WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has signaled a bold vision for the league’s future, believing the WNBA has the momentum to grow to 16 teams by 2028. With an immediate goal to introduce a 14th team by 2026, Engelbert’s optimism reflects a broader surge in the sport’s popularity.

The commissioner’s confidence comes on the heels of the 2024 WNBA Draft on Monday, featuring high-profile players like Caitlin Clark from Iowa, who has been instrumental in boosting NCAA women’s basketball viewership to record levels. The presence of household names like Clark, along with LSU’s Angel Reese, South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso and others, is set to further elevate the league’s profile.

“I’m thrilled we have household names coming in,” Engelbert said, per Alexa Philippou of ESPN. “We need to market around that.”

Golden State WNBA franchise draft set for December

Angel Reese poses with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert after she is selected with the number seven overall pick to the Chicago Sky n the 2024 WNBA Draft
© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The league is also preparing for an expansion draft in December for the new Golden State franchise, which will be hosted at San Francisco’s Chase Center and utilize the Golden State Warriors’ former practice facility in Oakland. It will be the league’s 13th franchise, owned and operated by the Warriors. It marks the first addition since the Atlanta Dream in 2008.

According to Engelbert, securing the right arena and practice facilities, along with committed ownership, are key challenges to expansion. Despite these hurdles, she noted an uptick in interest from potential host cities. She highlighted several cities as frontrunners for new WNBA teams, including Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver and Nashville, as well as cities in South Florida.

“It’s complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things you need, committed long-term ownership groups … And so, the nice thing is we’re getting a lot of calls, we’re continuing to engage with cities,” Engelbert said before Friday’s WNBA draft. “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.”

League growing in operational scope

Apr 10, 2023; New York, NY, USA; WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks to the media before the WNBA Draft 2023 at Spring Studio. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
© Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The WNBA is not just growing in team numbers but also in operational scope. Engelbert confirmed that the league would continue to provide charter flights during the playoffs and for back-to-back games that require air travel. There will be more back-to-back games this season due to the months-long break for the Olympics. The league spent $4 million on charters last year and will do the same this season. The move highlights what Engelbert called the league’s shift from “survival mode” to a more thriving state, aiming to enhance player welfare and operational efficiency.

“We need to be in the right financial position,” Engelbert said. “Just a few years ago, we were surviving; now we’re going from survive to thrive. We want to do it at the appropriate time.”

Marketing efforts are also ramping up, as evidenced by WNBA advertisements during the NCAA tournament broadcasts, starting from the Sweet 16.
Looking ahead, the WNBA is gearing up for significant negotiations that could reshape its economic landscape. These include media rights negotiations and a new collective bargaining agreement, both anticipated to profoundly impact league travel, roster sizes, salaries and revenue sharing. Engelbert previously hinted at the potential for these developments to lead to enhanced playoff bonuses and better travel accommodations for players.

The WNBA’s ambition to double its media rights fees reflects a broader movement to correct longstanding undervaluations of women’s sports. As the media landscape evolves, the league sees a golden opportunity to significantly boost its market position.