The WNBA plans to expand, as commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said repeatedly since the start of the 2022 season.
The process for that expansion, though, remains murky, in part because of Engelbert’s contradictory comments on the subject. Just Women’s Sports presents a timeline of everything the commissioner has revealed about WNBA expansion since May 2022.
The WNBA began with 100 potential expansion cities but has narrowed that list to 20, Engelbert told Sports Business Journal in early May. While that may seem like progress, that number represents a backtrack from last June, when Engelbert said that just 10 to 12 cities remained on the shortlist.
With expansion no closer as the 2023 season approaches, Washington Mystics star Natasha Cloud emphasized the need for it in the wake of roster cuts. The Mystics waived Evina Westbrook and Alisia Jenkins on May 7, which leaves 15 players on their roster. They’ll need to cut three more players to reach the league maximum of 12 before the start of the regular season on May 19.
“We need more teams,” Cloud wrote on Twitter. “These players deserve to be on a roster. It really kills me.”
The WNBA’s 12-player rosters are the right size despite the league’s roster squeeze, Engelbert said ahead of the 2023 WNBA Draft. Just 17 of the 36 picks from the 2022 draft made opening day rosters.
“We’re often asked about that roster size question. We think today our rosters are the right size,” she said. “I think for now, the roster sizes are set for this season into next. But that’ll be for sure a discussion in the next round of collective bargaining, as will a variety of other issues. And I think with expansion on the horizon, my personal view is to give 12 to 24 and hopefully more roster spots will be something obviously that expansion will afford us.”
Yet while Engelbert prioritized expanding the number of teams over the number of roster spots, she did not offer a firm timeline. She wants to “bring in two teams over the next few years,” she said.
“We are progressing nicely. Earlier this year, you probably saw I visited Portland. Next month, I’ll be in Toronto,” she said. “My plan is to continue to visit a few more markets in the coming months with groups that we’re having discussions with, with potential ownership groups that have showed interest. I feel really good.”
WNBA expansion remains two to four years away, Engelbert said in early February. She reiterated 2025 as a goal, but she stated: “We are not in a rush.”
The WNBA last expanded in 2008 with the addition of the Atlanta Dream. Engelbert became the commissioner of the WNBA in 2019.
“The first thing when I came in, I said, ‘OK, we have 12 teams in a country of over 300 million people. That is not enough,’” Engelbert said. “So that’s why we do talk about expansion, and you have to be in more cities to grow more fandom. So that leads me to be here today.”
The WNBA pushed back the timeline it had set for expansion, with no destinations announced by the end of 2022. Earlier in the year, Engelbert had said the league aimed to announce locations for up to two expansion teams, which could then join the league as soon as 2024.
“We’re now engaged in the hard work of looking at the cities that we’ve kind of narrowed to at this point,” she told The Athletic in December. She pointed to 2025 as the new target for an expansion team to join the league.
Engelbert wanted to add two teams by 2025, she said ahead of the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game.
“I’m hoping that it’ll be a couple teams by no later than ’25, but I’d love it in ’24, but probably looking out to that kind of timeline, and again, lots of cities interested,” she said. “That’s the good news, and now we have to find the right ownership groups with the right commitment and financial wherewithal to really be committed to standing up a WNBA team in their city.”
The WNBA had narrowed its shortlist for expansion to 10 to 12 cities, Engelbert told The Athletic last June — a range she confirmed in September 2022 but contradicted in May 2023.
The commissioner estimated that the timeline from identification of a new team to putting that team on the court would take between 18 and 24 months.
In July, she revealed Philadelphia, Toronto and the Bay Area as contenders for a team. Austin, Denver, Nashville, Charlotte, Florida, Houston, Sacramento and Portland have shown interest as well, she said.
“I have not been shy about saying we need to expand,” Engelbert said. “But we want to do it through when we can find the right ownership groups with the right arena situation in the right cities that we think will be supportive.”
The WNBA aims to add two teams in the next few years, Engelbert said in May 2022.
“We want to bring new owners into the league longer term,” she said. “We need to find the right time to do that. “We’re doing a lot of data analysis … We’ll continue to do that analysis, and hopefully this summer at some point, we’ll be able to say more.
“But we want to be thoughtful about it. We don’t want to jeopardize the momentum we have, but we understand the issue about roster sizes.”