Throughout her tenure as commissioner of the WNBA, Cathy Engelbert has been consistent about her messaging on the issue of expansion.
The WNBA has just 12 teams, with far fewer roster spots than the surging talent base in women’s basketball would otherwise justify. But in a league where teams have folded in the past, a careful parsing of what is required to add teams is understandable. Add in a pandemic that Engelbert said changed the calendar for the conversation, and it is only now that the idea of adding teams is beginning to get traction.
“We have to do very thoughtful analysis about that,” Engelbert told assembled media at last week’s WNBA All Star Game in Las Vegas. “That’s what we’re working on now. We’re starting that analysis, but nothing yet to commit to. Nothing yet to talk about other than I do think I’d like to consider it when you’re only in 12 markets and you’re in a country of our size and scale. There are some cities where you would think a WNBA team would thrive. Those are the things we’re going to start to look at. It will be data-driven. It will be driven by fans. It will be driven by the popularity of the game at the college level. All those factors.”
It is hard to ignore just how completely the outlines of what a WNBA market should look like, as described by Engelbert, when evaluating the city of Oakland, which took another step forward in its effort to bring a WNBA team to the Bay Area this past week, as the Oakland City Council agreed to move forward with African American Sports and Entertainment Group on a lease for Oakland Arena, formerly known as Oracle Arena, the longtime home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.
That news is significant for several reasons. It means that any approach by AASEG, a majority Black-owned investment group, to the WNBA carries with it a top-level place to play, a seemingly well-capitalized ownership group and a desirable market. And Oakland’s Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan, a leader of this push at the civic level, explained that at a political level, the connection is overwhelmingly obvious as well.
“Our community in the Bay Area values social justice,” Kaplan said in a phone interview. “It values equality and women’s rights. It speaks up for the principle that Black lives matter and leadership, Black women’s leadership, is important.”
MORE FOR YOU
Fans eager to see more teams can be forgiven for skepticism — there have been various bubbles online, such as one last summer about Toronto, but without infrastructure in place to make it happen, those talks didn’t get very far.
“A lot of things to look at when you try to select the next best place to put a WNBA team, whether it was a prior WNBA team, that market that thrived, or a new market where there hasn’t been a WNBA team,” Engelbert said. “We’re open to all of those. I get a lot of suggestions through social media about cities, and I’m sure those will keep coming. But we listen and we look at all the data. And, again, I would say once we get through this season, going into next year, as we come off free agency in the offseason, we’ll be seriously thinking about what that could look like in the future.”
But a conversation around expansion also reflects that there simply aren’t the kind of struggling franchises that lend themselves to a move, an overall strength of the league’s financial picture — no sure thing as the pandemic began last year, but helped by the league itself taking on many of the expenses of putting on the 2020 season in the single-site down in Bradenton, Florida.
So in the post-Olympic period, once the season resumes, is another chance for teams and league alike to take stock, especially in areas where increased capacity allows for more fans and the revenue that comes with them.
“The teams are already preparing, and we have been for about a month now as we knew we were going to get to that 99 percent vaccination rate,” Engelbert said. “We’ve been preparing to open up for more fans, more courtside seats, because the fan experience is so enhanced the closer you are to the court. So that’s what we’ll be doing. And I expect you’ll see a different look in many arenas when we come back off the Olympic break.”
A different look, yes, but also an audition of sorts for potential new markets. Not that there needs to be a sale in Kaplan’s eyes, who touted the easy public transit access fans would have to Oakland Arena, even some diehard Sacramento Monarchs fans along Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor line.
“Women hold up half the sky,” Kaplan said. “The WNBA is growing, it’s an exciting time with the growing excitement and public coverage. And a new team — many new teams — make sense. That includes and our existing, wonderful arena.”
Whether other cities and ownership groups recognize this opportunity remains to be seen. But they’ll all be playing catch-up to Oakland.