The WNBA is officially expanding to Toronto, with the league announcing its 14th franchise early Thursday. 

Kilmer Sports Ventures has been awarded the team, said WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert at a press conference attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and others. 

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"Growing internationally, I’ve been trying to think through next steps on a global platform," Engelbert told the Associated Press ahead of the official announcement. "It helps us reach new audiences and bring in new partners. The thing I love about going to another country is that the young girls and boys get to see professional basketball for women is important, too."

The CBC was the first to report on the expansion franchise back on May 10th. 

With the Golden State Valkyries set to begin play next year, the Toronto franchise will begin play in 2026. The goal, per the WNBA, is to then add two more franchises by 2028 for a total of 16. 

Toronto will play at Coca-Cola Coliseum, which holds 8,700 seats. On occasion, the team will play games in Scotiabank Arena. The WNBA has previously hosted sold-out preseason games at Scotiabank Arena and Edmonton’s Rogers Place. There are also plans to play games in Vancouver and Montreal, according to majority owner Larry Tanenbaum. 

This will be the first WNBA franchise outside of the United States, and joins PWHL Toronto as just the second professional women’s sports team in the city.

"Our Toronto sports franchises are thriving but, we have been missing one critical piece — women’s professional sports," Tanenbaum told the AP. "The world is finally taking notice of something that’s been there all along — the immense talent, passion and competition in women’s sports. 

"I saw an opportunity and knew we were in the right place at the right time to bring Canada’s first WNBA team to Toronto. And now we have, making sports history."

Similar to Golden State, the Toronto franchise paid a $50 million expansion fee. They’ve also committed to building a dedicated practice facility, but will train at the University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport in the meantime. 

"Women’s sports is good business," Tanenbaum said. "Just look around — it’s not a moment, but a movement and it’s just the beginning."

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

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A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

A group led by Toronto billionaire Larry Tanenbaum will bring a new WNBA franchise to Canada, CBC Sports reported early this morning. 

Set to begin play in 2026, the team will be owned and operated by Tanenbaum's Kilmer Sports Inc. Tanenbaum is a minority owner and chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC, Argos, and Marlies. He originally explored an expansion team via MLSE, but was turned down by other members of the board. 

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The Toronto addition will be the WNBA's 14th team. It follows the Bay Area's WNBA Golden State, which will debut in 2025. 

An official announcement is expected May 23rd in Toronto, according to reports. 

"We continue to engage in productive conversations with interested ownership groups in a number of markets but have no news to report at this time," a WNBA spokesperson said in a statement. Tanenbaum's Kilmer Sports group, meanwhile, told CBC Sports that his organization has “no update at this time.”

In April, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that Toronto was among the cities being considered for WNBA expansion.

The WNBA has a growing footprint in Canada, as the league's held wildly successful exhibition games north of the US border for the last two seasons. 

In 2023, a preseason matchup between Chicago and Minnesota sold out Toronto’s 19,800-capacity Scotiabank Arena. This past Saturday, the league drew more than 16,000 fans to Edmonton for a preseason showdown between LA and Seattle.

The Toronto team will reportedly play at Coca-Cola Coliseum, an 8,000-seat arena which is currently home to the Marlies as well as Toronto’s PWHL franchise.

Charter flights are on the horizon for the WNBA, with commissioner Cathy Engelbert saying on Tuesday that the league will provide teams with full-time private travel services beginning as soon as this season. 

The move is set to address years of player safety concerns, among other issues. Engelbert told AP Sports Editors that the league aims to launch the program "as soon as we can logistically get planes in place."

The initiative is projected to cost around $25 million per year over the next two seasons.

The WNBA has previously provided charter flights on a limited basis, including during the postseason and when teams were scheduled to play back-to-back regular season games. Individual owners seeking to independently provide their teams with private travel — such as the New York Liberty’s Joe and Clara Wu Tsai back in 2022 — faced significant fines for using unauthorized charters.

