The NWSL is Offering the WNBA a Model for Expansion and Investment

"Enough with the proof of concept.” WNBA expansion is necessary if the league wants more money and more respect.

“The environment is there, the business community is showing up, the fans are showing up, the players are excited and engaged,” NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said at the espnW Summit in New York this week when asked about league expansion. “The time is now.”

Compare that to what WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said earlier this year when asked about the same topic. “If we can move faster on transforming the economics of the league and our 12 teams, then we’ll feel comfortable that we have the right model to bring in new teams to thrive and not just survive,” she said. “That’ll definitely open up opportunities for us to move to the next step on expansion.” 

If. That word has dogged the WNBA’s party line for decades, replacing confidence and assurance with contingencies and hypotheticals. If players are more available/more people watch the broadcasts that are decidedly inaccessible/fans show up to watch games in college arenas that may or may not be painted in team colors/advertisers who want to buy space in those limited markets show up, then we can consider investing in the league like it has real possibilities, like the profits are assured and world domination is imminent — the way every other professional sports league, including all the successful ones and many of the failed ones, has approached growth.

The shadow of all those poorly defined benchmarks looms over the league, betraying the NBA and WNBA administration’s lingering belief that it’s nothing more than a charity case — that pressing harder would be a losing proposition for the rich people involved. 

When I last wrote about the case for WNBA expansion, I compared the league to the MLS with the strong caveat that it is far from a 1:1 comparison. Things have changed so much in the space of under a year, though, that even the NWSL seems to be bringing more optimism into its 10th season than the WNBA is bringing into its 26th. “Enough with the proof of concept,” Berman said in the same panel. “What else do we need to do to prove that women’s sports has business value and people are ready to show up and support women’s sports?” she asked rhetorically, suggesting the answer should be, “Nothing.” 

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In spite of their age difference, as of this year, the WNBA and NWSL both have 12 teams. The WNBA has no immediate plans for expansion, while according to Berman, they’re having to vet future investors thoroughly because there is so much interest in the NWSL — in spite of the fact that last season was, from a player welfare and public relations standpoint, one of the worst in its short history

Unpacking what accounts for that discrepancy requires acknowledging that women’s soccer has always been an easier sell stateside than women’s basketball has — a fact that, uncomfortably, hinges on how most women professional soccer players look in comparison to most women professional basketball players: whiter, smaller, less obviously muscular. 

But the impact of that bigotry might be lessened if the WNBA didn’t continue to act so gunshy about its own possibilities for growth. Yes, it is quite possible that the league’s expansion to 16 teams in 2000 happened a little too quickly; that the support wasn’t quite there nationally to make that size of league sustainable. What we can be certain of, though, is that many team owners gave up too soon. The memory of failed franchises is preventing the league and ownership from full-throatedly pursuing growth, forcing them into a cautious stance that is ultimately just as risky as expanding before attaining profitability. 

As I wrote about earlier this month, the league says it wants players to prioritize it over their international teams, and will begin enforcing that as policy next season. The only way to make that demand reasonable is to take real steps toward growth — growth that could lead to a 16-team league with a 45 to 50 game season: a league that would actually make sense to prioritize, a league that would allow college superstars to develop their talents without being told to improve overseas and try again next year. To reiterate Berman’s important point, “enough with the proof of concept.” If the WNBA wants more money and more respect, it should start by offering it.