The WNBA finds itself at a crossroads, of sorts, as viewership of the league continues to trend upward. The 2021 playoff broadcast numbers have increased 78% from last season and 54% from 2019 as the league continues to command more and more eyes.
With interest at an all-time high, but only 12 franchises in the league, the constant conversation centers on expansion. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has talked about the situation at length, but gave her most tangible update before Game 1 of the Finals on Sunday.
“Expansion is on the horizon,” Engelbert said.
The league is conducting a data analysis to vet possible cities using metrics such as the popularity of the WNBA and Division I college basketball in an area and merchandise sales in different markets. Engelbert said they’re using about 15 metrics to evaluate a variety of locations and then possible ownership groups have to be determined. There is no definitive timeline, but Engelbert hopes to have more information available during the 2022 season.
“The data looks like it’s going to read out some interesting information for us to start having exploratory discussions with certain cities,” Engelbert said, “and make sure that we can find great ownership groups to support a WNBA team and great fan bases. So that’s why I think looking at how those cities are already supporting the WNBA through whether it’s viewership, merch sales or other things, or whether they’re supporting women’s sports or women’s college basketball are great indicators of how it would get supported if a WNBA team were to go in that market.”
Additionally, a thrilling playoffs that included a down-to-the-final-seconds Game 5 semifinal between the Mercury and Aces has brought the postseason format back into the conversation. The first two rounds are single-elimination games before the five-game series begin. Engelbert said they are discussing whether to keep it the same or change to a three-game series. The league changed to the current format in 2016.
The 25-year-old WNBA did have 16 teams in its early days, but cut back to 12 in 2010. The league has yet to turn in an annual profit and loses an average of about $10 million a year.
There are an array of logistics that must be considered when it comes to expansion, including having to add more games and how that would impact broadcast windows and arena dates. The league already has had issues with teams having to play outside of their home arenas in the playoffs due to the facility being booked for other events.
“We see there’s other single elimination like the wild-card games in baseball, like obviously, the NCAA March Madness tournaments,” Engelbert said. “So it’s exciting. Single-elimination games are exciting.
“I’m sure whatever we change it to in the next three to five years, we’ll be looking at it again because there’s pros and cons to every different playoff format. So we want to be very thoughtful about what we do.”
Single elimination may be exciting, but it’s not exactly what players or coaches favor. Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP and two-time WNBA champion, would love to see a change.
“I think from the players’ standpoint we all would like the single elimination to be gone,” Stewart said. “Just because you work all season for an opportunity, and to have one game just kind of makes it over really quickly. Yeah, it’s the format for college, but this isn’t college. This is the WNBA.
“Also, I think extending the playoffs and making series out of all the rounds just makes for more viewers, more eyes to watch us and more people to be a part of it.”
Mercury Coach Sandy Brondello acknowledged both Phoenix and Chicago benefited from the single-elimination games as the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds that advanced to the Finals. Since the current format was instituted with 1-8 seeding regardless of conference, 2021 is the first time that teams seeded that low have advanced to the Finals. Previously, the lowest seed to advance to the Finals was the Washington Mystics as a No. 3 seed in 2018. Brondello is not a fan and thinks with the talent and depth of the league continually increasing, a full series would be more fair to all teams.
“I like series,” Sky Coach James Wade said. “I don’t know if it’s always the best teams that win the single-elimination games, but pretty sure that it’s always the best teams that are winning a series. I think you want to facilitate that as much as you can. It makes for a better product and we’re the only basketball league professionally that does that.
“I really would like the opportunity to play in a series from the beginning. We’ll see if that’s possible. I think, if I’m not mistaken, this was the most-watched season. It just makes for more basketball and even better story lines. . . . Me personally, I love preparing for a series.”
Talk of expansion comes a tough time historically for the Indiana Fever, which was one of the league’s most successful teams on the court for the better part of decade but hasn’t had a winning season since making the WNBA Finals in 2015. The team is 40-116 over the past five years and had the worst record in the league this season at 6-26.