Oakland is Ready for WNBA Expansion: A Conversation with Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan

Note: This article, as well as the interview within, were composed by both Dani Bar-Lavi and Myles Ehrlich

During its 25th anniversary season, the WNBA has continued its upward trajectory across countable metrics, seeing growth in viewership (a 44-percent increase over 2020, which saw a 68-percent increase over 2019) and social media engagement. The on-court financial incentives have enjoyed a consistent uptick as well, beyond the increased wages from the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement. Once the WNBA returns to action after the Olympics, the Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun will tip off in the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup Championship, the final battle for a $500K purse.

Independent of that surging monetary growth, though, the on-court product has run into an issue: the talent pool has outgrown the league’s structure. The WNBA’s current constructiona dozen teams, each with a dozen players (or sometimes fewer, depending on salary cap gymnastics)has come under scrutiny this season. Talented veterans have been forced onto the waiver wire or into early retirement, and several first-round draft picks have struggled to maintain roster spots, let alone see court time. 

The next logical step for the W, considering both the growth of the league’s popularity and ever-increasing number of talented athletes around the world, is expansion.

For WNBA diehards, the word expansion could trigger memories of past failed franchises. There is a dearth of representation in basketball hotspots across North America, and a recent report by Front Office Sports named Charlotte, Houston, Philadelphia, and Toronto as potential cities for the league’s buildout. An additional proposal, however, has gained traction in recent weeks, due to the city’s existing arena infrastructure, as well as the culture and enthusiasm around basketballand women’s hoops in particular.

Oakland, California, has emerged as a frontrunner for the WNBA’s next evolution.

The public buy-in from Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplanwho, for years, has expressed interest in capitalizing on the region’s resources and existing fandomhas generated strong momentum in recent weeks regarding the WNBA’s next potential franchise. That, coupled with the African American Sports and Entertainment Group’s (AASEG’s) recent purchase of a majority stake in Oakland Arena (the former home of the Golden State Warriors), has concretized this bid and separated it from the half-quotes and passing references we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the past few years. 

Vice Mayor Kaplan took the time to speak with Winsidr’s Myles Ehrlich and Dani Bar-Lavi about the latest updates regarding Oakland’s allure as the next potential WNBA city. We began by discussing the next major step in bringing a team to Oakland:  a vote by the city’s Coliseum Joint Powers Authority (JPA) to finalize the terms of a potential lease for a WNBA team at Oakland Arena, a vote which passed unanimously this past Friday.

 

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan

So, this intergovernmental board, the JPA, will be meeting this Friday, July 30th at 8:30 AM to vote to finalize the terms of the lease. Because we are an interagency board, there are multiple governmental votes. But in terms of authorizing the terms for the lease, the last stop is this Friday at the Joint Board meeting.

Note: We spoke before Friday’s vote, and this proposal passed unanimously. To avoid confusion, we’ve made minor edits for clarity to whatever referred to this vote as something in the future.

Myles Ehrlich

That’s really incredible! And with the Oakland Arena available, it sounds like you’ve already crossed one of the biggest hurdles?

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan

Well, yes—so, the proposers will still need to submit their full package to the WNBA and get approval from the WNBA, but the biggest piece they needed to have in place to submit was the approval of the lease terms for the arena. [Since] that made it through the City Council [and]the full Joint Board that oversees the arena, they can go ahead, and they’ll have the numbers and the terms so they can officially submit a proposal to the WNBA.

Myles Ehrlich

Perfect.

If I could switch gears for a second—are you yourself a WNBA fan, and how did the league first come onto your radar?

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan 

Yes, I am a huge fan of the WNBA, and of women’s sports. I have been advocating for us to pursue a WNBA team for several years. And I imagine you know that the Warriors left Oakland, and left the arena, so we have this basketball arena that no longer has a basketball team. I’ve had a vision for a WNBA team for a long time, but once the Warriors left, it seemed the right time to really redouble our efforts to get a new women’s basketball team. I’ve been working on it with the WNBA, with the staff at the JPA, and then with the ownership group, AASEG. They have put together an incredible team to launch this effort.

