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The State of the WNBA: 2014 Version

The year is almost over, and with people recovering from the Christmas holiday and looking forward to the resumption of the women's college basketball season, Swish Appeal takes its annual look at how the league is doing and how it might do next year.

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When I last wrote the State of the WNBA for 2013, this was before the shoe dropped in Los Angeles.  After that shoe dropped, there were only two available grades for WNBA President Laurel Richie in the biggest challenge of her short career: either she'd get a "A" or an "F".

If Los Angeles folded, her grade for 2014 would be that of a failure; otherwise it would be a success.  The Sparks were saved, and Richie gets the "A".  Losing the Sparks would have been catastrophic; it would have been the WNBA franchise with the longest tenure ever to get folded.  Even if the Sparks had moved to San Francisco, it would have brought up the question of whether the WNBA had to have a team in Los Angeles to be considered a legitimate sports league.  (Oddly enough, the question never comes up for the NFL - there has been no Los Angeles NFL team for years.)

And yet, lots of things went right for Laurel Richie and the WNBA.

* In terms of a WNBA Finals, she couldn't have asked for a better outcome.  Phoenix's victory was almost foreordained - teams with losing records generally don't win titles in the post-season even if they peak at the right time.  The 2014 WNBA Finals gave the league the chance to showcase both Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne, two of the "Three to See".

* The other member of the trio - Skylar Diggins - had a breakout year.  She ended up winning the Most Improved Player year in 2014.

* The 2014 WNBA Draft was what it needed to be: solid, but not spectacular.  Chiney Ogwumike was deserving of her spot as #1 Draft Pick.  Shoni Schimmel, picked #8 by the Atlanta Dream, proved to be a big hit among the Native American audience and by the end of the season Schimmel had the biggest selling jersey in the WNBA.

* The new collective bargaining agreement was finalized between the league and the players' association. Oddly enough, the full text of the CBA hasn't been released to the public.  One major victory was that the roster size maximum has been increased to 12 players.  Furthermore, teams can now pay $50,000 (either to one player or split up among more than one) if a player agrees to limit their overseas play from zero to 90 days.

* Furthermore, the league gives some teeth to implement "penalties" (we don't know what they are because we can't see the CBA) for players who miss games.  This season - 2014 - the penalty was only enforced for missing regular season or playoff games.  Next year will be the real test, as players can be penalized for missing training camp.

There are still some rumblings in the distance.  The new WNBA schedule has been released, and even though the contract with ESPN has been a financial benefit, the number of games broadcast nationwide on ESPN appears to have decreased.  There are rumors - just that, "rumors" - that James Dolan plans on selling the New York Liberty.  For now, those are merely ripples across a deep pond.

But all and all, this was a year of success.  Weaknesses were addressed in terms of franchise stability, in terms of labor relations, in terms of owners having the ability to spend money for a 12th player or to keep some players away from Europe.

So what's in store for 2015?

As we've stated many times before, the best way to predict the future is to fit one's predictions into one of four categories.

1. The Most Likely Scenario. All current trends continue into the future.
2. The Best Case Scenario. "Everything goes right."
3. The Outliers. What low probability events could spark high-level disruptive changes?
4. The Worst Case Scenario

The Most Likely Scenario

After the fallout of the Sparks sale, we now know one thing that we didn't know before: namely, there is an owner (Joe Lacob) who would not mind running a WNBA team. Granted, the impression I've been given is that Lacob would rather have an established WNBA team. Expansion franchises struggle, and owners don't want to own teams that are going to struggle to break a half-dozen wins in their first season.

So Mr. Lacob will have to wait for a while.  League stability is generally the best path to take.  A league doesn't want to over-expand.  Look at the disaster than happened in the NHL, where league expansion was little more than a Ponzi scheme where the established teams could use expansion fees to cover their losses.  The smart rule about expansion is you never expand unless you're forced to. You never want to give an owner the idea of starting their own league, or of sinking their money instead into a competing sports product.

What does this leave then?  Another year of 12 teams.  The Three to See will get even better, but don't expect the 2015 WNBA Draft to be a home run.  Injuries hurt teams like Indiana and Chicago, so expect the Eastern Conference to be stronger.  It will not be a transformative year, but it won't be dissatifying.

The Best Case Scenario

The best case scenario is that it is officially announced that there will be two more teams in time for the 2017 season.  I suspect that the league would like to see those two extra teams in 2017 - just in time for the 20th anniversary. 

With the league's stability, the WNBA can spend the time and effort to nurse these two new teams to health.  And who knows?  Maybe we can have one of the defunct teams like Houston or Sacramento resurrected!  I think seeing Houston come back would be a great present for the league's 20th anniversary.

Of course, more jersey sponsorships couldn't hurt, either.

The Outlier Scenarios

The biggest outlier scenario in my opinion involves China:  what's going to happen there?  They have been choosing new playoff formats and new rules for their military-based teams (no foreign players can be used in fourth quarter play against these teams). 

Currently, the Chinese women's pro teams are interested in developing their own home-grown players and have limited each of their teams to one big-ticket American player per team.  This has the potential of locking up to twelve such players in China in the off-season.

It's worked so far.  The quality in the Chinese play isn't good and it's not like the American players are taxing themselves.  But what if China increases the number of American players?  The Americans are getting paid a lot of money to play in China.  It would be a bad thing for American basketball if the WCBA became the major priority for American players.

The Worst Case Scenario

It could be coming sometime this year.  There is a rumor from that James Dolan intends to sell the New York Liberty.  If the rumor is true, then there could be another crisis like the one than we faced at the beginning of last year.

Another scenario could be pushback by the players against the penalties for showing up late in training camp.  Yes, the players have agreed on the CBA in theory, but the new penalties have never been enforced before.

The WNBPA is now being run in the interim by Michele Roberts, the first female chief of the NBA Players Association.  If the WNBPA decides to have her run their organization as well as the NBA player's union, then expect some hardball.

My predictions

1.  There will be no expansion until the end of the 2016 season.
2.  The New York Liberty will indeed be sold at the end of the 2015 season.
3.  There will be nothing new in terms of jersey sponsorships.
4.  The WNBA will actually receive more positive press than it has in the past.  As the league gets older, it develops a strength other WNBA teams in the past never had - tradition.
5.  The 2015 Draft will be one of the worst ones in history.