of its markets and investment groups are looking to get into women’s sports. With the growth potential of the league and the clear change in direction over the last decade, the unrelenting financial woes of yesteryear feel like a past problem.
Now is the time for the league to capitalize on the fervor surrounding its product.
Why the Time Is Right for WNBA Expansion
Life is good for the WNBA. Viewership has been ballooning for years, Sabrina Ionescu has playing lights out and bringing a new excitement to an already-rising league, and the depth of talent is at an all-time high.
Women’s basketball as a whole is doing well. The NCAA Division I Women’s Tournament has also been seeing an uptick in viewers, and in 2021 those numbers were especially good.
This is what happens after decades of work to grow, build, and train athletes in a particular sport. Women’s hoops is currently reaping the hard work of many people 20 years ago, and with increased attention and similar hard work being put into the game right now, the positive path should be exponentially better in 20 more years.
Women’s college basketball has helped carved out some niches areas of the country where the women’s game has thrived, and the WNBA has taken advantage of that before (see: Connecticut Sun). The stage is set perfectly for the league to do the same thing in Louisville, one of several locations that make good sense for a WNBA team.
The WNBA is hot right now, and that’s the time to strike. To grow, you have to ride momentum waves, and especially considering what the pandemic did to most other sports leagues in America, the momentum the WNBA has is impossible to ignore.
But it’s also a practical issue. At this point, there is so much talent in women’s basketball that players who wouldn’t have had an issue finding a roster spot years ago are struggling to find spots. The New York Liberty waiving Layshia Clarendon the other week is a perfect example. There is only a maximum of 144 roster spots in the league at the moment, and that’s assuming every team hits the 12-player cap, and some choose to remain at 11 for flexibility throughout the season. If you pay attention to women’s basketball, you know there are absolutely more than 144 players who could and should be playing in North America’s major professional league.
The addition of just two more teams would add up to 24 new spots, upping the total to 168, which is still small but would help divide up the current talent and open up the league to 20 or so more players who could make an impact. Creating more jobs in women’s professional basketball isn’t just good for the WNBA, it’s good for the sport’s health, which doubles as being good for the WNBA all over again.
There are other ways to tackle this issue, like by expanding roster sizes to 15 and/or increasing the cap. But the CBA was just recently agreed upon, so moving the cap feels like a non-starter. And teams generally only play seven to nine players in their rotations anyway, so would adding three more roster spots really make that much impact? Expansion takes care of all those problems, plus solves more to boot.
Now consider the impact adding two markets to the WNBA could have. Using Louisville as an example, it’s already a basketball-crazed market and starving for a major professional sport of really any kind. The Triple A Louisville Bats were in the top 20 for attendance among 160 affiliated-baseball teams in 2019. Louisville City FC was fourth in the USL for attendance in 2019. Louisville women’s basketball was fifth in Division I for attendance in the 2019-20 season, and the men’s team is always a draw, too. You think people in Louisville wouldn’t show up to see some of the best women’s hoopers in the world go at it?
If the WNBA were to head to Louisville and it worked as well as I think it would, they’d be introducing professional basketball to hundreds of thousands of young girls who might not have otherwise been exposed to it. What sort of impact can that have on future fans and talent for the league to enjoy? Larger television/streaming contracts, a higher level of competition, more butts in seats, and not to mention an instant rivalry with the Indiana Fever (who doesn’t want more Indiana versus Kentucky basketball?).
I’ve spent a lot of space dissecting Louisville, but that’s just one of many viable candidates. Toronto, Houston, Philadelphia, and several others have reasonable arguments for why they would make for excellent WNBA hubs. But that discussion is for another day. Today is for laying out why the time is right for WNBA expansion.