WNBA expansion cities have been a hot topic throughout WNBA history. While today there are 12 WNBA teams, fans love to debate which lucky locales could be next – especially on WNBA Twitter. And particularly once teams have made pre-season roster cuts.
However WNBA executives have struck a similar tone over the years whenever expansion is brought up. Both Lisa Borders and current commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, have said that while league would like to expand, shoring up the health of the current teams is essential first.
At the 2021 AT&T WNBA All-Star game Cathy shared, “The topic of expansion is something we’re always thinking about…It’s something I’d be talking more seriously about if it weren’t for the pandemic. We’re evaluating constantly. This time next year we’ll be talking about the path there.”
In 2022, the league is actively investigating future expansion! “We are looking at expansion. We’re doing a huge analysis of it and we have lots of cities that are interested. We don’t want to bring new owners— whether it’s two or four or one— and not have them the set up for success. We’re doing all the data analysis for a 100 cities, through a lens of all the demographics and psychographics and arenas and Fortune 500 companies based there, the NCAA viewership, the current WNBA fandom in that city.
In a country of our size and scale, with an increasingly diverse population, and the most diverse league is in only 12 cities, that’s not enough. By mid to late summer, I’ll have more to say on where we’re trending.” said Cathy Engelbert.
“We’re talking to a fair amount of cities. I will say, think about the cities where we’re not and where we used to be, you know, like Houston and Sacramento and Portland. Also the Bay Area. Think about the tech center of our country. Technology is driving so much of your economy and there’s no WNBA team in the Bay Area. But we’re open to all options.” she continued.
The last time the WNBA added a franchise was in 2009 with the addition of the Atlanta Dream.
Regardless, today we put on our dreaming hats. And revealed the possible WNBA expansion cities and teams that might benefit the league. For each city we broke down how the financing might come together. And the business reason for the opportunity (including the possible fan base).
We also looked at how each city could align with or impact the league’s brand. As well as what facilities could house the team and how strong the potential player pipeline could be. Add all that up, and the answers might surprise you (hint: a bourbon capital nearly made the list). So let’s get after it.
According to Cathy Engelbert, at the end of the 2021 season, here’s how the WNBA expansion cities will be selected: “It’s an active data analysis that we’re doing today, so I just had a meeting readout on it this past week about different cities, some of the metrics that you look at are D1 college basketball, how popular it is, viewership of current WNBA games in those markets that don’t have a WNBA team, merch sales in that market.”
“So there’s a myriad of probably 15 or so metrics that we’re looking at to determine whether a market or city could be good. Then obviously you have to evaluate what ownership groups would step forward and support the team because the owners are a very important cog in this whole thing around picking cities to expand in.”
“So those are all the things — again, timeline. I think in my state of the league at the beginning of the season, I talked about that time next year we’d be talking about a little more details on the plan. So I think I would stick with that into the spring and summer next year and into the 2022 season we’ll be sharing more.”
“The data looks like it’s going to read out some interesting information for us to start having exploratory discussions with certain cities and make sure that we can find great ownership groups to support a WNBA team and great fan bases. So that’s why I think looking at how those cities are already supporting the WNBA through whether it’s viewership, merch sales or other things, or whether they’re supporting women’s sports or women’s college basketball are great indicators of how it would get supported if a WNBA team were to go in that market.”
The players are ready for expansion too. Four-time WNBA champion Sue Bird recently said, “I do think the league needs to expand. It doesn’t need to be too fast. I think one team at a time, even though I’ve heard different interests from different cities.”
Coaches are on board as well. Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve told Erica L. Ayala – for the New York Times – she prefers franchise expansion over roster expansion, especially since the answer, either way, is more money.
New York. Los Angeles. Chicago. Washington. Dallas. Seattle. Atlanta. Minnesota. Connecticut. Las Vegas. Phoenix. Indiana. And insert name of a new city here?! Whenever the league is ready to grow, below are six WNBA expansion cities that are primed to welcome (or re-welcome) teams.
The Bay Area has been the subject of WNBA expansion rumors for quite sometime now. As of today, it is currently the largest market without a team. If the WNBA were to expand, northern California would likely be at the front of the line.
Most recently, Alana Beard, a four-time WNBA All-Star, has stepped up to lead a group of investors trying to bring a WNBA expansion team to Oakland. Alana has always imagined being an owner of a WNBA team, and now is excited to work with inspired, like-minded professionals. She’s partnered with the African American Sports and Entertainment Group. Attorney Jada Smith-Williams and her law firm Bailey & Glasser, LLP, will run counsel and advise the group in their ownership pursuit.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity and excited to help bring a WNBA team to Oakland,” Alana Beard said in a press release in October 2021. “The AASEG has done an incredible job of getting us to this point and has garnered tremendous support from influencers in the local community. I am hopeful our vision, passion and collective efforts will lead to the return of professional basketball to Oakland.”
On the press call in October, Alana Beard said: “[Her] goal is to have as much community involvement in selecting a name [for the team] as possible.”
“Led by Black women, led by women. Renee Montgomery set the standard there. She retired to take a leadership role with the Atlanta Dream, and that’s something I admired. It’s super empowering to see women of color in power: this is a blueprint.”said Alana Beard.
Watch the full conference here:
The financing is there. In fact, one person alone may be all the Bay Area needs to make it happen: Joe Lacob, the owner of the Golden State Warriors. Prior to becoming the main boss of the Warriors, he was once the owner of the San Jose Lasers – an ABL team. Meaning women’s basketball is very near and dear to his heart.
Furthermore, companies in the San Francisco and San Jose areas combined to represent $1.37 trillion in revenue this year. So there is more than enough money in that market to be able to support a team.
The media’s center of gravity has clearly shifted to Silicon Valley. Recently, so much of the WNBA’s growth has been attributed to social media. For example, the “orange hoodie campaign” landed the WNBA’s social media accounts 9 million impressions. So it would be fitting for the league to place a team there. Where they could get even more visibility from social media companies and the new media epicenter.
San Francisco fans have money to spend on entertainment as well. The typical San Francisco household makes about $96,677 each year. Which is nearly double the national median household income of $57,617. Plus, they’re already pumped about basketball because of the Warriors’ three recent championship wins.
The Bay Area is seen as a very progressive area. And the WNBA has established itself as arguably the most progressive sports league there is. So the brand alignment is a natural fit. Also, in 2014, the WNBA began a major marketing push to the LGBTQ community. And the San Francisco Bay Area happens to be the site of one of the most notable LGBTQ communities.
Of course, the top candidate would be Chase Center in downtown San Francisco. Particularly if Joe Lacob happens to be the team owner. He may even prefer to have the games occur at Oakland Arena (formerly Oracle Arena). In order to continue the Warriors’ link to Oakland. Which is something the Warriors have attempted to do after the move to San Francisco. The SAP Center in San Jose could also be a possibility.
There’s also Oakland to consider. On June 18, 2021, the African American Sports & Entertainment Group announced it had “cleared a major hurdle” in its goal of purchasing a 50% interest in the Oakland Coliseum Complex – a major part of the proposal is bringing a WNBA team to the city.
Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan has advocated for just such a move for years. “Oakland has the location, history and demographics to support a highly successful WNBA team, a great fan base and a welcoming community,” she said reported East Bay Express. “We also have an available basketball arena that’s easy to get to from throughout the greater region.”
“Oakland has been the home and center of grassroots progressive movements for generations. Not only in more recent years, with the movement for Black Lives, but even decades ago, Oakland was a major leader in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. And of course, Oakland is a key city in the history of the Black Panther Party. So, Oakland has a long history with social justice, and the WNBA is one of the leagues where we really have seen strong support for social justice. The WNBA and its players have expressed great support for these movements for social justice and racial justice particularly, so I think it’s a very good match with the community in Oakland.” the Vice Mayor told Winsidr earlier this year.
The Alana Beard-led group has already written a letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and COO Christy Hedgpeth, highlighting the progress they have achieved, including the vote on allowing the team to play in Oakland Arena.
The Stanford women’s basketball program’s success could be another factor helping a potential Bay Area franchise. Recently, Head Coach Tara VanDerveer became the all-time leader in Division I women’s basketball. She secured her 1,099th win, passing late Tennessee legend Pat Summitt. Also, the Ogwumike sisters are products of that program. And Sabrina Ionescu is a Bay Area native.
