The WNBA needs to solve the Portland problem, fast — Chicago Sky GM Jeff Pagliocca talks new role — Must-click women’s basketball links
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Nov. 8, 2023
The WNBA’s decision to defer Portland’s expansion bid — subsequently reported as the owner at the center of it, Kirk Brown, leaving the project — has numerous knock-on effects that are just beginning to be felt around the league.
In conversations with front office members, including those in ownership groups, a mixture of bewilderment, anger and concern permeated the discussions about what happened next, even as numerous sources in the room told me that commissioner Cathy Engelbert projected an air of business-as-usual in the league meetings last week, which immediately followed the Portland news.
But Engelbert, who is generally loved by the majority of WNBA owners even as a minority continues to wonder about the direction of the league, may have tilted those numbers in the wrong direction over how things ended in Portland.
As one executive explained it: the financial realm the WNBA is now playing in gets the attention of even its richest owners. And $50 million in expansion fees disappearing is felt in a way franchise shifts even a few years ago simply weren’t.
Another league source explained that no fewer than three times, a date had been set to announce Portland, only to see that decision delayed over mysterious circumstances. Regardless of the reasons for this — while the league’s initial justification for it quickly fell apart, business deals larger than this one have disintegrated over nothing more than personality conflict — the clock is ticking.
The WNBA has now committed to a 13th team in Golden State. There’s no going back from that. Accordingly: It is Nov. 8, free agency begins in just a few months, and 12 other teams need to start making major roster plans around a set of rules that will lead to the addition of at least one new team in 2025.
It is fair to point out that not only will Golden State’s ownership group be among the wealthiest, but entering the league singly could produce a Las Vegas Golden Knights effect. That is to say: One expansion team, choosing players off of every roster, can build a team around some of the best available players; pair them with a high draft pick from what is expected to be a robust 2025 crop; and add free agents to complete the mix. The NHL’s salary cap is prohibitively low, providing the Golden Knights with loads of additional opportunity. Sound like any professional women’s basketball league you know?
As for free agents: No one has signed beyond 2025, with the league’s agents aware of the end of a media rights deal with ESPN coupled with an expected opt-out by the WNBPA from the current collective bargaining agreement. Put it this way: Golden State, essentially, can bid on any player it wants. As we know, even cored players can force their way out.
Pairing a second team with the addition of Golden State, then, is paramount to the question of competitive balance. It also matters in how Engelbert’s tenure is viewed. Many around the league, fairly or not, view the addition of Golden State as an Adam Silver win. Now, under time pressure, Engelbert needs to bring in a second expansion franchise to compete under similar timeframe to get ready for a 2025 start.
We know it won’t be Toronto. I’ve heard Denver and Charlotte are serious bidders, and reaching the $50 million threshold is distinctly possible for either. Without a media rights payoff coming until 2025, and with Golden State paying its $50 million in installments, the oversized novelty check matters a great deal to current WNBA owners, right now.
There’s the little problem of no formal process, though. Time is of the essence. The WNBA might want to get a Google form up on its website.
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