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Is there enough talent for WNBA expansion?

With Vivek Ranadive (left) now owning the NBA's Sacramento Kings and Joe Lacob owning the Golden State Warriors, will the WNBA return to Nothern California? - Photo by Kyle Terada.

The sale of the Sacramento Kings to a group led by Vivek Ranadive has people in the area excited about the prospect of reviving the WNBA's Monarchs. Ranadive is a big fan of women's basketball who has previously shown interest in owning a WNBA team. That's all good news.

However, the prospect of expansion has also caused some to question whether there is enough talent available to support more teams. This seems ridiculous, considering that in 1998 there were 18 teams between the ABL and WNBA compared to the current 12. It seems unlikely that the talent pool has dried up so much over the last 15 years that only 2/3 as many viable teams can be fielded as could then.

From a strictly athletic point of view, the notion that there aren't enough players to expand is insupportable. Athletically, the United States could easily support 150 WNBA teams or more. We have 314 million people here, half of whom are women. That number is really too big to grasp, so let's break it down:

Take a random group of 250 people. Out of that group you'll have 50-60 women between the ages of 18 and 45. Hold tryouts and choose the best 11 athletes as a basketball team. Put them in a four team league of other teams of similar construction. At the end of the season choose an All Star Team, the best players at each position. This is the first generation All Star team.

Put the first generation All Star team in a four team league with three other first generation All Star teams. At the end of the season, choose an All Star team of the All Star teams. This will be the second generation All Star team.

Put that team in a four team league with other such teams and after the season choose an All Star team from them. By now we should have a pretty decent team, don't you think? All the people who really can't play will have been weeded out at the very least.

Repeat the process twice more to get to the fifth generation All Star team. After that many iterations we should be down to all good players. If we took the fifth generation All Stars and said these players are good enough to play in our professional league, how many teams do you think we would have?

The correct answer is about 1250 teams. Each of the fifth generation All Star teams would represent 256,000 people. To get to our current number of teams, each of which represent about 26 million people, you would have to continue through about 8.5 generations. Obviously at that point the difference between players who make it and those who don't is infinitesimal. It would be like having every woman run 100m dash. The difference between the 132nd fastest (completing the 12th team) and the 500th fastest would probably be less than a hundredth of a second. It certainly wouldn't be a tenth of a second.

Maybe you'd prefer to limit players to those with collegiate experience. There are about 1000 Division I women's basketball players eligible for the draft each year (345 D-I teams with 12 players who have four years of eligibility each = 1035). The average length of a WNBA career is 3.5 seasons, so we could support over 300 teams with just D-I players. Not every D-I player is a pro prospect, of course. I remember one year my alma mater's WBB media guide gave a short synopsis of each player; good shooter, flashy ball handler, dependable defender, etc. For one of the deep bench players the first thing said about her is that she was "witty". So let's limit it further. If just 1/4 of these D-I players went pro, we could have about 80 teams. That's the same as the seventh generation All Stars from above.

One thing that's been left out of both these computations is the effect of foreign players. Allowing unlimited participation of non-US players expands the talent base even further. Add Australia and other WBB hotspots to the pool and the number of teams the WNBA can support grows.

This is not to say that there's no effect from expansion. When new teams are added it brings in new and less experienced players. There's a loss in knowledge of the game when players start playing in the league who didn't before. One of the reasons the 2000 draft seems much better than its reputation when looked at from a strictly numbers standpoint is that the league added four new teams that year. Those rookies had opportunities that no other class had. The effect washes out after a few seasons, though the more teams added at a time the longer it takes. A gradual expansion, adding a couple of teams every 4-5 years, would be far better than the wildfire growth the league went through from 1998-2000.

The bottom line is that there is plenty of talent for the WNBA to expand. More than the league will ever need. Finding committed, stable, financially capable owners is the limiting factor for league growth.

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