While players and team staff have been calling for league-wide charters even before Caitlin Clark and other high profile rookies joined the league, Engelbert has routinely cited steep year-to-year costs as the reasoning behind sticking to commercial flights. 

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However, the WNBA's surging popularity means increased visibility, and a subsequent uptick in security concerns — especially when it comes to big name newcomers like Clark — has Englebert reconsidering her previous decision. 

WNBA Players Association president Nneka Ogwumike called the move "transformational," and credited the WNBPA as well as the league for its implementation. 

"Our league is growing, the demand for women's basketball is growing," Ogwumike told ESPN. "That means more eyes on us, which is what we want, but that means more protection from the organization that we play for, the whole W that we play for.

"Chartering flights not only is a safety measure, the biggest thing, and then obviously what it means to be able to play a game and go home and rest and recover and be the elite athletes that we try to be every single night when we step out onto this court."

Aces coach Becky Hammon called the immediate response to the charter announcement "great" but noted that there are still kinks to be worked out. 

"What it all looks like, we’re still gathering information, we don’t know," she said Tuesday.

Several players emphasized the importance of safety, highlighting how last season the Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner was harassed in an airport while traveling commercial.

"All these players and these faces are becoming so popular that it really is about that as much as it as about recovery," Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier said.

"Above everything else, I think it's the safety of our players," Mercury player Natasha Cloud added. "We have a prime example with BG on our team that needs to be safe. At airports, it's like a madhouse. You see Caitlin Clark walking through airports, people following her, people trying to touch her, get pictures with her. It's just a safety measure, through and through. You would never have an NBA team walk through an airport."

Prior to Tuesday's announcement, the league had said it would charter flights for the playoffs and back-to-back games via a program introduced last year. The latest news, however, promises that teams will also be provided charters to and from all regular season games.

"Our safety is being taken seriously now, finally. In no world should our security not be a priority," Griner told ESPN. "If we want to be the league that we want to be and have the respect that we have, it comes with some risks. Sometimes people want to get close to you and it's not people you want, so I'm just glad that we don't have to deal with that anymore."

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

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Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

The WNBA doesn’t plan to stop expanding anytime soon.

After announcing the Bay Area as the league’s 13th team last week, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Sunday that the goal is to add another team by 2025.

“Not to add more than that because when you run an expansion draft … obviously if you add 24 roster spots to a league of 144, that’s a lot, and we know we have the talent and the depth of talent in the league and those that haven’t made rosters and coming out of the NCAA system,” she said. “So the goal is to add that 14th team, not more, for ’25.

“But obviously longer term, I’ve said my goal is to get this league additional teams in additional cities that we think would be great.”

Reports have indicated that the second expansion city for 2025 will be Portland, although Engelbert wouldn’t confirm that in her press conference Sunday before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. She said that the WNBA has entertained “a lot of interest” from prospective cities, and they intend to announce the second team by the end of the year.

“It’s a really good problem to have,” she said.

The league continues to examine data — from demographics to the arena situation, viewership and fandom — to determine which cities will be the strongest markets for expansion. On Sunday, Engelbert listed off six other cities, including Denver and Portland, which the league has already visited. The WNBA has also been in discussions with Philadelphia, Charlotte, Austin and Nashville.

“We have to be very thoughtful in the way we’re thinking about it,” Engelbert said. “Now it’s whether we can find the right — as you say, the right mix of the ownership group with the arena situation and everything else that’s important as part of long-term investing in women’s sports and in a WNBA team.”

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Minnesota Lynx guard Kayla McBride settled into a folding chair after scoring 19 points in her team’s win over the Connecticut Sun on Sunday. It would have been the perfect time for McBride to sit in front of reporters and TV cameras and get her flowers.

But instead, McBride delivered a message: There would be no basketball questions answered. She would discuss player safety, mental health and chartered flights.

“Sorry,” McBride said on the way out. “We will be back to normal interviews on Tuesday, but this was important.”

