The WNBA plans to expand, players speak out on travel conditions

On Sunday August 6th, WNBA Commissioner, Cathy Engelbert talked about league expansion, growth, travel concerns, and the future of women's basketball.

Photo Credit: Sara Jane Gamelli/ Ballislife

Sunday, August 6th was a highly anticipated matchup between two premium teams in the league, the New York Liberty, and the Las Vegas Aces. Prior to tipoff at 3 PM EDT, WNBA Commissioner, Cathy Engelbert made an appearance at the Barclays Center. She spoke in length about the current status of the WNBA, and her high expectations for the future. She was proceeded by President, Lisa Borders, and was named the very first commissioner in 2019.

1997, the Inaugural Season of the WNBA

The Women's National Basketball Association was founded on April 22, 1996, and inspired by David Stern. It included eight teams; the Cleveland Rockers, Charlotte Sting, Houston Comets, New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Sacramento Monarchs, and the Utah Starzz.

Sheryl Swoopes, a forward for the Houston Comets, was the first signed WNBA player, and Val Ackerman was named the first WNBA President. In the 1997 WNBA Inaugural draft, Tina Thompson was selected first overall, by the Houston Comets.

Since the Outset of the league, there are currently twelve total teams as of 2023. The league saw as many as sixteen teams, however, ten teams financially folded. The Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets, Miami Sol, Portland Fire, and Sacramento Monarchs are franchises that dismantled.

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert gave her thoughts on the expansion of the league, and the improvement of charter flights.

Will the WNBA expand?

"Obviously, we're working very hard on expansion. This is something I think we need to do, not just because of opening uppotentially 12-24 roster spots. Also, with a league that's the longest tenured women's professional league in the country, by double any other, we need more than twelve teams," Engelbert told reporters.

In addition to the defunct franchises, The WNBA relocated teams in various places. The Connecticut Sun was once known as the Orlando Miracle. Before the Las Vegas Aces, the franchise operated as the Utah Starzz, and the San Antonio Silver Stars. The Detroit Shock, who won three WNBA championships, relocated to Tulsa, then Dallas.

"We need to be in some big cities in this country, where our demographics and psychographic, and all our data and information show's that there's some great markets out there for WNBA basketball, said Commissioner Engelbert.

Though the WNBA eyes expansion, many players vocalized the importance of addressing internal issues firsts. Kelsey Plum, of the Las Vegas Aces, stated, "If you were to poll the players right now, and ask if they'd rather have expansion or charter, I think it's a pretty clear consensus around the board." (Wendell Cruz/ USA Today Sports).

Travel concerns in the WNBA

When it comes to travel in the WNBA, many players have been vocal on charter flights. Due to financial constraints, the league cannot currently accommodate around $25 million for flights[charter], that cover regular and post season. Breanna Stewart, of the New York Liberty, expressed the desire for charter flights.

 "I would contribute my NIL, posts + production hrs to ensure we all travel in a way that prioritizes player health + safety, which ultimately results in a better product," Stewart Tweeted.

The WNBA Commissioner wasn't shy about the topic and emphasized the importance of health and safety when it comes to travel.

"Obviously on travel, there's no one that wants it more than me better travel conditions for the players, we're working hard on that as well. That's a whole transformation of economic model for women's sports. It's all about media rights. If you look back in history, about how the men got their benefits and payit was all the multibillion-dollar media right fees deal, so I am very optimistic."

Several athletes demand travel changes

Several athletes conveyed their desires to make such changes, including Brittney Griner, Kayla McBride, and Elizabeth Williams. There was much scrutiny after the WNBA used charter flights only for the Commisioner Cup and WNBA Finals in 2022. These women spoke on lounge access in airports, health, safety, and private flights. Satou Sabally, of the Dallas Wings, voiced her frustration, and stated "reducing travel time increases recovery time." (ESPN W Twitter).

Commissioner Engelbert touched upon the importance of media, and how it will impact funding the league. " With the next round of media negotiations, we'll be able to fund something much bigger, but as you know, we've been chipping away, over $4 million, a lot of money for the W $4 million this year on charter, and will charter New York up to the Commissioners Cup in a few weeks." In addition, the Commissioner stated the league will charter full playoffs this year.

WNBA viewership and media rights deal

According to the WNBA, 2022 was the "most watched regular season in 14 years." Currently still in a media rights deal until 2025, the league features games on ABC, CBS, ESPN, ESPN2. Last season, the league stated there was a spike across social media, and merchandise. With the increasing popularity of WNBA, Diana Taurasi hitting 10,000 points, and the rivalry between New York and Las Vegas, viewership is up an incredible 46 percent from 2022. The WNBA is averaging roughly 548,000 viewers.

The WNBA will renew its media rights deal in 2025, which will largely affect the increased demands in travel. The Commissioner sounded optimistic the league will be able to make changes, and "capitalize off NCAA popularity."

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Sara Jane is a full-time Sportswriter at BallisLife, Journalist, and Sports Content Creator on Twitch. She has a focus on the NBA, WNBA, NCAA Basketball, and the NFL. Sara Jane currently resides in Connecticut with her Cat and Dog. She is a Boston Celtics, Boston Bruins, New York Yankees, and New York Giants fan. SJ has her undergraduate degree from the University of Connecticut in Economics.


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