The WNBA Is Ripe For Expansion. But Will It Happen?

By Lyndsey Darcangelo

The 2019 WNBA Draft is almost here. On April 10th, 36 new players will be added to every WNBA team around the league. And the talent level is at an all-time high. The list of top players is chock full of key prospects who have the ability to go to a team and make an immediate impact. So much so, that some players—who would normally be drafted higher in a different year—are projected to fall to the second or third round.

With so much talent coming in and plenty of amazingly-good veteran players already in the league, it begs the question: When will the WNBA expand?

“I definitely think there is enough talent that is out of the league and on the end of the bench that could form a competitive team,” says Blake DuDonis, women’s basketball writer and analyst for High Post Hoops. “The question is the money. But if there is ownership that is willing to get behind it, then yes absolutely.”

“From a talent standpoint, we’ve needed expansion for a while,” adds ESPN’s resident women’s basketball writer, Mechelle Voepel. “The problem is finding owners. We’ve been hearing for years that Golden State will take a team when the new arena is finished. I hope so. I would love for the league to get back to 16 (teams), the way it was briefly.”

Since 2010, there have been 12 total teams in the league. It’s been nine years, and no teams have folded. (The Tulsa Shock and the San Antonio Stars relocated to different cities as the Dallas Wings and the Las Vegas Aces.) No new teams have been added and the roster limit has stayed at 12. But in the span of the last decade, we’ve seen the WNBA talent pool grow deeper and, simultaneously, there’s been a steady rise in television ratings and viewership. According to ESPN, the 2018 WNBA regular season saw a 35 percent audience increase over 2017—making it the most viewed season on ESPN2 since 2014. And with online streaming comes an effective, low-cost way for the WNBA to connect with new fans, stream live games and market players to a wider audience.

For the upcoming 2019 season, the WNBA has partnered with Facebook Watch—a video streaming platform consisting of live and recorded shows. All WNBA recaps will be accessible via Facebook Watch, including preseason and playoff games. This is in addition to the existing partnership between the WNBA and Twitter, in which 20 regular season games are broadcast live. Without a wider television deal in place, the Twitter and Facebook partnerships give the league the ability to be more accessible to fans and potential fans alike.

The WNBA is on an upward trajectory. In order to capitalize on that growth and continue to evolve, it makes sense to add two more teams to the league in the short term, with the hope of eventually aiming for 16 total. But it would take an owner (or owners) who is willing to invest in the growth of women’s basketball, and would most likely have to occur in a basketball-loving city or a place where numerous sports franchises are already thriving since cross-promotion is extremely advantageous. There are a handful of cities that would meet this criteria, including my hometown of Buffalo, NY—where Kim and Terry Pegula have already shown a penchant for women’s sports, having recently bought the Buffalo Beauts (NWHL) in addition to already owning the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills.

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I’m not privy to what’s involved with the expansion process. As with many other league-related things, the WNBA keeps a tight lid on those details. What I do know is that the move would have to be deemed beneficial for both the inquiring city and the league before any further steps are taken. And there isn’t any indication that a step like that is going to take place any time soon.

So, as we watch the rest of the women’s NCAA Tournament play out while keeping a keen eye on potential WNBA draft picks, it’s important to remember that unless the WNBA makes a move to expand the roster limit to 14 or add new teams to the mix, some of those talented players won’t make it onto a WNBA roster. With only 12 teams and 12 open roster spots on each team, it’s an inevitable fact.

And an unfortunate one for WNBA fans.

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