As the WNBA is set to tip off its 25th season on May 14, league commissioner Cathy Engelbert is already looking at eventual expansion.
“Expansion is certainly on the list of things I’ve been thinking about down the road,” said Engelbert on a media conference call Tuesday. “It is interesting to note how competitive and how deep the talent in this league is and so it’s certainly something that as we come out of this pandemic, hopefully next year, that we’ll prepare to start talking about it.
“I think if we have a very successful season this year, this time next year, we can certainly start talking about what expansion would look like, how many and the timeframe of which that would occur.”
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Since 2010, the WNBA has been operating with 12 teams, with the Atlanta Dream as its most recent addition in 2008. From 2000-02, the league had as many as 16 teams.
However as women’s basketball continues to grow and more players continue to push for roster spots, it is also creating a space issue. In total, the WNBA has 144 roster spots but many teams don’t even carry a full 12 due to the salary cap. Hence many talented draftees will not make a WNBA roster this upcoming season, and may take their skills to Europe or other international leagues.
Former WNBA player and current ESPN women’s basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo understands how difficult it is to crack a WNBA roster.
“I think every year it’s important for us to remind people how hard it is to make a WNBA roster,” said Lobo in a recent media call.
“So the women who do, and the women who get drafted and don’t make it this year, they might go overseas and play their way into a roster spot in the future.
“I don’t think we can overstate how difficult it is to play in the WNBA. Would that be a little bit easier if there was expansion? Absolutely. I certainly hope that there is expansion on the horizon. Is it one team? Is it two teams? Is it in the next year or the next two years? I certainly think the depth of talent could support an additional two teams in the very near future.”
Engelbert admits at this time that team expansion is more likely than roster expansion.
“I think we’re about right-sized for now for the size and scale of our game with our current rosters,” said Engelbert. “I think that roster expansion is probably further down the road in the next CBA. Whereas in new teams expansion, as I said, hopefully in the next couple years we’ll be talking about the different cities where we think the WNBA could thrive and what that would look like and how many teams we could expand by and when. I would think that comes before roster expansion.”
Since the league began in 1997, it has seen six teams fold: Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets, Miami Sol, Portland Fire and Sacramento Monarchs, with the Monarchs being the most recent team to fold in 2009. Five teams have relocated including the San Antonio Stars moving to Las Vegas to become the Aces in 2017.
With the NCAA women’s basketball tournament getting big TV numbers this year and the WNBA itself continuing to expand its reach, the league is no longer just about surviving – having more teams is imperative to seeing the game grow.
“I think sometimes we can underestimate the jump that it really takes to go from college to the WNBA, said ESPN women’s basketball analyst LaChina Robinson. “So if I’m in college I may be the best player on my team, I may even be the best player in my league and I may even be drafted in the first round and still not make a roster.
“We definitely need more teams, there’s a ton of talent. And right now, at least to me, it feels like roster space is tighter than it’s ever been.”