McBride wasn’t the only player who chose to highlight issues plaguing the WNBA over the weekend. Elizabeth Williams of the Chicago Sky did the same in the lead-up to her team’s clash with the Phoenix Mercury.

Absent from that contest was Brittney Griner, who will miss an unspecified amount of time to focus on her mental health.

The decision once again brought travel issues in the WNBA to the forefront of conversation. Griner’s safety when traveling has been a concern since she returned to the United States in December after being wrongfully detained in a Russian prison for 10 months. The Mercury star has already endured one incident at an airport this season, increasing players’ calls for chartered flights. Under the current CBA, teams are obligated to fly commercial for competitive advantage reasons, with the exception of the playoffs, back-to-back games and the Commissioner’s Cup championship.

The WNBA is in a period of growth, with this season breaking viewership and attendance records throughout the league. Coinciding with that growth are conversations about expansion, as the league hopes to add multiple teams in the next few years.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert says the league has done data analysis on “over 100 cities,” taking into account demographics, potential corporate partners and whether or not there is already an established women’s basketball fanbase. Places with strong markets for women’s NCAA programs are of particular interest, she says.

“It’s kind of a multi-dimensional look,” Engelbert said. “I’d say a lot of different things, but fandom and corporate partners and people need to show up and get in seats. We need to find those markets.”

Players don’t necessarily want expansion, at least not until other issues are solved. And the top concern for players right now is the ability to fly charter.

“I believe that until we have all of our priorities in check as a league, as the 12 teams that we have now, it’s hard to expand and to give resources somewhere else,” McBride said. “I think charters is number one.”

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Kayla McBride is a three-time WNBA All-Star and 10-year veteran of the league. (Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Engelbert believes the league can improve in multiple ways simultaneously.

“I think we can balance all of it,” she said on Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena.”I think we have been chipping away at some things that I know are important to the players. But we’re still going to be fiscally responsible as well and make sure that we feel confident that the growth of the league will match the benefits we can get.”

Part of the reason Engelbert is so adamant about expansion is because she believes it could increase media rights deals for the league. Bigger deals mean more money to use on player benefits like chartered flights.

“If you bring in more expansion teams, your media rights will be more valuable because now you’re bringing in more cities to draw that fandom in,” she said. “That’s what media companies are looking for is broad reach.”

Engelbert cited the NBA as an example. When the league was in its 27th year (where the WNBA is now), players flew commercial, but that changed as the league signed more lucrative media rights deals.

“The only reason the men have (chartered flights) is because of media rights deals,” Engelbert said. “That is it.”

Engelbert added that she wants to get chartered flights for the players, but she wants them in perpetuity. And the league, she says, is getting to a place financially where that will be feasible.

“When I came into the league, I would have done it,” she said. “But I would have bankrupted the league in a year or two.

“It will cost $25-to-30 million for a full 40-game season for 12 teams, and more if we add teams. So you chip away at it until you can afford it, and how do you afford it? Media rights.”

The WNBA currently has deals with ION and ESPN running through 2025. They’ve also partnered with CBS/Paramount+, CBS Sports Network, Amazon Prime, NBA TV and Twitter to broadcast games.

In addition to travel, Engelbert addressed a couple of other issues facing the league on Sunday.

Roster expansion

Each team in the WNBA technically has 12 roster spots, making room for 144 total players. In order to get more players in the league, roster expansion — rather than team expansion — is one possibility. But it’s not one that Engelbert agrees with.

While it seems like an easy solution, the commissioner says the situation would be more complex than it appears. She worries about playing time and player development.

“It doesn’t drive anything for the league,” she said of roster expansion. “So I’d rather do a development plan for players, rather than just adding them to a roster and not getting much playing time or experience.”

Unrivaled

Former UConn stars Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier recently announced the creation of Unrivaled, a 3×3 league that will take place during the WNBA’s offseason. It joins Athletes Unlimited as alternative options for players who have routinely gone overseas in the offseason to play and earn more money.

It also gives players an option that doesn’t interfere with the league’s prioritization rule, which penalizes players for missing the start of the WNBA season and makes offseason commitments difficult to navigate.

