The Case for WNBA Expansion

Less popular men's leagues get time, attention, and investment. So what gives?

The WNBA is celebrating its 25th season this year — a milestone plenty of naysayers never thought it would reach. When the league opened its first season in 1997 it had just eight teams. Today it has 12, for a maximum of 144 roster spots within the world’s premier women’s basketball league.

Major League Soccer, the North American men’s professional league, just began its 26th season. When it began play in 1996, MLS had 10 teams. Today it has 27, with three more slated to begin play before 2023.

It’s not a one-to-one comparison. The eventual overwhelming embrace of MLS hasn’t yet been matched by the W. The potential profits for a sport held in stadiums instead of arenas, a sport that happens to be the most popular in the world, and a sport that doesn’t challenge gender norms quite as dramatically — particularly when it’s played by men — undoubtedly have made MLS an attractive investment for any number of rich-enough people. The passionate culture of soccer fandom has, seemingly within the past decade or so, been wholeheartedly embraced for the first time stateside.

In spite of that fact, most MLS teams have failed to turn a profit according to the Financial Times. “The concept of profitability is one that will come when we’re able to … to see the results of all the investments that we’ve been making over the last 20 years,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told the paper last year, explaining that most franchise owners are in “deep investment mode.” But, he concluded, “Our owners have no doubt that’s coming.”

The commissioners of American women’s professional sports leagues have never expressed that same confidence. They are reluctant to be quoted making assurances of future profitability, as in the case of NBA commissioner Adam Silver — habitually and publicly driving home the self-fulfilling prophecy that the WNBA is a losing proposition.

Even more telling, though, is Major League Soccer’s willingness to put its money where its mouth is by not just confidently investing in existing teams — and lobbying for tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding for new stadiums — but expanding so dramatically over the past two decades. Expanding even when existing teams are not making a profit.

This has been the missing piece for the W since its last major expansion to 16 teams in 2000. They don’t actually believe in the product; why should any potential investors? There isn’t a single convenient cause for the failure of storied original franchises like the Houston Comets, but initial sponsors’ unwillingness to hang in for the long haul and the league’s public-facing skepticism about its own future certainly didn’t help.

That seems to be changing (slightly) with renewed investment and public interest in the WNBA — a shift led not by league administration, but by fervent players, fans, and media who have persistently fought for its relevance. Amid the happier PR blitzes, filled with talk of new initiatives and some kind of broadly imagined progress, talk of expansion is still something of a bugaboo.

“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, how many [additional teams], and the timeframe over which that would occur,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a press conference last week. “It’s certainly on the list of things that I’ve been thinking about down the road.”

This kind of cagey pragmatism doesn’t really track with what has made so many investors flock to upstart men’s leagues like MLS. Even when the vast majority of those leagues fail. It’s the stuff of a thousand business clichés: you need to spend money to make money. They sell the ceiling, not the floor — the fact that, for example, women’s college basketball ratings have been exploding. That there are more exciting, league-ready young stars coming out of the NCAA than ever before — and that most of those stars, currently, have only a slim chance at finding a spot on a WNBA roster.

First round draft picks don’t even have a guaranteed roster spot, despite deep enough talent that last year’s Rookie of the Year, Crystal Dangerfield, was drafted in the second round. Both young players and seasoned veterans alike deserve more opportunities to play domestically, rather than being told to develop their talents overseas and then give the WNBA another shot.

The MLS spent millions importing top tier talent to make its games compelling. And it worked. The WNBA has a surplus of talent — talent with built-in college fanbases — in its backyard. Yet it still hasn’t figured out a way to parlay that abundance into more teams and more opportunities for fans and players. It’s long past time for there to be more teams to house so many stellar players. More importantly, it’s time to act like betting on the WNBA’s future is a sure thing.