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Expansion: Is the WNBA ready for it?

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With attendance at record levels and an evolving audience, the WNBA is experiencing a renaissance in its 21st season. Will expansion be next? Swish Appeal explores whether it is beneficial.

2016 WNBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

24 million views.

That is the number of video views that the WNBA surpassed last season on all of its social media platforms.

This figure, amongst many more impressive numbers that were reported, shows that after 21 years, the WNBA is beginning to make strides as a professional league worth taking notice.

All those strides..and there are only 12 TEAMS.

In an early June interview promoting Seattle’s first All-Star Game, WNBA president Lisa Borders was asked about the possibility of expanding the league from twelve teams. Her response was one worth noting.

“We want to make sure that everybody is on stable footing in the given markets that we have,” she said. “I’d rather have incremental, sustainable growth than to have a spike. We don’t want to expand too quickly. We will do it slowly and carefully.”

The WNBA has some of the best talent in the world already, and with only 144 players in the league, there is plenty of untapped potential. Wouldn’t the league want to bring more of that potential into the fold? Or will expansion cause a water-down effect?

Let’s look at the possible reasons why the league should and shouldn’t expand.

REASONS TO EXPAND

  1. A more expanded viewership: Since the WNBA and Twitter announced their three-season partnership in May, the league and the social media giant have seen nothing but positive results. The first-ever live-streamed game between the Dallas Wings and Phoenix Mercury had over 1.1 million viewers and an average minute audience of 62,459. Over the first four games, the league has averaged 950,000 viewers. Also, WNBA League Pass saw an increase of subscriptions last season of 24 percent. And considering how much the NBA is trying to share exposure with their counterparts, there is proof that people care and want to see the women play.
  2. A lack of teams where talent reigns: Looking at the final women’s college rankings from last season, 13 of the top 25 teams come from states where there are no WNBA team (Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina and West Virginia). Nine of those teams come from basketball-rich states where high school basketball reigns supreme (17 of the top 25 teams nationwide come from either California, Florida, Indiana, Maryland or Texas). And of those states, California (the sixth-largest economy in the world) has only one team and Florida has NONE. There are markets who are lobbying for a WNBA team, and other markets that could not only support a team, but could possibly thrive from it. And from attending the South Carolina-Florida State matchup in the NCAA Elite Eight in Stockton, California, fans are willing to travel if the team is good.
  3. The loss of dynasties and legacies: At its peak, the WNBA had 16 teams. Currently, there are 12, but of those teams, only four of the original teams remain (Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix and San Antonio (started off as the Utah Starzz)). Two of those teams (Charlotte and Cleveland) were dissolved due to lack of interested owners despite a shared 11 playoff appearances between the two. The other two (Houston and Sacramento) were the lone bright spots in their respective cities. The Houston Comets are the only team in WNBA history to win four championships, and they did in in FOUR CONSECUTIVE YEARS. They were the first women’s professional team to ever be invited to the White House. The Sacramento Monarchs won the only professional championship the city has ever seen (2005).

Yet, despite the legacy both teams built, they were disbanded in 2008 and 2009 respectively. There has been no mention of Houston trying to resuscitate the Comets, but there have been plenty of rumblings of Sacramento trying to revive the only successful professional franchise they have ever known.

REASONS NOT TO EXPAND

  1. Money: In a New York Times article from April 2016, it was reported that only half of the WNBA’s 12 teams actually make a profit in any given season. And despite having the backing of the NBA, only six WNBA teams have owners that also own an NBA franchise. A lack of profit has caused many WNBA franchises (the aforementioned four original teams, along with the Miami Sol and Portland Fire, who both only lasted three seasons) to fold or relocate (Detroit - moved to Tulsa, OK then to Dallas; Orlando relocated to Connecticut; Utah relocated to San Antonio).

Another thing involving money: the lack of competent salaries among players. Nneka Ogwumike, the reigning WNBA MVP and president of the WNBA Player’s Union, made the max salary...which was only $109,000. Which leads to another issue...

2. International competition: Many of the WNBA’s elite have been forced to go overseas and play during the winter to make ends meet and provide for their families. This season alone, Alex Bentley, Emma Meesseman and more have missed time on their respective squads to play for their international teams because they pay more. The most polarizing case of this is none other than the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who got paid $1.5 million by her Russian Premier League team UMMC Ekaterinburg to sit out the ENTIRE 2015 season.

Yes, you read that correctly. Diana Taurasi got paid over 15 times her current salary to NOT PLAY. Maya Moore, along with Ogwumike and others, have written and spoken at length about how the WNBA needs to be able to pay their players more. This hasn’t fallen on deaf ears.

In the aforementioned All-Star game interview, WNBA president Lisa Borders touched on the issue of wanting to keep the league’s best players from going abroad. When touching on it, she mentioned how growth and also has a lot to do with that:

“If our players seek to go overseas to help take care of their families, we’re proud of them,” she said. “The day that I get fans in here, and [Storm General Manager] Alisha [Valavanis], and all the other presidents across the country to fill up these arenas, then Alisha can demand that everyone stay here and just play for the WNBA,” Borders said.

Overall, there are plenty of reasons both good and bad that the WNBA should look at when it comes to the idea of expansion.

Poll

If the WNBA were to expand, where should they go?

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    San Francisco
    (100 votes)
  • 5%
    Denver
    (17 votes)
  • 5%
    Memphis
    (16 votes)
  • 9%
    Louisville
    (27 votes)
  • 9%
    Toronto
    (28 votes)
  • 4%
    Kansas City
    (13 votes)
  • 12%
    Boston
    (37 votes)
  • 12%
    Philadelphia
    (38 votes)
  • 6%
    Las Vegas
    (20 votes)
296 votes total Vote Now