The WNBA will expand to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 2025 season, the league announced Thursday. The team will begin play in 2025.
It is the first team to enter the league since 2008, when the Atlanta Dream joined. The WNBA is concluding its 27th season with a Finals between the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces set to tip off on Sunday. They are two of the four remaining inaugural franchises (the Aces began as the Utah Starzz). Northern California had one of the inaugural eight teams, but the Sacramento Monarchs folded after the 2009 season, four years after winning their only championship.
Expansion has been on the league’s docket for years and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has been asked for updates regularly during her tenure, which began in late 2019. The Bay Area would be the 13th team, and the league said it is talking to other potential ownership groups about expansion in other cities. Engelbert has visited Portland, Denver and Toronto to meet with interested parties.
The Athletic first reported last week the NBA’s Golden State Warriors were close to bringing a team to the Bay Area, but the deal was not finalized. The WNBA social media account stirred more speculation this week when it began quote-tweeting calls for expansion. It hinted toward an announcement with a message Wednesday morning.
Interest in women’s sports continues to rise with higher viewership, attendance and more TV spots in prime windows. The Liberty’s Game 4 win over the Connecticut Sun on ABC on Sunday peaked at nearly 1 million viewers in a TV window that coincided with the NFL’s late afternoon games.
WNBA’s expansion timeline
Expansion has been a moving target for the WNBA as the league office went through data analysis of 100 potential cities, Engelbert has said. It included analysis of NCAA women’s tournament viewership, WNBA viewership, demographics, psychographics, merchandise sales, Fortune 500 companies and arena sites. Engelbert said they are “great indicators of how [a franchise] would get supported if a WNBA team were to go in that market.”
At her 2021 WNBA Draft state-of-the-league address, Engelbert said expansion is on the league’s list of things “down the road” and they would “probably have a much more developed answer” if not for the pandemic and in-person fan limitations due to it.
Engelbert has stressed in the years since that they wanted to be cautious about any expansion teams and not jeopardize the financial health of the league. She has long targeted introducing two teams. The league is divided into Western and Eastern Conferences that are used for the Commissioner’s Cup competition format. The playoffs are based on overall team standings no matter the conference.
The short list began at around 10-15 teams in June 2022, and Engelbert told The Athletic she wanted them in by 2024. The shortlist number jumped to 20 cities as recently as an interview she did in May, and she reiterated to reporters at the Los Angeles Sparks’ opening game she was targeting 2025 now.
“The first thing when I came in, I said, ‘OK, we have 12 teams in a country of over 300 million people. That is not enough,’” Engelbert said. “So that’s why we do talk about expansion, and you have to be in more cities to grow more fandom.”
In 2022, Engelbert told reporters the league planned to make an announcement by the end of the year. That target came and went. In February, she said expansion remained “two to four years out,” and they were “not in a rush.” Throughout the year, she’s made trips to cities to meet with potential ownership groups.
At July’s All-Star Game in Las Vegas, she again teased an end-of-season announcement.
“Our conversations with potential ownership groups are headed in the right direction, and we will have some more news to announce about that at a later date this season,” she said.
While the WNBA analyzed possibilities, the NWSL added four teams, including a Bay FC club formally announced in April 2023. NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman, who was named to the job in March 2022, told the Washington Post that by 2026, the league will expand to 16 teams. It would double the size of its 2012 league.
What other cities are interested in WNBA expansion?
Engelbert visited Portland, Denver and Toronto this year. Last summer, Yahoo Sports spoke with potential ownership groups in Oakland and Toronto about their bids.
Alana Beard, a retired 14-year veteran of the league, joined the African American Sports & Entertainment Group (AASEG) to bring a team to Oakland. AASEG founder and president Ray Bobbitt said the top thing the league was looking at in potential expansion groups was where the team would play and if the group had the financial backing to operate a team. The Warriors were also developing a bid and the WNBA has been more apt to bring NBA teams into the expansion fold.
In Toronto, New Media Sports & Entertainment (NMSE) told Yahoo Sports they had been in conversations with the WNBA for about three years on a potential team. Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri referenced bringing a team to the city in May 2022, but declined to speak further on it.
Portland Trail Blazers president of business operations Dewayne Hankins also spoke last year on the possibility of a team coming to Portland, and said there were discussions with an interested group. Nashville and Philadelphia are also high on the list.
Many of the league’s teams have some sort of relationship with the NBA team in town or are part of the same ownership group, such as Indiana, Phoenix, Minnesota and New York.
Is expansion what players want?
Team expansion is a constant call when preseason cuts are made, often leaving draft picks without a spot on the 11-to-12-player teams. The WNBA is the most difficult league to break into as there are a max of 144 roster spots in the league any given year.
The 2024 WNBA Draft could have a massive amount of talent, as would 2025. Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Hailey Van Lith, Cameron Brink, Aaliyah Edwards and Deja Kelly are all ending their collegiate eligibility soon. There have also been calls for roster expansion since teams are left to fill spots throughout the season using hardship waivers for injuries.
Aces forward Candace Parker told the Chicago Sun-Times in May 2022 she would prefer roster expansion over teams. She said over the next handful of years, the league would lose some of its stars to retirement.
“My question is, will we have enough stars to carry those other two franchises?” she said.
Engelbert has spoken out in favor of team expansion over roster expansion. Expanding the rosters would take an addendum to the CBA, which requires agreement from the team owners and players’ union, or waiting until the new CBA is passed when the current one expires in 2027.
“It’s a very competitive league. There’s 300 Division I women’s basketball programs in this country and it is, it’s hard to make a team, but we don’t want to degrade the quality of the game, either,” Engelbert told a group of reporters at the Sparks’ season opener in May. “But I do think as I’ve stated we’re now with the transformation on the economic and business side of things, I think we’re ready for expansion in the next few years. And that will open up, whether it’s 12, 24, maybe more roster spots, I think we’ll be in a good space.”
Roster expansion and team expansion would each open up a maximum of 24 roster spots. Team expansion requires more infrastructure on a franchise and support level, and necessitates more starting roster spots than end-of-bench ones.
Kelsey Plum, the WNBA Players Association vice president, said at All-Star she did not believe team expansion should come before other more pressing issues for players’ health and safety.
“I don’t think that should take precedence over charter flights. I don’t think that should take precedence over salary benefits,” Plum said. “And I think that we’ve taken steps in the right direction, but I think if you were to poll the players right now and ask them, ‘Would you rather have expansion or charter?’ I think it’s [a] pretty clear consensus across the board.”
Players have made renewed calls this season for league-wide charter flights. WNBA teams fly commercially as per the collective bargaining agreement signed in January 2020. All postseason teams have flown charter, which is new this year. An expansion team in Toronto would create travel headaches going through customs on commercial airlines.
Travel could be more troublesome next year when the league, which expanded to 40 games this season, fits its regular and postseason schedule around the 2024 Paris Olympics, July 26-Aug. 11. Engelbert has seemed inclined to wait for a new media rights deal, which would come after 2025, before the league opens up charter flights for all teams all season.
Players are also concerned with salaries, which took a jump of nearly 100% with the new CBA in 2020, but max out at around $225,000. Players, such as those on the super-team Aces and Liberty, have increasingly been taking less money to keep talent around them and compete for titles.
The Aces were also investigated for circumventing the salary cap in the offseason. Players, such as Plum, are looking for better revenue sharing and not equal salaries to their NBA counterparts.