Could the W Fail in San Francisco?

Here is the WNBA's nightmare expansion scenario. 

With Peter Guber owning the Golden State Warriors, there is no longer any Chris Cohan-placed obstacle to the WNBA expanding to San Francisco.  San Francisco is seen as a dream location for expansion and the big wonder in the press - for those who don't know Chris Cohan - is why the hell it took the WNBA so long to expand there.  San Francisco is a top ten media market. Furthermore, it has the fourth largest gay/lesbian population, a key demographic for women's basketball.  Success in San Francisco is seen as a slam dunk and a buyer comes forward - and boom!  the WNBA has one more new team.

The attendance numbers are very good in the first year.  People in the San Francisco-Oakland area want to come out and see the WNBA.  Gay and lesbian interest is strong.  The team isn't very good the first year - no WNBA team is - but with a higher draft pick coming up in the following year the WNBA expects further success in the Bay Area.

And then, the unexpected happens - as the San Francisco squad improves in its second year, attendance drops.  Part of that drop is due to the "sophomore slump" - the WNBA is simply no longer the hot new thing in town.  But as the third year comes around, the slump becomes no joke.  The numbers become even worse and it becomes clear that the WNBA has a problem on its hands.  The WNBA is praying that the team will not have to be relocated - the joke in the media would be that if the W couldn't succeed in San Francisco, then where could it succeed?

(* * *)

All kinds of reasons are given for the success or failure of sports franchise, but one rarely explored is market capacity.  Market capacity is the size of the available personal income in an area needed to support a new sports franchise.  This has nothing to do with the size of a Nielsen market.  Think of each existing sports franchise in a city sapping away a certain amount of the city's sports entertainment dollar.  If fans have season tickets for a Franchise A, or if they watch a lot of Franchise A's games and purchase its memorabilia or otherwise pay for the franchise this leaves less money for fans  to support the arrival of Franchise B when Franchise B shows up in town.  If there are too many franchises and not enough dollars chasing those teams around, the market could be said to be "tapped out".

Now, let's come back to San Francisco.  The city already has five professional sports franchises.  It has two baseball teams, the Giants and the Athletics.  (We are considering Oakland a part of San Francisco.)  It has two football teams, the 49ers and Raiders.  It has the Golden State Warriors.  When the WNBA plants its flag in San Francisco, it will find five teams there ahead of it, and each in the area for decades.  Two of those franchises - the baseball teams - will compete with WNBA San Francisco every day in the chase for dollars, and two more teams - the football teams - will do their best to crowd the new W team out of the sports pages when NFL practices begin in earnest.

There is hope that gays and lesbians will support the W.  But I would venture to guess in a lot of cases, those dollars might already be budgeted for baseball, football or men's basketball.  Gays and lesbians watch those sports as well as watching the WNBA; would they cancel their Giants tickets and spend the money on the W instead?

Of course, it could be that San Francisco has enough disposable personal income floating around to support a WNBA team.  But according to, there isn't even enough personal income in San Francisco to successfully support an MLS franchise, a league which is running approximately even with the WNBA in terms of popularity.  WNBA management hopes that money would come floating in from somewhere, but where exactly?  This could be the reason why talks with investors in San Francisco are "quiet" - potential WNBA investors know that it would be difficult to squeeze another franchise into the competition.  The WNBA might end up the runt in the San Francisco litter.

According to, these are the cities that are essentially tapped out for expansion:  too many franchises and not enough disposable income to support another one:

Green Bay
Kansas City
New Orleans
Salt Lake City
San Francisco-Oakland
St. Louis
Tampa-St. Petersburg

This is an illuminating list for many reasons.  It includes the home locations of three cities currently hosting WNBA teams:  Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Phoenix.  It also includes cities where the WNBA tried and failed:  Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit and Salt Lake City.  It might have simply been a poor idea to put teams in those locations in the first place - there might not have been enough disposable sports income in any of those four cities for the WNBA to take hold.

Let's now look at the list of cities that have a lot of disposable income left over.  According to the numbers, there is enough disposable personal income in those places to support a WNBA squad...or two....

New York
Los Angeles
Riverside-San Bernadino
Las Vegas
Virginia Beach-Norfolk
San Jose
Dallas-Ft Worth

"Wait a minute?  New York?  New York has every franchise known to humanity!"  Yes, but the key word here is "disposable personal income".  There's a lot of it floating around in New York City.  The Liberty has done well, at least in the past before mismanagement turned a lot of the fans away.  If a WNBA team opened up, say, in the new arena in Brooklyn do you really think that you couldn't get at least a few thousand Brooklynites to come and support the team?  Either that, or when the New York Liberty return to Madison Square Garden who is to say that another WNBA team couldn't replace the departed Liberty in New Jersey?

Some places would have to be dismissed.  There are practical matters at hand.  Los Angeles and Chicago probably wouldn't be happy about new teams moving in and competing with the Sparks and the Sky - at least not until New York went first.  Montreal might have the disposable income, but does basketball have any impact at all in Canada?  Bridgeport-Stamford would cause a lot of problems with the Sun nearby.

Even so, some of these teams might be good ideas.  Houston's fans loved the Comets, and if Les Alexander doesn't turn into Chris Cohan Mark II then why not relaunch the Comets?  Las Vegas really wants sports, and the Sun have shown that casino ownership works.  Providence would probably have little competition in the area for any sports dollars, and it could become Rhode Island's pro sports team.

"But isn't this all mindless speculation?"  The answer is:  yes, it is absolutely speculation with just a hint of mindless.  (In the sense that the numbers from are being mindlessly waved around.)  But isn't this what's so fun about WNBA expansion arguments?  Arguments like this are almost the off-season past-time of the WNBA, and if you love the W there will always be interest in what cities the W will show up in next.