Classic Basketball Wednesday: A vision for WNBA expansion

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, July 5, 2023

Happy Basketball Wednesday, everyone! I’m still navigating the moving parts from, literally, moving. And I have a book due to the publisher shortly (lots more to come on this!) So let’s revisit a classic Basketball Wednesday, back in 2020, when I wrote about how I thought expansion should look for the league.

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Of course, now we’re 3.5 years later, so I’m assuming the WNBA has expanded, just hold on a second while I take a big swig of water and look through all the new teams they’ve added…

Right, so anyway, this virtually all applies still, even though I wrote it on March 4, 2020 and then there was a Plague. (I mean, the NWSL stuff is dated as hell with what we know now, but I’ll own ALL of my March 4, 2020 opinions, thank you very much.)

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A vision for WNBA expansion

Late last week, the National Women’s Soccer League held a media conference call with new commissioner Lisa Baird and Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler. One thing Whisler said really caught my attention. He explained that the league had slow-walked expansion, but with Baird on board, now it was time to move into additional markets. The league is currently at nine teams, but Whisler said he thinks 14 is a logical place for NWSL to reach soon.

That led me back to the conversation I’ve had with numerous people both in the league and those who cover it: what size should the WNBA be?

We can start with the issue of competition: there’s no real disagreement over the fact that there are far more than 144 WNBA-level talents in the world. And this is not some static group: every single year, 36 more players get drafted, or an additional number 25% of the entirety of the league, and with attrition far less than that, the task of making the WNBA gets exponentially harder every single season.

That doesn’t just mean that it’s more difficult on players. It means that any player without the ability to come in and contribute right away has an extremely difficult time ever making the league at all. Just to compare the funnel of opportunity to the men: 30 NBA teams have 15 roster spots, so that’s 450 to 144. But the NBA also has the G-League, hundreds of additional paying roster slots that allow players to stay stateside and get seen regularly by scouts and front office figures. It’s no small thing.

Think about how many NBA all stars took a few years to find their best selves. Think how many NBA contributors came out of the G-League. It’s not just a question of hidden talents, there are players who had into coaching right away because there’s nowhere to try and improve as a player.

So yes, expansion will be more than supported by the talent base and have a salutary effect on vast numbers of pro-capable players. But the right markets, and the right ownership groups, need to be in place. Accordingly: here’s a sketched-out version of how that might look.

I’d like to see it at 20 teams, ten in each conference.

Eastern Conference

New York Liberty

Connecticut Sun

Washington Mystics

Chicago Sky

Indiana Fever

Atlanta Dream

Miami Sol

Newark Queens

Boston Birds

Philadelphia Staleys

The holdovers are self-explanatory. Let’s start in Miami, commonly discussed as a failure, and remember in that final season before folding, the Sol averaged nearly 9,000 fans per game. A Heat ownership group, or a famous Miami figure — sign me up for Gloria Estefan, or even Victoria Beckham, whose husband David owns the Miami Major League Soccer team — would have plenty of money to bankroll the team.

The Newark Queens are a very specific vision, acting under the assumption that there’s no version of events that allow for a WNBA team to play in Madison Square Garden as long as Jim Dolan owns the building, but recognizes that proximity and a rivalry would be great for the league. The Queens are in honor of nearby Irvington, NJ’s own Queen Latifah, a terrific high school basketball player with many ties to women’s basketball and, again, the star power and wallet to weather early losses ahead of long-term growth. They’d play in the Prudential Center, which is a different kind of thing as a branded, full-time home than it was as a temporary camping out for the Liberty. Newark is on the rise. This could work well.

For Boston and Philadelphia, both the owners of the Celtics and the 76ers really need to step up, in both cities the NBA arenas are the places to play. Fans of both teams who want the WNBA in town should be pushing for it, vocally. The Philly team has to, has to bring in Dawn Staley to run things. Throw enough money at her to come home and make things run full circle and I’ll bet you could make it happen. (The Newark Queens should do the same thing with New Jersey’s own Cheryl Reeve.)

Western Conference

Los Angeles Sparks

Las Vegas Aces

Seattle Storm

Phoenix Mercury

Minnesota Lynx

Dallas Wings

Houston Comets

Golden State Rileys

Denver Frontier

Portland Fire

Again, we’re keeping all the holdovers. In addition, though: give me a strong ownership group in Houston to resurrect the Comets. Not only did the Comets draw like crazy during their glory years, they were still north of 8,000 per game as late as 2007, despite a lack of support from ownership. (Again, it’s important to think of these numbers as floors, not ceilings, the way we would with absentee ownership in a men’s sport.)

Golden State’s the easiest one. Steph Curry’s been a supporter of women’s basketball, increasingly so of late. If naming a team after his daughter and letting him buy in gets a Bay Area entrant into the WNBA with committed ownership that can play at the Chase Center, that’s a small price to pay.

Denver really needs to be a Nuggets-spearheaded initiative, but I’m doing the work for you, Nuggets: Frontier, the Denver-based airline, can be your lead sponsor, and you already hired Sue Bird to work in the Nuggets’ front office — let her transition to head of basketball operations for the Denver Frontier when she’s ready to stop playing. As for Portland, again: 8,000 fans their last season, with owners who were ready to bail. It is both a basketball city and a place that supports the Thorns (in large part because Merritt Paulson buys in! See? Not complicated). I have had multiple WNBA GMs ask me whether Paulson would ever buy a WNBA team. This would be ideal, frankly. (Editor’s note from here in the future: that would EXTREMELY not be ideal.)

And now, my last leg of expansion:

WNBA G-League

Starkville Shots (as in Morgan William’s shot), Columbia Prococks, Oregon (in Eugene) Graveyard, Connecticut (at Gampel in Storrs) Lobos, Tennessee (in Knoxville) Summitts, Minneapolis (at Williams Arena) Peps (after Peps Neumann)

That’s right, G-League. All six of these markets have huge collegiate fanbases, draw better than anyone, year after year. All six have a vested interest in filling their arenas in the summer, and showing recruits they are the best pathway to the pros. All six can provide a circuit for another 72 players to stay stateside and show off their skills. The NBA G-League is not a moneymaker in and of itself. It’s about maximizing the talent base. That’s what this would do for the W.

Put it all together, and that takes the 144 player slots for American professional basketball and turns them into 312. It exponentially expands the geographical footprint, introduces rivalries, and allows the WNBA to move forward. The league has its signature leader in Cathy Engelbert. It has a CBA in place. It offers the chance for owners to get in now and invest, with expansion fees helping to support the further investment of those already in place (see also: MLS).

That’s the vision. Now here’s hoping it happens soon.

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By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
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By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
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By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.