WNBA expansion is coming, but when and where?

Two expansion teams in the near future seem likely, and it can't come soon enough as WNBA-level talent is cut every day in training camp in a league with just 144 (or fewer) roster spots. Illustration by Rafa Alvarez

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert hears one question over and over, the same one her predecessors have been asked for more than decade: When will the 12-team WNBA expand?

With the WNBA playing its first preseason game in Toronto on Saturday -- the Minnesota Lynx meet the Chicago Sky at Scotiabank Arena -- the question comes up again even more specifically. Will Canada's most populous city, home of the NBA's Toronto Raptors, get a WNBA expansion team?

Toronto has long been on the list of cities thought to be in the mix. A week ago in an online forum with Sports Business Journal, Engelbert said she would like to see two more teams come into the league in the foreseeable future. The Bay Area; Toronto; Denver; Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Portland, Oregon, were some of the potential sites she mentioned.

The latter two cities previously had WNBA teams that were affiliated with the NBA, but both disbanded. The Charlotte Sting were an original WNBA franchise in 1997 that folded after the 2006 season. The Portland Fire barely had time to get established before they folded, running from 2000 to 2002.

The Fire are symbolic of the pitfalls of the WNBA's first wave of expansion. Teams launched ostensibly with the support of NBA franchises -- which was required until 2003, when independent owners entered the league -- but found there was not a long-term commitment. The Miami Sol also lasted from just 2000 to 2002.

The 2000-02 period was when the WNBA -- which began with eight teams in 1997 -- was at its largest, with 16 teams. The league has consisted of 12 since 2010.

The Atlanta Dream -- who launched in 2008 -- are the league's most recent expansion team. Franchises have moved since then: The Detroit Shock (began in 1998) relocated in 2010 to be the Tulsa Shock, who then moved and became the Dallas Wings in 2016. And the San Antonio Stars -- who began as an original WNBA team in 1997 in Utah before going to Texas -- moved in 2018 and became the Las Vegas Aces.

But 15 years have passed since a new franchise came into the league. Which is why talk of expansion always prompts more caution than optimism from longtime observers of the WNBA. We've heard "There continues to be dialogue with potential owners" -- or some version of that -- for a long time.

What's holding back expansion? Which cities seem the most likely for teams? What is a reasonable time frame? Here is a look at where the expansion situation stands now in the WNBA.

Are there actual front-runners for expansion?

Let's put it this way: There are cities/areas that have been talked about more and seem to have some ownership infrastructure in place. California's Bay Area tops that list.

The Sacramento Monarchs were one of the original eight teams but folded after the 2009 season in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007-09. With the loss of the Monarchs, the Los Angeles Sparks (another original franchise) are the only WNBA team left in California. For a brief time the Sparks were rumored to potentially be on the move to the Bay Area before they were bought in 2014 by their current ownership group that includes Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson.

There are thought to be two potential owners in the Bay Area. The African American Sports & Entertainment Group, which includes former WNBA player Alana Beard, hopes to bring a WNBA team to play at Oakland Arena. That's the former home of the NBA's Golden State Warriors, who now play at Chase Center in San Francisco and have long been rumored to have interest in a WNBA franchise, too.

Engelbert has been on record as saying it "doesn't seem right" that the Bay Area, home to the women's college basketball powerhouse Stanford Cardinal, doesn't have a WNBA team.

Toronto appears to also be higher on the expansion potential list, with the preseason game as more evidence.

"This is a major step forward for Canada," said Seattle Storm guard Kia Nurse, a native of Hamilton, Ontario. "Someone asked me a question the other day: 'What's your first memory of the WNBA?' I'm like, 'I don't know, college?' We didn't have it on TV in Canada. You just didn't see it.

"Now that they can see these games ... to have this game in person and actually be able to go out there and see [Canadians] Bridget Carleton, Natalie Achonwa, now you're seeing people who have come from similar parts to where you live. I think it's a bit of a test run to prove to the WNBA that there is a market there and there are people excited."

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs, the NBA's Raptors, the Argonauts of the CFL and Toronto FC of MLS, has looked into what it might take to bring in a WNBA team.

What has been the biggest impediment to expansion?

It's both simple and complex. The simple answer is money. The biggest issue isn't just whether franchises consistently make money, or at least don't lose a lot. It's whether they accrue in value. The answer for years was no, but there's evidence that is changing.