A Philadelphia-based WNBA team would be a major boon to the league. And would all but complete the strong link the WNBA enjoys along the Acela corridor. Finally bridging the gap between the Washington Mystics, New York Liberty, and Connecticut Sun.
Philadelphia is one of the most affordable cities untapped on the East Coast. So the infrastructure to support the team might come at a more reasonable cost. Furthermore, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have been minority owners of the Sixers since 2011. So they could make an interesting ownership team.
Philly is known for a number of things – including the Liberty Bell, 30th Street Station, and its strong fandom of Wawa convenience stores. It is also known for its robust passion for its sports franchises – win or lose. Which means that a Philadelphia team will have plenty of support from the opening tip of the first game.
The city’s population of 1.58 million is large enough that there will be tons of WNBA fans.
Philly is also known far and wide as a basketball city. The City of Brotherly Love ranked 8th among the top best cities in the United States to be a basketball fan. Philly is a sports city – period.
As far as arenas go, of course most will point to Wells Fargo Center, the home court of the Philadelphia 76ers and Philadelphia Flyers. But the Sixers have actually been said to want to leave the Wells Fargo Center. Which sits in south Philly’s stadium district along with Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park.
The NBA franchise has been rumored to be looking at a possible relocation to Penn’s Landing. As well as one to Camden, New Jersey where its practice facility already is. If not at the Sixers’ home venue, the venues at Drexel, Temple, Villanova, or Penn may provide healthy alternatives for a Philadelphia team.
Some of women’s basketball’s most notable names have called Philadelphia home at one point or another. Dawn Staley – the coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball program and the USA Basketball Women’s National Team – is a native of Philadelphia.
Another one of the city’s favorite daughters is Natasha Cloud. Who won a championship with the Washington Mystics. And sat out the ‘Wubble’ season in Florida to bring greater attention to the ills of social injustice and systemic racism.
This one will ring bells for obvious reasons. Because it is the first of our cities that was home to a previous WNBA franchise – the Houston Comets, of course.
Not too long after the Houston Rockets won back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and ’95, the Comets kept Houston’s status as Clutch City going by winning the first four WNBA championships from 1997-2000, establishing the W’s first dynasty.
Would Tillman Fertitta, the owner of the Houston Rockets be interested in returning the Comets to Houston? Would the WNBA be interested in affiliating itself with Tillman given some of the recent controversial news that has been revealed about him and his political leanings (see the Atlanta Dream’s Kelly Loeffler)? We know he is interested in the NHL, but has not said much about the WNBA.
Outside of the historical significance of Houston to the WNBA, it should be high on the W’s wish list of expansion cities because it has become a modern, cosmopolitan, diverse city with large Hispanic and Black populations. In addition, it is a city that is continuing to grow with a good number of its incoming residents moving from close by (like San Antonio).
No longer is Houston only known for the oil industry and NASA. Today’s Houston is not your older parents’ Houston. Census figures indicate that the median household income for the Houston metropolitan area was just under $70,000 for 2019 – making it higher than that of Texas as a whole. In short, the fans have money to spend.
The Comets should be brought back simply for the significance they have to the league. Before Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, and Sylvia Fowles, there were Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper, and Tina Thompson.
And while the WNBA has maintained a presence over the years in Texas, with the San Antonio Silver Stars and later with the Dallas Wings, there is a majesty and mystique around the Comets that cannot be duplicated because of its championship pedigree.
A Comets return could mean a Chicago Sky/Dallas Wings/Atlanta Dream sort of scenario with an owner in an established NBA city independent of the NBA franchise. If not Toyota Center, then a team could still have a connection to the Tillman Fertitta name. The primary basketball facility at the University of Houston, formerly called the Hofheinz Pavilion, was recently named after Tillman.
Look at the talent that has come out of major Texas schools such as Chennedy Carter from Texas A&M, and Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown from Baylor.
Similar to Houston, Charlotte is another city that previously was home to a WNBA team – the Charlotte Sting – but eventually folded. Even with this, CLT/Metrolina presents a very strong case for the WNBA to give the area another try.
The original team was owned by Robert Johnson, who inherited it when he was awarded the NBA expansion franchise that became the Bobcats in late 2002. Back in 2006 as the Sting were shuttered, a local sports marketing executive, Cindy Sisson-Hensley, tried to raise $3.5 million as a down payment to keep the team in Charlotte. But she only raised about $1.2 million. Though, she might step up again if given the chance.
