The WNBA, which celebrated its 25th season last year, is entering a transitional phase with a chance to lay the foundation for the next quarter-century. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert knows this is a critical stretch and has been adamant about building the financial base that will allow the league to flourish.
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Expansion is one of the biggest topics in the league, and Engelbert recently told the Athletic that the plan is to identify one or two cities this year. The new franchises could be playing by 2024, bringing the number of teams to 14.
While speculation persists over possible locations, the ownership groups that will tend those franchises are far more impactful. Engelbert said the league is using 20 data points to consider prospective owners, including arena, season tickets and corporate sponsorship plans.
“That doesn’t mean you can get an ownership group in that particular city who might score really high on all those data points,” Engelbert said. “So you’re looking for long-term commitment. You’re looking for a diverse group of owners. You’re looking for someone who’s going to be committed, again, for the long term. They do need money; we do need financial wherewithal.”
Engelbert has been on a mission to build the league’s coffers. She secured a $75 million capital investment and brought in corporate partners under the league’s Changemakers program in Nike, AT&T, Google, Deloitte and U.S. Bank. She has been cautious about leaguewide financial commitments to ensure that all franchises remain in a good position.
That has led to a dichotomy between teams that would like to spend more freely and those that can’t or don’t want to. Two of the league’s newest owners, the Las Vegas Aces’ Mark Davis and the New York Liberty’s Joseph Tsai, made headlines in the past year about their desire to spend. The Aces are building a new practice facility and made Becky Hammon the first coach with an annual salary of more than $1 million. The Liberty was fined by the WNBA last year for chartering flights, which is not permitted.
That fine and the ongoing back-and-forth over players flying commercial for games became an example of that dichotomy. Should teams be allowed to spend more freely, which could lead to a competitive advantage?
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“I don’t know what the balance is,” Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said. “But I do think that as you grow as a league, there are higher expectations for what should be done. You can’t keep saying your whole life that you want to level the playing field to the lower mean. There’s got to be something in the middle or toward the higher.”
The split isn’t always financial. Billionaire James Dolan, owner of the New York Knicks, was the previous owner of the Liberty, but the franchise faltered as he moved the team to Westchester County Center in White Plains, N.Y., and lost a sizable portion of its fans.
Tsai, who is worth $8.7 billion according to Forbes, bought the team and moved it to Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Davis owns the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders and has been a proponent of spending more in the WNBA, but his net worth is below $1 billion, according to Celebrity Net Worth. Seattle Storm owners Ginny Gilder, Dawn Trudeau and Lisa Brummel aren’t billionaires but heavily invest in the franchise.
Engelbert pushes back on the idea that some owners aren’t as invested in their franchises and the league, but Tsai tweeted last year, “League says you can’t fly charter because different owners have different financial situations.”
Liberty ownership declined an interview request for this story.
Chartered flights are just one example but one that remains visible and that players care deeply about.
“There has to be a baseline standard of what that franchise looks like no matter what city it’s in,” 19-year veteran Diana Taurasi said. “If you don’t go in with the ability to go all-in, you’re going to struggle.
“So I think Mark Davis has kind of set the gold standard of what we’re looking for as far as people who want to be invested in the WNBA. And to make money, you’ve got to spend money. And look at Mr. Davis. He’s got the best team in the league for a reason.”
Interest in the WNBA and women’s sports is at an all-time high, and there’s an opportunity to move the league forward with a particular type of ownership group.
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“Money is good, but money with purpose is a whole lot better — and vision,” Business Insider reporter Meredith Cash said. “My big gripe with not only the WNBA but a lot of different women’s sports leagues, it’s like you absolutely should be demanding to be taken seriously, but you have to put in the work and treat yourself seriously as well. It’s not serious to fly [Los Angeles Sparks 6-foot-8 center] Liz Cambage in coach.
“You’ve got to trust in your product enough to make it serious and not just cater to the lowest common denominator, especially as the league grows and players rightfully demand what they deserve.”
Players are paying attention.
“At what point can we make this league go where it needs to go and stop living 20 years ago?” Delle Donne said. “And if these owners want to treat their players really well, it’s tough to say no to that. I don’t want that.
“[When an owner wants to invest in something] and then we’re stopping it because these older owners or whatever have a different mind-set about it, I don’t know. You’re going to have to choose at some point what’s better for this league.”