How Oakland and Toronto have prepared for WNBA expansion bids, and other cities in the running

·12 min read

For basketball fans like longtime Oakland resident Joan Lohman, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert’s expansion announcement seemed to come at the perfect time. The Golden State Warriors’ recent move to San Francisco, Oakland’s fervent love of basketball and Title IX’s 50th anniversary created divine circumstances for bringing a WNBA team to the area.

“Everyone I’ve talked to says, ‘I want to sit courtside,’ ” said Lohman, who has lived in Oakland for 27 years. “We’re already planning our tailgates.”

Engelbert first announced expansion plans in May, saying she hopes “it’ll be a couple teams by no later than ’25, but I’d love it in ’24.”

The Atlanta Dream were the last expansion team in 2008. Engelbert said before bringing in new franchises she wanted to work on strengthening the league’s economic standing by improving fan attendance, viewership and corporate sponsorships. This way, new team owners could “come in with a big chance of succeeding,” she said on a Bally Sports North broadcast of a Minnesota Lynx game in July.

“We’re looking for the right ownership groups with the right commitment, the right arena situation, the right city to support a WNBA franchise,” Engelbert said during All-Star weekend. She said the league has narrowed its list to 10-15 cities.

Lohman has sought a WNBA team in her hometown since the league’s inception. She started as a Sacramento Monarchs fan, but has since seen professional women’s basketball on the West Coast delegated exclusively to Seattle and Los Angeles. (The Monarchs folded in 2009.) In 2016, after Team USA won its eighth Olympic gold medal in women’s hoops, Lohman and friends started talking about the prospect of bringing a WNBA team to the Bay Area.

“This is the right time to bring the WNBA team to Oakland when there’s so much growing enthusiasm and love of women’s basketball,” Lohman remembered thinking. “And we’re seeing all the stars on the screen. We’d like to see them live in our community.”

Yahoo Sports spoke with two ownership groups actively cultivating bids for a WNBA expansion team about how they’re selling their cities to the league. Fans in each market also shared why now is the best time to bring women’s professional hoops to their hometowns. Here’s what we found.

Here are the cities that either have ownership groups that have expressed interest in a WNBA team or are on the short list for a potential team. (Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)
Here are the cities that either have ownership groups that have expressed interest in a WNBA team or are on the short list for a potential team. (Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

Oakland

Last January, the African American Sports & Entertainment Group (AASEG) began communicating with the WNBA to see what it might take to bring an expansion team to Oakland after about a year of preliminary planning, said AASEG founder and president Ray Bobbitt. In July 2021, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority’s board unanimously approved a term sheet from AASEG to bring the WNBA to Oakland. In November, the Oakland City Council unanimously voted to choose AASEG as the developer of the Oakland Coliseum Complex. The group later added retired WNBA great Alana Beard to help lead its effort.

While not assisting AASEG in any official capacity, former Phoenix Mercury guard and Oakland native Alexis Gray-Lawson also supports the idea of a WNBA team in the Bay Area. Gray-Lawson oversaw Oakland Tech’s back-to-back girls basketball state championships (2019 and 2022, as both the 2020 and 2021 tournaments were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic), assuming the role of athletic director earlier this year. A WNBA team in Oakland could give her players and “thousands” of others women role models and a new sense of identity that comes with fandom.

“I didn’t have a whole bunch of female role models growing up,” Gray-Lawson, 35, said. “I ended up watching the Gary Paytons of the world, Antonio Lee Davis, [Demetrius] ‘Hook’ Mitchell. Those were the guys that I looked up to, and I watched, and I emulated … so it’d be great to have some females that these young ladies can look up to and just feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.”

In order to secure a WNBA franchise, AASEG has to assemble a proposal. The two main things the league is looking for in said proposal are where the expansion team would play and whether the ownership group has the financial backing to operate a team, Bobbitt said. AASEG has secured the Warriors’ old home of Oakland (formerly Oracle) Arena, which — despite its age — Bobbitt said is essentially “turnkey.”