It is an ideal location because of its geography because Charlotte is the primary city that unites the populations of both North and South Carolina. There is a reason why the Charlotte metropolitan area is called “Metrolina.” The “Two States, One Team” mantra adopted by the NFL’s Carolina Panthers can easily be applied to any Charlotte franchise.
In addition, Charlotte would be an ideal location because the state as a whole is full of well-educated transplants from elsewhere with money to spend and invest. There, the median household income is roughly $62,000, say Census figures.
First of all – thinking of a name should not be hard for a Charlotte team. Queen City? Charlotte Queens? One of the easiest name selection processes in history. It is almost too obvious.
Regardless of the identity a Charlotte team takes on, North Carolina is not only a basketball state – it stakes claim to the possibility of being THE basketball state (even though Indiana and Kentucky may have something to say about that). The Tar Heel State eats, sleeps, lives, and breathes hoops, so a WNBA team arguably anywhere in North Carolina would be a definite sell.
A team would likely play at Spectrum Center in Uptown Charlotte. But the Halton Arena (University of Charlotte) could also be an option.
Did anyone mention South Carolina? One of the most successful Division I college programs, of course is the South Carolina Gamecocks under the tutelage of coach Dawn Staley. Between A’ja Wilson, Tiffany Mitchell, Allisha Gray, Ty Harris, and a list that continues to grow, Columbia is a WNBA factory that continues to replenish itself with the latest state of the art equipment.
Toronto makes the list of WNBA expansion cities for a number of reasons. It goes without saying how historic it would be for the WNBA to announce a team in Canada. And it has shown signs in recent years that its footprint in Canada is only growing.
The WNBA’s visibility in Canada is only on the increase. And that makes it more likely that Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment – the Rogers Communications/Bell-owned entity behind the Raptors, Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto FC and Scotiabank Arena – or another set of investors may present a compelling case to the W for a team.
Perhaps even Drake, who has proven to be an instrumental ambassador for the Raptors, could be in the running. Last year, he gave Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage a shout out in his verse on Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” so he’s clearly a fan of the women’s game.
First, there appears to be a common thread among Canadian teams affiliated with leagues that have American offices – an entire country rallies around a Canadian team. The Toronto Blue Jays are not simply Toronto’s or Ontario’s team: they are Canada’s team. The same with the Toronto Raptors and the same will be true of the Toronto Six, the latest addition to the NWHL.
Plus, the WNBA already inked deals for games to be shown on Canada’s flagship sports channels – TSN and SportsNet which is a promising step.
Figures released by the city of Toronto have its median household income at just under $66,000 for the city itself, but around $78,000 for the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). So fans have capital to fuel their interests.
As for whether a women’s team will draw as much attention as the Raptors, Carly Clarke, assistant coach for Canada’s national team said there’s still work to do, but just look at the women’s basketball finals at Toronto’s Pan Am Games in 2015. “The building was sold out,” she said.
Another option, if not Scotiabank, could be Coca-Cola Coliseum. This arena at Exhibition Place in Toronto has more than 6,200 seats and is home to professional ice hockey today. Or the team could play at Ryerson University’s Mattamy Centre — where the Pan Am women’s basketball final was held — the Paramount Fine Foods Centre or the Goldring Centre.
Canada’s presence in the WNBA is already felt through young and rising stars such as Kia Nurse (New York Liberty) and Natalie Achonwa (Indiana Fever). According to a 2014 study, significantly more Canadian girls ages 3-17 play basketball than hockey.
Similar to Houston and Charlotte, Miami is another town that once hosted a WNBA franchise – the Miami Sol. And even though it has been a while since the Sol existed, there are several factors that could contribute to a successful WNBA return to South Florida.
Mickey Arison, the Carnival Cruise Chairman, was the Miami Sol’s owner in addition to the owner of the NBA’s Miami Heat. Obviously the NBA team has since seen success, winning three championships. Perhaps the management group would be in a better position to test the waters again.
If not, Gabrielle Union, a former hooper, married to Miami Heat legend Dwayne Wade would be a great owner. She is one of the biggest celebrity supporters of the WNBA and has been seen court side at Los Angeles Sparks games.
