Five potential cities for WNBA expansion

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.

Chiney Ogwumike was one of the best scorers in Pac-12 history. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

South Carolina built a statue of A’ja Wilson on campus in 2021. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Former Tennessee star Candace Parker just claimed her second WNBA title. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nashville, Tennessee
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.

Charli Collier became the first former Texas player to be selected No. 1 in the WNBA draft. (Wikimedia Commons)

Austin, Texas
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.

Attendance for Oregon games in Sabrina Ionescu’s senior year went over 10,000 on average. (Wikimedia Commons)

Portland, Oregon
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.

Basketball needs a new villain

The curtain has come down on what proved to be an NBA season chock full of storylines. Kawhi Leonard delivered Toronto its first title, LeBron James missed the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, and Golden State missed out on the first 3-peat since a guy named Jordan did it in the 90s. Yet, as the dust settles, one key role has been left shockingly unfilled in the world of basketball. For the first time in quite a while, basketball does not have a villain.

Kobe Bryant
The Black Mamba won 5 titles spanning the course of 11 years. (Flikr)

This role, most recently portrayed by Kevin Durant, is one common to basketball for decades. Sometimes, it even manifested into teams. The “Bad Boys” were the clear villain in the NBA during the late 80s, led by Bill Laimbeer. The mantle was passed to Christian Laetner in the early 90s. The late 90s were owned by that Kobe kid. He likely held that title for quite a while, even giving his persona a name which struck fear into the heart of his opponents. Although JJ Reddick really challenged him for the crown during the mid 2000’s.

In 2010, LeBron James announced he would be taking up the role until further notice when he created the first modern era super team. When he stepped down, as his character arc brought him back to hero status, Grayson Allen stepped up to bring back the Duke hate. That led us into Durant’s reign when he signed with Golden State.

The King became the league’s best villain ever with his move to South Beach. (Wikimedia Commons)

There is no doubt though that Durant is done with the role, after attempting to play through injury in the finals before rupturing his Achillies, as the Warriors ultimately succumbed to injuries and the might of Kawhi Leonard. That kind of grit and determination won over a lot of the haters. Golden State already seemed to be losing steam as the league’s big bad. With Durant set to miss most or all of next season, Grayson Allen wasting away in Utah and LeBron looking like a business mogul in L.A., it is safe to say basketball will be holding auditions to replace him as its antagonist.

It is hard to know where to look for the next villain of basketball. The men’s college game didn’t produce any worthy candidates. It’s best player was one of the nicest people on the planet. The women’s college game didn’t even come close to manufacturing a leading lady, as Sabrina Ionescu (basically) felled every triple-double record ever known. The closest thing the WNBA might have is Brittney Griner, but she doesn’t seem to command the same level of animosity she did in college.

The NBA seems like the best bet to unearth the next great basketball antihero. With free agency looming and the Lakers acquisition of Anthony Davis, could Los Angeles once again become the home of the sport’s evil empire? This is Hollywood after all. They produce great villains all the time.

LeBron’s Lakers feel like the only remaining hope for a true villain right now in basketball. There is the potential college basketball will suddenly find a worthy contender, but no one seems ideally placed to take on the role. In the NBA, none of the current superstars feel all that hateable. Leonard is way too soft spoken. Giannis Antetokounmpo feels way too lovable. The closest thing the Association currently has to a new villain is Drake. In order for him to truly vault into that position, the Raptors would need to be a consistent contender. That is far from guaranteed. It also feels pretty lame if the villain is not even a player.

I just feel lost right now in terms of who to hate. After so many years of great villains, I can’t buy into hating the Lakers yet. I now feel bad for Durant and the Warriors. I dislike James Harden, but that hardly elevates him to villain status. Basketball just looks like a villain-less wasteland.

No, basketball must truly return to the drawing board and craft up a new character to lord over the sport, inspiring hate in all of our social media diatribes. The NBA capped its incredible storytelling with a masterstroke of having the unsuspecting Raptors vanquish the mighty Warriors, but it came at the cost of its best villain in years.