While the arena is home to a variety of events year-round, like concerts and Disney on Ice, Bobbitt said AASEG and local government decided to give a WNBA team (should Oakland be given one) scheduling priority during the season. This way the organization wouldn’t have to worry about being displaced, as happens to other WNBA teams.

While the league declined to answer specific questions about expansion, Engelbert has said the league is evaluating potential expansion markets based on psychographics, demographics, NCAA fandom, WNBA fandom, viewership, merchandise sales and arena sites. Part of the Bay Area’s appeal is its status as the sixth-largest media market in the country. Bobbitt and basketball fans around Oakland see the city as an ideal place for a WNBA team in particular given its history of social justice leadership and the WNBA’s status as one of the most progressive professional sports leagues in the country.

“From the Black Panthers being born here to the Black Lives Matter phrase being created here, Oakland has played a huge role in social justice reform and advocacy throughout its entire existence,” Bobbitt said. “Curt Flood, who helped change free agency in baseball, to Bill Russell, they’re all from Oakland. … We feel like the WNBA is the sports league that [has been] most active in that area, particularly during the 2020 social justice and economic movement.”

AASEG’s ownership group, led by Beard, is majority Black. Beard’s backing and winning resume — which includes a championship with the Los Angeles Sparks and four All-Star nods — adds an extra level of credibility to AASEG’s effort. Bobbitt said her experience as a player could give her a useful perspective on how to improve and grow the league moving forward.

The Toronto Raptors mascot waves a flag during ceremonies before the home opener against the Washington Wizards at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
The Raptors have planted their flag firmly in Canada. Could a WNBA team follow suit? (John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports)

Toronto

The Canadian government recently launched an effort to achieve gender equity in sports by 2035. Basketball is flourishing there, with Royal Crown Academic, one of the country’s premier girls basketball programs, residing in Toronto.

Keesa Koomalsingh founded HoopQueens Summer League, Toronto’s first taste of professional women’s basketball, this year. The league featured four teams of 10 players who competed in games every Sunday from June 5 to July 3. Each game yielded eight of the 10 players $200, as the final two roster spots were held by unpaid reserves.

Each week, HoopQueens averaged 300 to 400 in-person spectators at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Kerr Hall, Koomalsingh said. Online engagement was the league’s biggest success, she said, reaching more than 347,000 users on Instagram over the five-week season. This proves women’s basketball has an audience in Toronto, she said.

“I think everybody felt how special the summer league was, kind of like an appetizer to what [it’d be like] if the WNBA comes to Toronto,” Koomalsingh said.

“And, obviously, this is our first year, so with the resources we had we were able to reach 300K. Imagine what we can do with way more money and more resources.”

New Media Sports & Entertainment (NMSE) has been in touch with the WNBA for about three years now about bringing a team to Toronto, chairman Max Abrahams said.

In 2019, Abrahams said the group was approached by an existing franchise about purchasing it and relocating to Canada. After going through the process and submitting a letter of intent for purchase, NMSE lost the bid. Then, COVID-19 and the border restrictions that came with it stalled NMSE’s efforts.

Now the group is putting together a bid for an expansion team. Abrahams said NMSE has the backing of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), which owns the Raptors and Maple Leafs. He declined to say whether a prospective WNBA team would share an arena with the two aforementioned professional teams, but he did say NMSE has secured a facility.

Abrahams, a Toronto native, said basketball is bigger in Toronto than some Americans may realize, and it’s gotten only bigger since the Raptors won the NBA Finals in 2019.

“At this point, it’s right up there with hockey,” he said. “If you’re in the streets of Toronto, especially during the summer, you see all the basketball courts are filled with different runs going down. And even during the winter, too. There’s all the indoor courts that are just absolutely packed.”

Additionally, a team in Toronto wouldn’t just be Toronto’s WNBA team. It’d be Canada’s WNBA team. Abrahams said a franchise in The North would have a wealth of sponsorship opportunities and a fervent fan base as the country’s sole professional women’s basketball team.

Other cities in the running for WNBA expansion

San Francisco

Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob is interested in securing a WNBA franchise in San Francisco. The Athletic reported the franchise has considered buying a WNBA team twice in recent years. The ownership group has proven capable of operating a team and has an arena already secured.

