Currently, there are 12 total teams in the WNBA, which is celebrating its 25th year of operation. The WNBA debuted in 1997 with eight teams, eventually expanding to 16 by 2000 — including the inclusion of the Minnesota Lynx in 1999 — before dropping back down to a dozen teams after several franchises folded due to financial hardship.
Those 12 teams are maxed out at 12 players on the roster during the regular season, with many squads only rostering 11 to allow for flexibility as players become available throughout the season.
That means that at most there are 144 roster spots available throughout the WNBA. The groundswell of talent in women’s basketball makes the WNBA one of the hardest leagues to earn a spot in. Often about two-thirds of players selected in the WNBA Draft do not ultimately make the team, while at the same time, current players who deserve roster spots ending up getting cut to make way for the more successful draftees.
Therefore, the topic of expansion has picked up steam over the years now that the WNBA is in a better financial position.
Leading up to the recent WNBA Draft, league commissioner Cathy Engelbert hinted at the possibility of expansion.
“It’s certainly on the list of things that I’ve been thinking about down the road. It’s interesting to note how competitive and how deep the talent in the league is,” Engelbert said. “It’s certainly something that, as we’ve come out of this pandemic, hopefully next year that we’ll prepare to start talking about. I think if we have a very successful season this year, this time next year, we can certainly start talking about what expansion would look like, how many (teams), and the timeframe over which that would occur.”
Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve invites the idea of expansion, especially since the WNBA doesn’t have a developmental league.
“We’ve been asking for (expansion) as a women’s league. We’ve been at 12 for a very, very long time as far as teams,” Reeve said. “We have this strange notion that we treat women’s sports differently than men’s sports. In men’s sports, the narrative isn’t that you have to have 30 financially healthy teams or quality teams before you expand. In women’s sports, the narrative is we have to have 12 healthy teams before we’ll do anything. That makes no sense. … The more teams in the league, the healthier the league becomes overall. The business gets better with expansion with revenue opportunities.
“This next piece will really catapult the WNBA. You have to capitalize on where we’re at in women’s sports, and that’s the way to do it. … I think in terms of checking off a list, atop the list would be expansion to create more opportunities.”
Now more than ever, it’s time for the WNBA to expand. Just how many teams that should include is up for debate, but even two additional teams would provide up to 24 additional roster spots and could give the league more sources for revenue as it continues to grow.
If the WNBA does indeed expand, where might new teams emerge? Let’s look at some potential expansion locations across the country — and beyond.
San Francisco Bay Area
The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the biggest markets in the country without a WNBA team, making this a prime candidate. It’s one of the ideal spots to start an expansion team.
The Bay Area has a strong presence of basketball fans and teams, from college ball to the Golden State Warriors. It’s also in proximity to several current West Coast WNBA teams. All of these factors make this a prime destination for expansion.
If the WNBA is interested in growing the game outside of the country, Toronto would be a perfect location. And there is certainly interest from Toronto, with rumors swirling as recently as 2019 about their potential inclusion.
In the mid-’90s, the NBA experimented with teams in Canada, adding the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors are currently the only city in Canada with an NBA franchise and could be a nice counterpart for a WNBA expansion team. The WNBA is also flooded with Canadian players, meaning there’s already a fanbase for women’s basketball.
As far as markets outside the country go, Toronto should be atop that list, and it sounds like there is interest both on the side of the table.
When it comes to loyal sports towns, Philadelphia has to rank right near the top.
Earlier in the WNBA offseason, Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud hinted that she was aware of an ownership group looking to bring a team to Philadelphia, an area already rich with talent at the college level. There’s no doubt an eager fanbase would welcome an expansion team.
A WNBA team residing in Charlotte wouldn’t be a new thing. The Charlotte Sting was part of the initial eight-team WNBA in the late 1990s, lasting until 2007 when the franchise folded due to an overall loss of revenue.
Fans know how rich the history of basketball is in North Carolina, and that hasn’t diminished. One thing that could make a WNBA team work this time around is having the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets partner with the franchise.
If Charlotte and North Carolina as a whole could make an intriguing offer to the WNBA to bring a team back to their city, they could generate the interest to make a team thrive this time.
Like Charlotte, Miami is also a location that once housed a WNBA franchise in the early stages of the league’s existence. The Miami Sol lasted a brief two years, from 2000-02, before folding due to their inability to raise enough funds to continue operation under the WNBA’s new restructuring agreement.
The Sol played their games at American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat. You would think that partnership would be of interest again for both leagues. Miami is a tourist hotbed that could be an avenue for the WNBA to reach locals and people who vacation there throughout the year.
Plus, living in South Beach has always held appeal for players throughout other leagues, so surely WNBA players would enjoy it as well. How could you not enjoy the sunshine and beaches year-round?
For years, Nashville has continued to grow as both a tourist destination and a popular city to live in. If the WNBA is interested in tapping into a market in a part of the country where they haven’t had a team, this would be the perfect opportunity. Basketball fans know the history that resides in Tennessee, most notably at the college level. There is no doubt that the Nashville area would have an interest in a women’s basketball team.
The biggest hurdle is a lack of an NBA partner team with existing facilities. The only other professional teams in Tennessee are the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, the NHL’s Nashville Predators, and the MLS’s Nashville SC. But given the interest in those three teams, a new WNBA franchise in the Nashville area could work.
Other markets could make for great expansion destinations: Houston, Louisville, Denver, Sacramento, and others.
Houston and Sacramento used to have WNBA teams: the Comets (1997-2008) and the Monarchs (1997-2009).
Louisville and Denver could handle expansion teams, given the strong history and interest in women’s basketball in Kentucky and Colorado, the latter of which has a booming population and a potential NBA partner in the Denver Nuggets.
Here is a fun project put together by Uni Watch on what an expansion could look like and what markets might get a WNBA franchise.
Whether it’s two teams, four teams, or more, the WNBA is ready to expand. They should do so sooner rather than later to capitalize on the growing interest in the league. After years of talking about this, it’s officially time.