Engelbert says the WNBA supports both Unrivaled and AU.

“I think it’s a great idea. Anything that promotes the game of women’s basketball,” she said. “I would like us to become the center for all women’s basketball, whether it’s in our season or outside of our season.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

WNBA players are having a hard time acquiring tickets for the WNBA All-Star Game on Saturday in Las Vegas, and Aces star Kelsey Plum is bringing attention to the issue.

Plum, last year’s All-Star Game MVP, tweeted at WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert on Thursday after Aces teammate Alysha Clark expressed her frustration with the ticket situation.

“All I’m trying to do is go support my teammates and friends at the All Star game…Hope I can find some tickets,” two-time WNBA champion Alysha Clark wrote on Twitter, tagging Engelbert.

Teammate and All-Star captain A’ja Wilson joked that Clark should say she’s “gotta get something out your locker and I’ll come grab you.”

For Plum, the issue runs deeper.

“ALL WNBA players should get a ticket to the all star game/skills challenge, I’m sick of my people being treated second class,” she wrote. “The league gotta be better, there is no excuse. @CathyEngelbert I’m sure we can fix this before the weekend….”

The Aces have four players named to the All-Star Game this year, with Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young joining Plum and Wilson. All will be playing for the same team after Wilson, serving as co-captain alongside Breanna Stewart, drafted them last weekend.

Stewart’s team includes New York Liberty teammates Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot as well as Brittney Griner, Jewell Loyd, Satou Sabally and Nneka Ogwumike.

The WNBA Skills Challenge on Friday night will feature four sets of All-Star teammates, with Gray and Plum representing Team Aces.

Plum has become increasingly outspoken about WNBA issues in the past year. She corrected what she called a “huge misconception” about the WNBA pay gap last November, and this week she expressed her dismay at Wilson not being selected for the NBA’s WNBA 2K24 cover.

Cathay Engelbert would consider playing a WNBA game in Saudi Arabia, she said at the Bloomberg Invest conference Wednesday.

While the country wouldn’t be her first choice for an international event following the success of the WNBA’s preseason Toronto game, she kept the league’s options open.

“I think we would evaluate it across what our global games platform looks like,” Engelbert said. “It wouldn’t be the first place I went, for sure, but we had this opportunity in Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa.”

Her comments came after the PGA Tour and Saudi-backed LIV Golf announced their surprising merger earlier this week. Saudi Arabia also has made waves in the soccer world, as the Saudi Pro League has signed a number of stars, including Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante. Lionel Messi reportedly turned down a sizable offer from the Saudi league to join MLS’ Inter Miami.

The WNBA has played outside of the United States just three times, most recently in Toronto and also in England in 2011 and Mexico in 2004. Engelbert noted that if the players had a say in the decision, playing a game in Saudi Arabia likely wouldn’t happen anytime soon.

“It is something that I think we would think through,” Engelbert said. “We’re running a very player-led league and I would go to them first and say: ‘Where do you want to play?'”

Already, Atlanta Dream owner Larry Gottesdiener has spoken out against Engelbert’s comments.

“I read Bloomberg regarding the WNBA playing in Saudi Arabia,” Gottesdiener said on Twitter. “It is not clear if this was an NBA trial balloon (they govern the W) or an answer to a question. Either way, it is repugnant to a league that ‘prides’ itself on empowering women and supporting the LGBTQ community.”

Editors Note: This story was co-reported and co-written by Lyndsey D’Arcangelo and Rachel Galligan.

When WNBA free agency kicked off in February, the market was loaded with high-profile players looking for the right fit at just the right price. Since the league’s most recent CBA was ratified in 2020, higher salaries and player autonomy have made free agency a highly anticipated offseason event.

This year was no exception. In fact, it set a unique precedent.

With Candace Parker and Alysha Clark joining the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces, and Jonquel Jones, Courtney Vandersloot and Brenna Stewart signing with the New York Liberty, the WNBA entered what is being dubbed the “superteam era.”

