The Chicago Sky claim their first WNBA title to put a bow on the 2021 season. It was another thrilling season, but it is already time to turn our focus to the future. Following strong television numbers and increased demand for merchandise, growth and change is on the horizon for the league. WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert is ready to embrace that as well, outlining a plan for growth as the league transitions for surviving to thriving. Discussions around extending playoff series and improving player travel accommodations are sure to come up in the coming months, but there is one issue that feels more pressing than anything else. With a strong foundation, it is definitely time to explore adding a few more franchises to the mix. The league is overflowing with talent and it is clear that we are due for WNBA expansion.
It has been 13 years since the Atlanta Dream joined the league, which means fans are eager to see the league grow. Trust me, I would love to see the league reach 16 teams by 2025 so we can finally see draft picks make rosters and see playing time earlier in their careers. At this point, it is still ridiculously difficult to make a WNBA roster. I would love to see that change to we can see an expanded player pool. However, it is important for the WNBA to pick the right cities to expand to. Here are five cities I could see the league targeting as they look to take the next step in its development.
San Francisco/Oakland, California
This might be the most obvious untapped market left for the league. With one of the top college programs in the area in Stanford and a massive metro population, the Bay Area has been rumored to land a WNBA franchise for a while now. As the Warriors continue to grow the Bay’s basketball appetite, it is safe to assume there are more than a few basketball fans that would embrace a team arriving in the area. Especially with the Raiders having moved to Las Vegas and the Athletics rumored to be on the move as well, there could be a vacuum for the WNBA to fill.
California is also unquestionably capable of hosting two teams. After all, there are four NBA teams based in Cali. Tara VanDerveer has sent a long list of players to the WNBA, which bodes well for fans wanting to see those players return as professionals. It might be difficult to standout among the endless entertainment opportunities in the area, but I think the WNBA would be more welcomed with open arms by San Francisco in particular.
Columbia, South Carolina
Home of one of the most successful college basketball programs in the country, Columbia is a basketball town. Under Dawn Staley, who recently signed a massive seven-year contract extension to stay at the school, the University of South Carolina has become a powerhouse. They also lead the nation in average attendance, topping 13,000 fans per game. With some very famous alumni now tearing up the WNBA, most notably 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson, there is bound to be interest in watching some of those top players continue their basketball careers.
This is definitely an untapped market as well. There is not a single pro sports team in South Carolina. There are several that represent both North Carolina and South Carolina, but they all play in and around Charlotte. That is at least a 90-minute drive from Columbia. The closest thing to pro sports in South Carolina is minor league baseball. Columbia is also centrally located, which could lead to fans from around the state making the trip to attend games. With limited competition for attention and an already dedicated women’s basketball fan base, this feels like a perfect fit.
Let’s stick with searching for cities with ties to elite women’s college basketball programs. Tennessee has fallen on hard times in recent years, but it seems like Kellie Harper is working on turning things around. Even in these leaner years, at least by Lady Volunteer standards, fans continue to come out in droves. Tennessee ranks fourth in the nation among college programs in terms of attendance. I think we could see their numbers climb as well if the team returns to the national contender status. There are still loads of former Tennessee players in the league.
Nashville is not super close, but it is the closest major city to Knoxville. While there would certainly be some competition for attention with the Tennessee Titans, Nashville Predators and of course the country music scene, I think there is some hope for a WNBA thriving in town. With a younger, more left-leaning population, Nashville aligns well with the WNBA. As the league continues to push for social justice, it feels much more likely a franchise will be embraced in a city where social justice initiatives will be met with limited resistance. It sounds like we could see a team in Music City before too long.
This one requires a little bit of projection and is certainly a bit riskier for the league. With a franchise already in Dallas, there is a chance it will be hard to see two franchises thrive located less than 200 miles apart. However, there is a lot to like about what Austin offers as a potential home for a WNBA expansion team. For one, there a number of good college programs in Texas. Baylor is an annual contender, Texas A&M has grown in recent years and the University of Texas is trending up after bringing Vic Schaefer into the fold. 2021 WNBA No. 1 pick Charli Collier is also a recent Longhorn alumni, which would only help with the draw.
Beyond that, Austin is a growing city without much competition for attention. The MLS is the only sports lead that has a franchise in Austin with expansion side Austin FC in the midst of their inaugural season. The Metro area also counts more than 2.2 million people as part of its population, and that number is climbing. Over the past decade, the population in the city proper grew by 21 percent. It is a trendy spot to move for young people with a developing social scene. That sounds like the perfect place for the WNBA to explore. With rumors that the Buffalo Bills could relocate to Austin, while likely just conjecture, it underlines how desirable a location Austin as a destination for sports franchises.
Another clear NBA tie in here, the Trail Blazers have a very dedicated and strong backing in the city. Back in 2019, before the pandemic, Portland ranked 7th in the league for average attendance. Basketball is clearly popular on the West Coast and the WNBA would be wise to capitalize on that. It also helps to have one of the premier programs in the country just 100 miles down the road. Kelly Graves has turned Oregon into a national contender. There are several famous alumni now playing in the pros that would be sure to draw a crowd when they came to town. I can only imagine what the reception would be like for Sabrina Ionescu.
Portland sports fans seem to be passionate regardless of the team. The Thorns lead the NWSL in total attendance and the Timbers have one of the best fan bases in MLS. I have a feeling the city would be eager to welcome and support another franchise to town. With a steadily growing population that definitely leans more liberal, this feels like an obvious choice to explore down the line for WNBA expansion.