It’s exciting on multiple levels. I think it’s important to acknowledge—you don’t have to be a sports fan to care about this. This is also about jobs and revenue to the public and the taxpayers. [Oakland Arena is a publicly owned facility.] To have it sit vacant means a loss of jobs and loss of revenue. So, even for people who are not sports fans, or WNBA fans, there is good reason to be supportive of this effort, because this will bring jobs back. This will bring revenue back, and this is revenue that will help taxpayer-funded needs for the community, hopefully. And it will also be fun. It’s a win-win.

Dani Bar-Lavi

Yeah, speaking on that note, on how a WNBA team would function within the wider culture of the city… Obviously, Oakland as a community has a very strong sense of social justice, with a very strong history of progressive political movements. The WNBA has a similar history.. Can you speak a bit about that overlap, and how Oakland and the WNBA can work together towards common progressive political goals?

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan

Oh, absolutely. That’s why I feel the WNBA is such a great fit for Oakland, and Oakland for the WNBA. You know, Oakland has been the home and center of grassroots progressive movements for generations. Not only in more recent years, with the movement for Black Lives, but even decades ago, Oakland was a major leader in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. And of course, Oakland is a key city in the history of the Black Panther Party. So, Oakland has a long history with social justice, and the WNBA is one of the leagues where we really have seen strong support for social justice.The WNBA and its players have expressed great support for these movements for social justice and racial justice particularly, so I think it’s a very good match with the community in Oakland.

Dani Bar-Lavi

You mention racial justice; let’s talk about that a bit more. The WNBA is a league that’s composed primarily of Black women. Can you talk about why it’s important to have an ownership group like AASEG?

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan

Yes, absolutely. I am very, very excited to be working together with AASEG. It has long been a problem and an inequity in the world of professional sports, that while many of the players are African American, the ownership interests have been overwhelmingly white, and the profits have flowed overwhelmingly to white (and white male) owners. The fact that this ownership group seeking to bring a WNBA team to Oakland is Black-led and specifically also Black women-led is very important. I think it is important both in terms of economic equity and making sure that money goes back into the Black community from these ventures; in addition, it sends [an important message]in terms of making sure that when we talk about economic opportunity, that it is inclusive of African-American-led organizations and groups.

Myles Ehrlich

I really love that, and I think it’s also the beginning of a wave that we’re starting to see both in terms of African American ownership and women-led ownership in sports, especially within the WNBA. Look at what happened recently when Renee Montgomery came back to the Atlanta Dream as an owner. 

The article a few weeks back from East Bay Express cited what you were talking about regarding the Golden State Warriors recently moving across the Bay to San Francisco. A large part of bringing professional basketball back to Oakland is about tapping into the passion for hoops, and specifically women’s hoops at nearby collegiate programs like Cal Berkeley or Stanford, as well as local high school programs, which I know you’re passionate about. How has the public response been to the announcement, especially within that existing base of basketball fans?

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan

The public response has been incredible. As a member of the Oakland City Council, I am accustomed to dealing with controversial issues and having to play cards for things that are complicated and difficult. There was a huge number of public comments on the WNBA item, and 100 percent of the public comment was in support of it. And we have had support from local high school basketball teams and coaches and fans, local businesses and residents, as well as the broader community in East Oakland, all who want to make sure this large publicly owned facility doesn’t become abandoned. That we don’t lose the jobs and the revenue, and the activation of this site. 

And so we’ve seen an incredible outpouring of support from everyone from the NAACP to local small business owners and beyond. The culture of supporting women’s basketball is very strong in the Bay Area, as we discussed, with Cal and Stanford as well as the many high school basketball teams. There is already a strong history of support for women’s basketball in the area.

And our location is perfect for harnessing that support. Oakland Arena is located right on a BART station, which is our public transit rail. We’re right on BART and right on the freeway. It’s easy to get to from throughout the greater region. In fact, it’s even on the train that goes to Sacramento, so the old Monarchs fans can come have a team to cheer for. We really have the location that would let us easily tap into that support from throughout the region.