What does this landscape shift mean for the league? We talked to a handful of general managers, coaches, players and former players to get their insight, both anonymously and on record. And they had plenty to say — not only about the future of the WNBA, but also about how the past ultimately led the league to where it is today.

The superteam era

What exactly is the superteam era? That’s up for interpretation, but one thing everyone can agree on is the attention that player movement and star-studded rosters have brought to the WNBA.

As Stewart lit up Twitter in January with ambiguous, emoji-filled tweets about which team she was going to choose, Vandersloot kept fans on edge as she swung back and forth between Seattle and New York before signing with the Liberty, and Parker shocked the world by joining Las Vegas instead of retiring or returning to Los Angeles for what could be her final season.

“Anytime you are bringing eyeballs and attention to the league, it’s a good thing. I certainly don’t think this is unique to the WNBA — we’ve seen it in a number of sports leagues in our country,” said Connecticut Sun head coach Stephanie White.

“I think it’s just that we are catching up, to be honest. The way things are from a salary structure, it’s a great thing that players are in positions now in their careers where they can take less to compete at a high level, and to compete with people and organizations that they want to.”

Despite the perceived novelty surrounding New York’s and Las Vegas’ stacked rosters, superteams are not new. The Houston Comets won four championships in a row from 1997 to 2000 with Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes, forming the first superteam and established dynasty in the WNBA. The now-defunct Comets built their roster through the inaugural draft and the expansion draft the following season.

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Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes pose after winning their third WNBA championship in 1999. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

This superteam era looks different because it is a direct result of free agency, instead of teams muddling through losing seasons to stock up on top draft picks.

“If you think about Phoenix (Mercury) with Diana (Taurasi) and Brittney (Griner), well, how was that built? Well, they drafted BG the year after Diana sat out for the year. And so they didn’t win a lot of games and they got into the lottery,” said longtime WNBA analyst and former player Rebecca Lobo. “It’s the same thing in Minnesota. How did Minnesota build? They built through the draft by being bad and by getting Sylvia Fowles, who forced a trade to get there.

“There’s just a different taste in people’s mouths when they feel you bought your way there versus lost your way there. But in those examples, those were superteams.”

“I don’t know what everybody’s all wound up about,” said Indiana Fever general manager Lin Dunn. “The Comets were by far a superteam. The Detroit Shock were a superteam. The Minnesota Lynx were a superteam. … I’m excited that we now have two superteams.”

The current CBA stipulates that unrestricted free agents with five or more years of service, veterans who have been cut, and veterans who have completed the terms of their contract can negotiate freely with any team in the league and without another team claiming the right of first refusal. Additionally, franchise-caliber players can only be cored three times in their career, regardless of whether or not they do so with the same team.

With these rules turning free agency into a marquee event, teams with multiple stars and “Big Threes” are here to stay. While it’s easy to see superteams inhibiting parity, those in and around the league believe they’ll help raise both the level of interest in the league and the competition on the court.

“I mean, the buzz surrounding Parker going to Vegas, and Stewie and JJ and Courtney to New York was terrific and kind of broke through mainstream sports and interest and that sort of thing,” said Lobo. “The one thing that you know about the WNBA — games are still going to be competitive.”

“My hope is those two superteams are going to generate an enormous amount of interest in the WNBA,” said Dunn. “And while they’re worried about each other, some of us will sneak up and beat them unexpectedly. The most talented teams don’t always win.”

“It creates people talking about it. It makes other teams and other owners step up to remain competitive,” added a former player. “Just because you form a superteam doesn’t mean you’re going to win.”

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With Candace Parker joining an already talented roster, the Aces are the favorite to repeat as WNBA champion. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Leveling the playing field

New York and Las Vegas were able to lure top-tier free agents to their respective franchises for a whole host of reasons. Location was a factor for some players; fanbase was another. But more than anything, owners with deep pockets were the biggest selling point.