Former Warriors president Rick Welts, who used to work for the Phoenix Suns and Mercury, has been a big proponent of bringing the WNBA to the Bay Area for years. Welts told reporters in June 2021 that he discussed the notion with Engelbert, who seemed to express mutual interest.

“When I came into the league — coming from Deloitte, which had offices in 100 cities in the U.S. — that when technology is driving so much of your economy, not to have a team in the Bay Area seemed like a missed opportunity, especially with Stanford’s women’s basketball program having been so successful,” Engelbert told Boardroom last month. “So it kind of struck me that would be a market that would be of interest."

Philadelphia

Philadelphia, a city void of a major women’s professional sports team, has strong connections to women’s basketball of the past and present. It’s a 45-minute drive from Immaculata University, and holds the roots of legendary coaches Dawn Staley, Geno Auriemma and Cheryl Reeve along with Engelbert.

“Philly is definitely on a list,” she said during All-Star weekend. “Again, I said we had 100 cities on a list, so I could name probably 15 where we think we’ve narrowed the list down to, and Philly is on that list.”

While an official Philadelphia ownership group has yet to be reported, there are a number of potential arenas for a WNBA expansion team: Wells Fargo Center, The Palestra or college facilities at Villanova or Temple.

Current players from the area like the Mystics’ Natasha Cloud, who declined to speak with Yahoo Sports through a Mystics spokesperson, and Kahleah Copper are clamoring for a team in their hometown, as well.

“There’s a lot of young girls and there’s a lot of women’s basketball fans in Philly who would love to see that team and who would love to support that team,” Copper told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “So I’m definitely an advocate for it. I would love to see a team in Philly. It would be amazing for the city.”

Kahleah Copper of the Chicago Sky looks on against the Dallas Wings during the second half at Wintrust Arena on August 02, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
The Chicago Sky's Kahleah Copper is one of many who have been vocal about wanting a WNBA team in Philadelphia. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Esther Rosen, 26, was born and raised in Philadelphia. She started a Twitter account, @WNBAPhilly, in September with the goal of drumming up interest to bring in an expansion team to her hometown. The page has about 2,400 followers and a high engagement rate, Rosen said.

While neither Rosen nor her Twitter account are affiliated with the league, she said its social media existence and following prove there’s a Philadelphian audience for the WNBA. She regularly receives direct messages from fans traveling to New York Liberty or Washington Mystics games but yearn for a franchise in their city. She once had a school teacher tell her one of their class’ latest assignments was writing a persuasive essay on why the WNBA should expand to Philadelphia.

“We love our teams, we love our sports, we love them passionately and thoroughly,” Rosen said. “To the point where everybody else makes fun of us.”

Nashville

Nashville is another city with plenty of fanfare but no reports of an ownership group. A recent survey conducted in Nashville by CAA Icon — a consulting firm for sports and entertainment groups, leagues, owners and facilities — found 44% of its 4,400 respondents were “very interested” or “extremely interested” in women’s professional sports. Another 34.2% said they were “slightly interested” or “not at all interested,” and the rest said they were “moderately interested.” Women’s basketball came in second behind women’s soccer when respondents were asked to rank interest in specific sports on a scale of 1 to 5.

The city also has potential facilities for a WNBA team in Bridgestone Arena, Vanderbilt University and Nashville Municipal Auditorium.

Columbia, South Carolina

One element of the WNBA’s expansion city search is NCAA fandom. Las Vegas forward and South Carolina alumna A’ja Wilson told Yahoo Sports she’d love to see a team in her college town. But the three-time All-Star said she would support the addition of a team anywhere in the Carolinas, including Charlotte — home of the defunct Sting, which operated from the league’s inception to 2007.

“We’re in a sport where we have to pretty much stay for four years, or at least three, and it gives you time and gives the community and fan base time to latch on to you,” she said of women’s college basketball. “I think that just carries over to the pros. I wouldn’t have the fan base that I have if I didn’t go to South Carolina where they could be around me and trust me and form that fan base. So having [a WNBA team] in South Carolina would be pretty dope because the community and the women’s basketball community is already brewing and it’s growing in the right direction.”

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