As WNBA enters 'tipping point,' key questions remain on how to approach expansion

Duke forward Imani Lewis’ first love was soccer. When she was about 5 or 6 years old, basketball coaches at her older brother’s tournament approached her about a career on the hardwood.

She gave basketball a try and ended up playing both sports until she was a sophomore in high school. That’s when she chose the orange ball, because she saw a viable professional path in the WNBA.

“I would say with the WNBA, it motivated me to start my career,” Lewis, 23, said of her decision to pursue basketball. “As I was listening to the WNBA players’ stories, I could relate to them, and it gave me a passion. If they made it just like that, then I can make it with the little to no skills that I have now.”

The WNBA, in its 26th season, opens the postseason Wednesday. A whole generation of basketball players like Lewis have grown up on it. Now the league has reached a pivotal point, with conversations around expansion and TV exposure swirling. The WNBA’s challenge lies in healing these pain points in order to grow the game.

The WNBA has said it will expand by at least two teams in the next few years. (Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)
The WNBA has said it will expand by at least two teams in the next few years. (Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

TV exposure

Before she became college basketball’s most dominant player, South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston studied WNBA players like Candace Parker and A’ja Wilson. If a woman in the post made a move that stood out, Boston, 20, would point it out to her parents and say, “I need to go practice that.”

When she tried to bring conversations about the league to her friends group, she was, to her dismay, met with replies of, “Oh, I don’t really watch it.”

“And I’m like, well, you definitely need to watch it,” she said, laughing. “That’s where you want to go. I mean, that’s definitely the next level up from college.”

Boston’s theory as to why folks may not be talking about or watching the WNBA is because they can’t find it.

In 2021, the WNBA had 100 games broadcast on national TV between ESPN’s networks, NBATV and CBS Sports Network. This season, the NBA had 538 nationally televised regular season games on ABC, ESPN, NBATV and TNT. There are 30 NBA teams compared to the WNBA’s 12. Even when accounting for this difference (by multiplying the number of NBA games by 40%, as 12 is 40% of 30), the NBA still had more than double the number of nationally televised games than the WNBA (about 215). The Los Angeles Lakers (42), Golden State Warriors (41) and Brooklyn Nets (37) had 120 games broadcast nationally.

“When you don’t make it accessible, it’s hard,” Boston said.

Aliyah Boston led South Carolina to a national championship victory this year in front of a TV audience of 4.85 million on ESPN. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Aliyah Boston led South Carolina to a national championship victory this year in front of a TV audience of 4.85 million on ESPN. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

She argued that when women’s sports are put on TV, people watch. The 2022 NCAA championship game for women’s basketball between South Carolina and UConn, which she headlined, averaged 4.85 million total viewers on ESPN networks, the most-watched title game since 2004. Its audience peaked at 5.91 million viewers. When given the Sunday night ESPN treatment, women’s hoops rose to the occasion.

Kelsey Plum of the Las Vegas Aces sounded off on the league’s streaming platform, WNBA League Pass, and service TV presence during All-Star weekend.

“For me personally, it's so interesting when people are like tuned in, where can I watch the game, and I'm like, well, you've got to download this app, then you got to put this in and oh, it's blacked out, so you've got to go to this place,” she said. “I would just like [to] see easier and more accessible to fans. We understand that the product is great and when we get people to watch the game, they love it, but the hardest part is getting people there.”

Lack of visibility is an issue women’s sports face as a whole. A study by professors from Purdue University and the University of Southern California found women receive 3% to 5% of total sports media coverage. And when that coverage comes along, the study found, it’s often of lower quality and production value.

In the context of the study, production value refers to technical production, meaning how much game footage, music, graphics and interviews are included in women’s sports stories. The report pointed out that women's sports stories don't often lead shows like “SportsCenter,” and stories that do lead tend to be longer and of better quality.

WNBA All-Star weekend included significant logistical and broadcast pitfalls. The 2022 skills competition and 3-point contest were relegated to ESPNU and weren’t open to the public or available to stream on WNBA League Pass.