Dani Bar-Lavi

Love that shout-out to the Monarchs—that’s yet another void an Oakland WNBA team would be filling. I hadn’t even thought of that.

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan

Oh absolutely. To Monarchs fans: You are welcome here. Cal, Stanford fans, fans of all the different high school teams: You are welcome here. As well as everybody and anybody who’s looking for something positive, fun, and uplifting to do. We know WNBA games tend to be very welcoming to a broad spectrum of the community, including families with kids, the LGBTQ+ community, and the African American community, which are all very strong in Oakland. It’s really a very positive environment that aligns very well with our community. 

Myles Ehrlich 

What has been, to this point, the largest obstacle that you faced on this path to bring a WNBA team to Oakland?

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan 

Well, I don’t want to prejudge that because the process is not yet done. We want the WNBA leadership to hear how great and important it would be to authorize a team in Oakland. We know it’s been stressed that there’s a lot of openness now to the league expanding. And, as you know, public support for the WNBA is really high. So it’s a good time, but the process is not yet done. I don’t want to count the chickens before they hatch or whatever the right analogy is for it. Don’t count the basketballs before they bounce. But it’s very exciting, and the community response has been overwhelming. And entirely positive.

Dani Bar-Lavi

I really like that: don’t count your basketballs before they bounce. I may have to steal that. 

See Also

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan

Go for it!

Dani Bar-Lavi 

Going off what you were just saying a bit—we were wondering if there has been direct communication with the WNBA, and if so, how has that been going? Has the league been receptive?

Myles Ehrlich

And if that’s something you would be involved in, or if that’s something AASEG is involved with?

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan

Yeah, so the direct communication in this particular stage of the negotiation with the WNBA has been by AASEG, as is appropriate for this step in the process. I had contacted [the league]myself, some years earlier when we first started looking at the potential for having a WNBA team. And I did learn that ultimately expansion was something that was on their horizon, so that’s all positive. But in recent months, in terms of the specific discussions about this specific proposal, those communications have been between AASEG and the top leadership of the WNBA.

Myles Ehrlich 

In terms of the WNBA on television, or ticket sales, or merchandising, every time we see new numbers, there’s consistent growth. Why do you think that’s happening? Do you think that this is the perfect time to be investing in the league and in women’s sports in general?

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan

Yes, this absolutely is the perfect time to be investing in the league. The level of viewership has been skyrocketing; the level of interest has been skyrocketing. I think we’re seeing the first generation of adult women post-Title IX, who grew up with the normalization of women’s sports, as I did, but then my mom did not, right? So, we’re seeing a generational shift in terms of the expectation of women’s sports being a regular thing in life. I think that we are seeing some of the results of that. We’re also seeing positive things from the WNBA itself, encouraging the sport’s growth and their community outreach. I think the growing awareness of the importance of equity and justice in society, broadly beyond sports, is also having some impact on how this manifests in the world of sports.

Dani Bar-Lavi 

Is there anything else you’d want us to know about this process? 

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan 

I think you know we have a really unique opportunity here in Oakland, where we have a basketball arena ready to go. Right? There’s not some big capital project that has to happen before the team can launch. We have a community that is excited about it and ready to show up and support a team, and an ownership group that has both community and financial wherewithal. I think that’s important because sometimes you might have one bidder that has the community connections and different bidders have the financial backing, but in this case, with AASEG, we have a proposed ownership group that has both the community connections, and the financial backing. We have all the ingredients for a really successful team here in Oakland.

After our conversation with Rebecca Kaplan, who was gracious with her valuable time, we were even more encouraged by the prospect of imminent WNBA expansion. Seeing the lengths AASEG has already gone to in securing Oakland’s support for this proposaland the resounding response from the city—we are optimistic about the growth potential for the W, when the league decides it’s time to expand. 

 

Coincidentally, Myles happened to be vacationing in the Bay Area during this correspondence. If the Commissioner’s Twitter likes are anything to go by, perhaps we’re inching closer to that evolution from the league side as well.

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