Aces owner Mark Davis and Liberty owner Joe Tsai could not only negotiate competitive salaries, but also offer amenities that other franchises don’t have — like an innovative, newly-built practice facility for the Aces and the prospect of charter flights for the Liberty. In certain instances, those advantages have also gotten the two teams in trouble and led to complaints from their competitors.

In 2022, the WNBA fined the Liberty a record $500,000 for violating the CBA by chartering flights for their players in the second half of the 2021 season. On Tuesday, the league stripped the Aces of their 2025 first-round draft pick for violations related to promises of impermissible benefits when negotiating a contract extension with former player Dearica Hamby. Aces head coach Becky Hammon also was suspended for two games for comments she made in connection to Hamby’s recent pregnancy. Hamby accused the organization of mistreating her due to her pregnancy after she was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks in January.

League penalties notwithstanding, when certain owners have a decided financial advantage, it’s harder for smaller franchises without the same means to compete in the free agency market. Policies like the league’s salary cap and commercial flight rules were written into the CBA with the intention of maintaining a competitive balance.

“This league’s going to be great when you get owners with like, real, real money, you get the billionaires willing to spend. But at the same time, you don’t want to lose the owners who have been part of this for a long time and might not be billionaires but have invested all that they can invest,” said Lobo. “So, that’s the tricky part of it all. You have Tsai and Davis, who in the blink of an eye would say, ‘Yes, let’s charter,’ because they can afford a lot. Whereas other ownership groups, it might make them unable to continue to own the franchise. That’s a tough piece of it.”

Franchises with multiple owners haven’t put any less time and energy into their teams or the league as a whole. But they might end up in a position where they aren’t able to provide the same amenities as the league continues to evolve and player expectations rise.

Implementing a league-wide luxury tax, which would require teams to pay a penalty if their payroll exceeds the salary cap, is a possible solution. But getting everyone on board with that type of change would be a challenge in and of itself.

“If they did have a luxury tax then the players wouldn’t have to take less money,” said one former player. “If you have a luxury tax, then you can go over the cap and you can pay players what they deserve to be paid to be basketball players. We can’t even agree on every owner flying charter — I don’t think the luxury tax is something that will ever pass.”

“I know for a fact in our organization, we’re on board for charter flights. But we know there are rules in place and if every team can’t do it, we can’t do it, so we play within those rules,” said one assistant coach. “I think what gets lost in it is that only one team wants to charter. And it’s not true … I think the league can educate people on that.”

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Since Mark Davis became owner, the Aces made Becky Hammon the highest-paid coach and won a WNBA title. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Dunn believes there’s already a level playing field in the league, as long as every team abides by the rules set forth in the 2020 CBA.

“We also have some other ways for players to make supplemental salaries that are legal, like the time-off bonus. They can stay in the city and they can do team marketing agreements. They can do league marketing agreements,” she said. “There are other ways other than their basic salary to make additional money that is legal by the CBA. So as long as we’re following those guidelines, I think it’s great.

“I think in some instances, when people do something a little out of the ordinary, they assume that people are cheating. And that may or may not be true.”

In early February, the WNBA announced it was investigating the Aces for discriminatory practices involving the treatment and subsequent trade of Hamby after she informed the team of her pregnancy. The league also looked into allegations of pay-for-play offers to current players and prospective free agents, as first reported by Howard Megdal of The Next.

As a result of the investigation, the WNBA announced the penalties this week, which the WNBA Players Association said “miss the mark” in a subsequent statement.

The irony here is that the WNBA implemented a similar practice of supplementing player salaries in order to lure players away from the ABL before the WNBA launched in 1997. Initially, players signed contracts with the WNBA instead of individual teams. And since the WNBA’s salaries could not compete with the ABL’s at the time, the league acted as a liaison, facilitating endorsement deals with car manufacturers or other companies to create additional income for star players.