One of Engelbert's primary talking points is that the WNBA, its teams and women's sports in general have never received fair valuation. Part of what she's looking at is a new television rights deal after the 2025 season that she believes will be significantly better financially for the WNBA.

Earlier this year, the Seattle Storm released information on the valuation of their franchise at $151 million, a number determined when the Storm's ownership group sold minority shares to finance a new practice facility. Considering the most anyone is believed to have paid for a WNBA franchise in the past is about a tenth of the Storm's announced valuation, this is a significant selling point for the league.

That said, going into its 27th season, the WNBA is still in growth mode and needs owners who, as the Atlanta Dream's Larry Gottesdiener said, "Are in it for the long haul."

The league also has been committed to progressive values, which was reflected in the conflict between its players and one of the Dream's former owners, Kelly Loeffler. So potential WNBA owners are not necessarily in the same wealthy group that other sports league owners might be, although some are.

Engelbert knows how eager WNBA fans and players are for expansion, and how they want something concrete to look forward to. But she and the current league owners can't afford to miss, either. The league's quick expansion from inception in 1997 to 2000 didn't work. Of the 16 franchises that played in the 2000 season, seven remain in the cities they were in then, while three others are in different cities. The other six are gone.

The WNBA has to be certain of the viability of its choices on its next expansion, which seems likely to be two teams, as a building block to one day return to 16. Or perhaps get to more.

Does NCAA women's basketball success impact WNBA expansion?

If nothing else, it doesn't hurt. This year's women's NCAA championship game between the LSU Tigers and Iowa Hawkeyes drew the largest television audience in the event's history. Name, image and likeness deals are expanding the audiences of college players, and transferring -- whether or not everyone likes it -- drives conversation about the sport long after the season is over.

The 2024 and 2025 WNBA drafts both are expected to have franchise-changing players. The thought of that talent infusion occurring around the same time as new NCAA tournament and WNBA television deals is a selling point for WNBA expansion.

There's also the fact the women's college game has gained more popularity in certain potential expansion cities than it once had. While carry-over between college and WNBA fans isn't always automatic -- to the frustration of the league at times -- it's more a factor now than ever before.

Take Portland, for instance. The Fire's brief time there was many years before the rise of the Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers as women's Final Four programs. Portland's Moda Center will be one of two women's NCAA regional sites in 2024 and will host the women's Final Four in 2030.

Charlotte's WNBA franchise folded two years before coach Dawn Staley arrived to build the South Carolina Gamecocks into a national championship and attendance powerhouse 90 miles to the south. Nashville's proximity to the Tennessee Lady Volunteers has always made it seem like a viable WNBA contender. Denver, the 2012 women's Final Four city, could give the WNBA an anchor in a different part of the country.

Engelbert has said the league worked from an original list of 100 cities and has narrowed it down to about 20, looking at a variety of factors that make them expansion candidates -- from infrastructure to facilities to fan base. But ownership remains the single biggest factor.

"We talk about where we think the teams are going to be, how the expansion draft is going to work," said Lynx forward Napheesa Collier, a former UConn Huskies star, when asked about the current players' interest in expansion. "We're just excited as everyone else."

When can we realistically expect expansion?

If you're a longtime follower of the WNBA, you know the answer is to not "expect" anything. It's OK to be optimistic, and there are multiple good signs, as this Toronto game indicates.

The WNBA was originally planning to play in Toronto in 2020, but that was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic that pushed the season into a "bubble" in Bradenton, Florida. It was important that the 2020 season, despite its many logistical obstacles, happened. It kept the league's momentum going. But the pandemic slowed some aspects of expansion.

This is the time of year -- during the preseason when every WNBA team is forced to make painful roster cuts -- that there are always multiple media and social media pleas for expansion. Too many players with WNBA-level talent don't make teams. The maximum number of spots in the league is 144, but for salary-cap reasons teams often don't carry 12 players.

Some players who are cut will go overseas and come back in the future to gain WNBA roster spots; some won't. The loss of potential hurts the league. Having spent 30 years in the financial sector, Engelbert knows growth is always part of the health of any business, and stagnancy is its enemy.

Put all this together, and it's probably at least reasonable to hope (not expect) expansion by 2025 or 2026.