A knock some may have against Miami is that it is one of those “so much to do it has little time for sports” cities. But the same could be said about another city with a large Hispanic population: Los Angeles. The LA Sparks have not only been one of the more successful WNBA franchises, but they led the league in average attendance for 2019.
While the WNBA already is in markets with vast Hispanic populations, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, Dallas, Las Vegas and Atlanta, going into Miami would be an emphatic sign from those at the WNBA that it intends to make a greater foray into Latino/Latina market. Which also helps the case for cities like Houston, San Francisco, and Charlotte.
The primary sporting venue in Miami is American Airlines Arena – the home court of the Heat. But Watsco Center, which is the home court of the women’s and men’s hoops teams for the University of Miami may also get a look as a possible arena.
One of the more notable names that people do remember from those Sol teams is Ruth Riley, who remains a presence for Miami Heat broadcasts on Fox Sports (soon to be Bally Sports) Florida/Sun. She would likely be part of a Miami team in some way, whether as a coach, general manager, or some other front office position.
And the University of Miami’s women’s basketball program continues to get stronger as part of the ACC Network. Riquna Williams, Sylvia Fowles, and Shenise Johnson are all products of Miami.
Because of its slightly smaller size relative to other cities, Louisville has always found itself on the outside looking in on the issue of expansion cities for sports leagues. But that does not mean it has not tried.
A few years ago, the Louisville Metro Council approved a resolution aimed at enticing the WNBA and NBA to place franchises in the city. The original resolution was only NBA-based. But a Democratic councilwoman from Louisville’s 3rd district added a WNBA provision to the resolution.
While overlooked, it is also a city with one of the richest sports histories that there is. From Churchill Downs to Muhammad Ali to the Louisville Slugger Museum, it is a city that is teeming with sports influence which is why some wonder why more pro teams have not called Louisville home.
The women’s basketball fanbase that the University of Louisville has built should make a team from Derby City a success. In addition, a Louisville team would possibly start a natural rivalry with the Indiana Fever. And some say the WNBA needs to do a better job at fostering rivalries. As it did when the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks met in back-to-back Finals in 2016 and 2017.
An entry into Louisville would also be a watershed moment for the WNBA. Given its influence on the social conversation taking place. WNBA players honored the memory of Breonna Taylor by wearing her name on the backs of their jerseys this past season.
The the KFC Yum Center or Freedom Hall could work for the team. The Yum Center is the home arena for the University of Louisville’s women’s and men’s teams. While Freedom Hall recently became the home court for Bellarmine University, which is now playing at the Division I level.
There has been no shortage of WNBA talent that has emanated from the University of Louisville over the years. The Cardinals have produced WNBA talent Angel McCoughtry, Asia Durr, and Jazmine Jones. Also, look down I-64 to Lexington. Where the University of Kentucky appears to be producing future W talent of its own, such as Rhyne Howard.
Here are a few other data points to consider based on fans’ votes and behaviors. Interestingly, over the past five years, Nevada has been the top state searching for the WNBA using Google, followed by Connecticut and Mississippi.
However, when social media was recently set abuzz by Boardroom in May of 2022, which shared per The Seattle Times that the WNBA is looking to add two expansion teams within the next few years, fans overwhelmingly cast their votes for Philadelphia. Though 46 cities were proposed, including those as far as Paris.
We analyzed 2,957 responses across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, including comments on posts by Boardroom, Just Women’s Sports, Front Office Sports, and Girls Talk Sports TV. Following Philadelphia was high interest in a team for Toronto, SF Bay/Oakland, Houston, and Charlotte, rounding out the top five.
President of the players’ union, Nneka Ogwumike, hopes more sponsor financial commitments will lead to the players getting what they want — bigger rosters and higher salaries — to keep the best players in the WNBA.
“These last two drafts have shown there’s a league sitting at home, and so we have to do something about that,” Nneka said, referring to the number of talented players who are not drafted. “I think that it’s really just the onus is on ownership, investment, people wanting to pump more into women’s sports. We have players that are ready to be a part of this league.”
Now you know some possible WNBA expansion cities for the future. Though there could be other exciting developments that hit the league first. Such as increasing the game time from 40 minutes up to 48 minutes, similar to the NBA. Or increasing the roster size up to 15 from 12. So up next, take a look at some more WNBA predictions.
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