“I’m sure there are loopholes that were not thought of that have been taken advantage of,” said White. “Look, every team, every player, every organization is trying to find the best advantage they can to win championships. I think that’s where we are right now and that’s where every pro sports team is. Some of the things we didn’t see as potentially happening are happening, so now we just have to re-evaluate. We have to figure out how we address this, how to adjust.”

In response to players’ calls for better travel conditions, the WNBA expanded its charter flight program this season to cover all postseason games and teams with back-to-back games during the regular season. The program will reportedly cost the WNBA an estimated $4.5 million. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has estimated that chartering flights for an entire season would cost the league around $25 million, and she has stressed the importance of building an economic model to fund it long-term.

“The league’s crisis management is not good,” added one analyst. “What Davis and Tsai want to do is just pay for charters, but you can’t do that if the rest of the league isn’t chartering. So how do you pay for charters? You have to build up the economic business model, you can’t just do it one and done — you have to have sustainability. You’ve got to say, ‘We’re going to be able to charter for the next five years, and this is what we’re going to get in return on our investment.’”

When the WNBA raised $75 million from more than two dozen investors last year, Engelbert said she hoped to “move faster on transforming the economics of h the league.” But some have been left wondering how that capital is being used.

“What did Cathy Englebert do with the $75 million in equity she said she got and acquired? Where did that go?” asked one analyst. “Is that even real money or is that just a forecasted expectation of someone making those kinds of gifts to the league?”

Until the WNBA is in a position to implement league-wide measures like charter flights, those close to the league expect players to look to sign with teams that have the most resources and the best chance to win.

“Like 27 years in, are we that advanced at this point that the superteam isn’t necessary? I’m not sure that we are. I think we might need it,” said the analyst. “I don’t like to call it the ‘superteam,’ but that’s what’s happening — players are taking less and going to franchises where they can win. That’s what the guys are doing.”

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Cathy Engelbert is entering her fourth year as WNBA commissioner. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The good and bad of the CBA

While the 2020 CBA moved the needle for the players in many positive ways, over three years later, the effect those decisions have had on cap space and rosters have become much clearer.

The number of available WNBA roster spots — 144 total or 12 per team — is often referred to in discussions about roster limitations. But since the latest CBA, that number has realistically fallen under 140, with many teams limited to 11 players due to higher salaries for star players and corresponding salary-cap restrictions.

“This is a legally binding agreement that everyone agreed to and maybe didn’t read the fine print,” said one assistant coach. “It’s typical, you dangle a carrot, here’s more money, oh s–t — well, now we can only have 10 or 11 players. Over the long haul, it doesn’t really add up. What we’re running into is what we all knew would happen.”

The hard salary cap was a prevailing theme in our conversations, with many pointing to the trend of players willing to take less to be a part of the top franchises in the league.

“The hard cap right now probably doesn’t seem like it’s working in the way it was intended, ” said Lobo. “The consequence is that players are just taking less money, and I don’t think that’s what the intent was for the cap or teams.”

Layshia Clarendon, as a member of the WNBA Players Association’s leadership committee, was active in negotiations leading up to the 2020 CBA. The current Los Angeles Sparks guard lamented the fact that the hard salary cap agreed to in the CBA has led to veterans getting squeezed out of rosters. The 32-year-old Clarendon has experienced the unpredictability firsthand, getting waived by both the Liberty and the Lynx in the past few years.

“The league would not budge on either counting that contract as a rookie contract or letting it go over the cap, however you spend it right, and allowing more space for teams to keep veterans,” Clarendon said.

“That’s the biggest thing that’s screwing veterans right now and it’s because of the league’s hard cap. With pregnancies and with vet minimum contracts, a couple of small changes could really help our league. It’s only hurting players at the end of the day.”

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WNBA veteran Layshia Clarendon has bounced around a few rosters since 2021. (Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

White, entering her first year as head coach of the Sun after playing five years in the WNBA from 1999-2004, reflected on the early days of the league under the first CBA and how both resources and player expectations have evolved since then.

“All we really wanted was insurance all year around. Now, the options for these women when it comes to building families, sustaining this as a career, while incorporating everything that women have to incorporate, I think it’s awesome,” she said.