ESPN has significantly bolstered its WNBA coverage, though. This year, the outlet launched Fantasy Women’s Basketball, the first season-long, full-scale fantasy game for a major women’s sport. ESPN also held its first WNBA draft preview show this year in April and broadcast a free agency studio show in February.

Blair Green, 23, plays basketball at the University of Kentucky. Her best friend and former roommate Rhyne Howard plays for the Atlanta Dream. In order to watch Howard, Green often has to navigate WNBA League Pass, which many fans, media and even WNBA players have publicly criticized for not being user friendly.

A league source said the WNBA is “committed to building a best-in-class product.” The league has and will continue to implement fan feedback.

“They [TV networks] don’t talk about [WNBA games] as much,” Green said. “When a big game comes along, you don’t really hear about it. Like someone could be talking to me like, ‘Did you watch the game?’ And I’m like, ‘What game? I didn’t hear anything about it.’”

A new WNBA media rights deal will begin in 2024, which could provide an opportunity for the league to generate more revenue and boost player profiles. The current deal with ESPN gives the WNBA $25 million per year. Sports Illustrated reported that the league looks to increase that number to $100 million per year with the new deal.

Before Apple and Major League Soccer — a league comparable to the WNBA in size, age and TV ratings — signed a deal for $2.5 billion over 10 years, it got $90 million per year.

Tackling expansion

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced plans to expand the league in May, and later told The Athletic she hopes to add two teams as early as 2024.

The news came after players began clamoring for more roster spots amid preseason cuts. The Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart called it a “tipping point” for the league on Twitter.

“I hate seeing so many great players being cut from WNBA teams,” she wrote. “Salaries went up, but a very restrictive hard cap has put teams in a bind. We need to soften it to allow our league to grow. The WNBA needs to adjust ASAP [before the next CBA].” The current CBA runs from 2020 through 2027 (though the Women's National Basketball Players Association can opt out in November 2024) .

Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart believes the WNBA needs to create most roster spots so the league can retain and develop an increasing number of talented young players. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart believes the WNBA needs to create most roster spots so the league can retain and develop an increasing number of talented young players. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The WNBA is one of the hardest professional leagues in which to make a roster. Its 12 teams are only allowed to carry a maximum of 12 players, which makes 144 total spots. Because of salary cap limits, teams often don’t carry full rosters. Lottery picks and veterans were waived during training camp this year.

“That's very sad, because a girl’s dream is, like, she's supposed to be in the WNBA,” Lewis said. “Everyone’s rooting for them. These coaches are saying we want them on the team, but they don't have the space. That’s unacceptable.”

Between cuts and the league’s impending prioritization clause, the WNBA finds itself at a talent retention crossroads. Could expansion help the league hold on to players and grow the game? And if so, should the WNBA be focused on adding new franchises or expanding roster spots first?

Two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker said she would prefer adding roster spots first, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. When it comes to the league’s long-term success, Parker and other WNBA players are of the belief that without young players being given the opportunity to develop before being thrust into key contributor roles, a talent gap will form.

“I would prefer having more roster spots than expansion,” Parker said. “In terms of a league, especially in the next three years, we’re going to lose some stars. My question is, will we have enough stars to carry those other two franchises?”

Lewis said she thinks it’d be easier to add onto teams that already exist rather than establishing new ones and finding somewhere to house them, which could include having to build new facilities.

“When you add a team, you look at venues, and you look at the cities, and it’s so much stuff you have to look at,” she said. Adding roster spots, on the other hand, seems like an entirely in-house operation.

Adding franchises would increase the league’s overall number of roster spots and elicit an expansion draft. A league source said teams can claim players listed as available by other franchises in such a draft. This could temporarily soften the blow of preseason and in-season cuts of veteran and young talent alike.

The WNBA’s inaugural season in 1996 included eight teams: Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Sacramento and Utah. In 2000, the league had 16 teams. It sits at 12 in its 26th season, with the Atlanta Dream being the most recent addition in 2008.

While the WNBA is a young league, there’s not much precedent for it to reference when planning next steps because not many professional women’s leagues have survived 26 years. But it’s clear the WNBA has reached a critical conjunction where it has to grapple with issues hindering its growth.

Editor's note: This is part of a series on WNBA expansion. Read more: