The W.N.B.A. Is Finally Changing Its Tune On Expansion

And making itself a more appealing investment as a result.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

For the first time in over a decade, the W.N.B.A. is making a move that this column and many others have argued is necessary for its continued growth. League commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The Athletic that one or two new franchises would be announced by the end of this season. In other words, W.N.B.A. expansion. Finally. 

Some possible destinations, according to The Athletic’s reporting, include Nashville, Philadelphia, Oakland and Portland. Yet the details of those potential bids and the investigations into the valuations of W.N.B.A. teams and the league as a whole stood out less than the shift in tone when it came to talking about what fair expectations for this league in this moment might look like. 

“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,” Engelbert said last spring. To be fair, this news is evidence that she was being honest in that assessment. When she said it, though, it sounded like more of the same noncommittal, contingency-filled assessment of what league growth could look like that has been the status quo for years. 

The if-then construction drove home the idea that after all this time, further investment in the league could only come after it hits some arbitrary benchmarks — the idea that it was such a risky proposition even 25 years in that proof it could be viable was still needed, all while countless men’s leagues with much less to offer have garnered much more in overconfident capital and irrational bluster.

No one has done more harm by perpetuating this line of thinking than N.B.A. commissioner Adam Silver, who spent years talking about how the W.N.B.A. needed to respond to the “market economy” — spotlighting poor ticket sales and talking in vague terms about how no one was “giving up,” as though that would be a justified response. It was nothing less than sabotage: there could hardly have been a more effective deterrent to investment and growth than a person with that much power (and a vested interest in the league’s success) talking about the W.N.B.A. as a losing proposition.

In this latest piece, there is a sea change in the narrative. Though the reporters (fairly) attempted to get into specifics about profitability, Engelbert de-emphasized the ledgers of each team in favor of a broader, more pragmatic perspective. “We’re definitely looking to significantly enhance the financial performance of many of our teams, but many of our teams are still in big investment mode,” she told The Athletic. “In the league, we’re in big investment mode.”

If this is a cop out, it’s the same one that’s been used by every men’s league since always. A lot of money is required to make a professional sports league sustainable, and that’s without having to overcome the kind of homophobic misogynoir that the W.N.B.A. has faced since its inception. But people are making money off of it right now, and that’s in spite of years of mismanagement and a fundamental lack of confidence on the part of the league that has been contagious — that may well have doomed it if not for this exact shift in perspective. 

It is hard to overstate just how damaging the profit-centric narrative has been to league growth, holding the W.N.B.A. to a higher standard than its men’s equivalents despite it having a much higher hill to climb. The N.W.S.L. has spent much less time as a punchline to every story about how little people care about women’s sports, and so it’s not surprising that it’s recently attracted more high-profile investors. Hopefully, this injection of optimism will do the same for women’s professional basketball.