“We still want to see change and more roster spots and more opportunities and all of those things that come naturally with building and sustaining a league. But I think the overall ability to compromise on how we best take care of these women who sacrifice so much to play in this league, while we continue to try and grow it for them and continue to try and have more advantages for them while keeping a strong business model so this game can be sustained forever, I think the steps that have been taken have been really good.”

While the WNBA season generally begins in May, leagues overseas run through the winter and finish at any point between the end of February and early May. For nearly three decades, players have been accustomed to playing year-round to supplement their WNBA salaries, often causing them to miss parts of or all of WNBA training camp or even the beginning of the regular season.

The WNBA’s new prioritization policy could restrict that stream of income for many players. According to the rule in the CBA, beginning on May 1, 2024, three-year veterans must be present at the start of training camp or they will face a full season suspension. From now on, players will have to make tough choices between trying out for limited WNBA roster spots and securing a paycheck.

“Those players who don’t know if they’re going to be on a WNBA roster, and then they don’t go overseas because they’re trying to put all their eggs into the WNBA basket with prioritization but then get cut, where is their income coming from?” said one former player.

“That is one negative that I feel like the players should have never agreed to. It’s going to have an impact on the average player. The veterans are already established financially, but you have that four-year, five-year (player) that makes $80,0000 in the WNBA — where are they going to play overseas?”

What’s next?

As the WNBA prepares to tip off its 27th season, many of the league’s shortcomings are once again driving the conversation. Draft picks and former NCAA stars are getting cut from rosters at an increasingly alarming rate, the timeline for expansion remains unclear, and players’ calls for higher salaries and better conditions are growing louder. Meanwhile, Engelbert continues to preach patience with the goal of turning the league into a sustainable business.

“There’s never gonna be enough transparency for people, just in terms of information, and it can always get better,” said an assistant coach. “I just think the league is growing and sometimes we forget we’re not 100 years old — not even 30.”

It’s easy to compare the WNBA to the NBA or other professional sports leagues that have been around for much longer and pick out all the shortcomings. But looking at the league today compared to where it was in its first decade, the big-picture growth is evident.

“We’re starting to build on some of those big-time problems because we actually have player movement, have money to be thrown around in different ways, and have owners who are willing to push the boundaries of the league,” said Clarendon. “I think it’s a big marker of growth. So I’m excited about it from that perspective, from a bird’s-eye view perspective. I think it’s like we’re really at a shifting point for the league.”

Much of that shift has stemmed from free agency and players having more autonomy over their career choices. When the league’s top stars choose teams like New York and Las Vegas, other organizations are incentivized to invest further and remain competitive.

“When you start losing free agents because you feel like you’re not investing as much as you should,” said one former player, “then something has to change or else you’re going to continue to lose players in free agency, because they’re always going to prefer another team over yours.”

As roster-building gets more competitive, those in and around the league want to see the WNBA clearly communicate and enforce the rules. The WNBA’s investigation of the Aces for alleged under-the-table payments, for example, was the result of what one current head coach described as an inevitable issue in the current league climate.

“You’re trying to put together the best possible team that you can. When there is a lack of clarity in exactly what you can do — every organization is looking for ways to move the needle. It doesn’t mean it’s right, wrong or indifferent; it’s just the way that it is when there is not a lot of clarity,” the coach said.

There will be an opportunity to address all of these issues in future negotiations, with the current CBA set to expire in 2027.

“Every CBA is so important. We don’t know what we don’t know. We are continuing to learn about the business model, the evolution of the players and their mentalities and what they want out of this experience,” said one head coach.

“We all have to remind ourselves that there is a bigger picture and we have to figure out how to keep the competitive advantage. There’s not always that balance. We may not ever have it, but how do we get as close to it as possible is the challenge.”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League. Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

Rachel Galligan is a basketball analyst at Just Women’s Sports. A former professional basketball player and collegiate coach, she also contributes to Winsidr. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachGall.