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A history of WNBA expansion as league set to announce Bay Area team


The WNBA finally, officially will add another team — its first new franchise since 2008 after years of speculation.

The league plans to announce Thursday that the Golden State Warriors will operate the team, according to multiple sources briefed on the matter. It will play games in San Francisco at Chase Center and be headquartered in Oakland, The Athletic previously reported.

The league’s history of expansion and contraction is fairly circuitous, but the Bay Area has long been seen as a natural location to add a team thanks to its rich collegiate women’s basketball history. The Warriors, too, are a natural fit to operate a WNBA team as owner Joe Lacob is regarded as a pioneer of women’s basketball (more on that later).

If you’re keeping score, six WNBA teams will now use NBA arenas with direct counterparts, and four others share NBA markets.

Here’s a relatively brief overview of WNBA expansion and the league’s 18 total franchises, and how we got to Thursday’s announcement:

April 1996: “We Got Next”

The NBA board of governors approved the concept of a Women’s National Basketball Association to start playing in 1997.

June 1997: League tips off with 8 teams

The inaugural WNBA season begins with eight franchises: the Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets and New York Liberty in the Eastern Conference with the Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Sacramento Monarchs and Utah Starzz in the West. Houston wins the first WNBA title.

1998 season: WNBA adds 2 teams

The league moved quickly to expand after its debut season, adding the Detroit Shock and Washington Mystics in 1998.

Total teams: 10

1999 season: 2 more teams added

The WNBA adds two teams once again, bringing the Minnesota Lynx and Orlando Miracle into the fold in 1999.

Totals teams: 12

2000 season: League adds 4 more teams

The WNBA adds teams in Indiana, Miami, Portland and Seattle, bringing its total to 16. The number of franchises remains the highest the league has ever fielded.

Total teams: 16

2002: NBA sells off WNBA franchises

From the league’s inception through the 2002 season, the WNBA was collectively owned by the NBA. But after the 2002 campaign, the NBA sold off the franchises to their operator counterparts in the NBA, or to third parties. Two teams moved as a result — Utah to San Antonio and Orlando to Connecticut, the latter of which became the first team owned by a third party. Two teams, the Miami Sol and Portland Fire, folded because of the decision.

Total teams: 14

December 2003: Rockers fold

The Cleveland Rockers, one of the WNBA’s eight original teams, were initially purchased by Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund after the NBA put the franchise up for sale in 2002. But the Gunds decided they didn’t want to operate it any longer after the 2003 season, and no other local replacements came through, so the team folded.

Total teams: 13

February 2006: WNBA expands to Chicago

The league named an expansion team in Chicago in February 2006, which later was named the Sky. The Charlotte Sting folded later that year, however, after the NBA’s Bobcats announced they would no longer operate the team.

Total teams: 13

October 2007: Atlanta gets a team

The WNBA awarded a team to Atlanta in October 2007. The Dream began play in the 2008 season.

Total teams: 14

Late 2008: Comets cease operations

The league’s rise to 14 teams was short-lived, as the WNBA assumed ownership of the Comets in late 2008 and they ceased operations in December after new owners couldn’t be found. Houston won the league’s first four titles.

Total teams: 13

Late 2009: A move and a fold

The WNBA settled at its longstanding 12 teams after the Sacramento Monarchs folded. The league originally sought to relocate the team to the Bay Area, but ultimately didn’t find a new ownership group.

The Detroit Shock relocated to Tulsa the same year.

Total teams: 12

2013-2020: Little movement on expansion front

As far as expansion goes, the WNBA pretty much stood pat in the late 2010s as excitement around the on-court product built — and a changing of the guard took place.

The 2013 WNBA Draft saw a new generation of superstars in Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins-Smith entered the league, as Tina Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes and other original stars had recently retired.

Though the Sparks ownership group folded in 2013, the league was able to quickly find new owners this time around. This was widely regarded as a key indicator of the WNBA’s improved viability by that time.

The Shock moved to Dallas, becoming the Dallas Wings, in 2016, and the San Antonio Stars became the Las Ves Vegas Aces in 2018.

January 2020: New CBA, new era

After players opted out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2018, the league and players union announced a new deal for the 2020 through 2027 seasons that brought significant changes to player compensation, benefits, free agency and more. The in-season Commissioner’s Cup tournament was also introduced, although it did not begin until the 2021 campaign because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

2021 season: 25th anniversary

The league’s quarter-century milestone raised natural questions about if and when the WNBA would once again expand. Fans in logical new markets started to grow restless as the league had gone without a new team since 2008 — not to mention, only having 144 roster spots in a sport with an exploding college talent pool elicited demands from players.

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October 2021: Oakland expansion efforts grow

Former WNBA star Alana Beard announced she had partnered with the African American Sports and Entertainment Group to lead the efforts to bring an expansion team to Oakland.

The city council had approved a term sheet to secure the Oakland Arena (which you might remember as Oracle Arena, where the Warriors used to play) for use by a potential team. The parties took a step forward in February 2023 when the city reached a deal to give the AASEG exclusive negotiating rights for its half of the Coliseum site that includes the arena.

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Mid-2022: WNBA getting serious about expansion, commish says

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in 2022 the league hoped to identify one or two cities for an expansion by the start of the playoffs that September, or by year’s end at the latest.

Engelbert said the WNBA had whittled its list to 10 to 12 cities after it began with 100 possible locations based on a variety of factors.

The Athletic also identified six markets that seemed the most prepared and probable to be on the shortlist: Nashville, Oakland, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco and Toronto.

December 2022: League’s timeline falls off track

As the WNBA continued to assess where its next team would be and which ownership group would run it, Engelbert said the league would not meet its previously given year-end timeline to name a new expansion team.

Engelbert said the league was looking seriously at 10 interested ownership groups, down from what she said were roughly 20 at the beginning of the league’s process. She noted the league was in no hurry to identify a new team and city. (Engelbert later told the Sports Business Journal in May 2023 that she was still considering 20 cities.)

Engelbert said the new team would be unlikely to begin play until the 2025 season at the earliest, as there needs to be enough time to have an expansion draft and free agency, and to give the league’s coaches and executives time to prepare. The commissioner did confirm she had discussed expansion fee numbers with some interested ownership groups.

May 2023: WNBA heads to Canada

In a move many interpreted as a trial of the Toronto market for potential expansion, the Sky and Lynx played a preseason game at Scotiabank Arena. It marked only the third preseason game played outside the U.S., the first taking place in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2004, and the second in Manchester, England, in 2011.

The Toronto game was a success by all accounts.

2023 All-Star break: Still no concrete updates

During her news conference prior to last season’s All-Star Game, Engelbert kicked the expansion can further down the road when she said: “Our conversations with potential ownership groups are headed in the right direction and we will have some more news to announce about (expansion) at a later date this season.” She said the WNBA instead had been prioritizing the upcoming media rights deal, player compensation and adding corporate partners.

Sept. 26, 2023: Bay Area expansion deal close

The Athletic

reported the Golden State Warriors were close to a deal to bring an expansion franchise to the Bay Area, and that an official announcement could come as soon as early October.

If finalized, the franchise would play its games at Chase Center and be headquartered in Oakland at the team’s practice facility. A league spokesperson only said “discussions with potential new ownership groups continue to head in the right direction” in response to the report.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob has long been a supporter of American women’s basketball. He was integral in the establishment of the American Basketball League, which started play in the fall of 1996 (and folded in late 1998). Lacob was owner of the San Jose Lasers, led by Stanford star Jennifer Azzi and Sheri Sam.

It was presumed by many that as long as the Warriors wanted the franchise, they would be the league’s preferred ownership group if the league expanded to the Bay Area.

Oct. 3-4, 2023: League teases expansion announcement

In a series of tweets from its official account, the WNBA hinted at an imminent expansion announcement.

WNBA size by season

If you’re more of a numbers person, here’s an overview of the changes by season.

WNBA expansion and contraction

Season Number of teams

1997

8

1998

10

1999

12

2000-2002

16

2003

14

2004-2005

13

2006

14

2007

13

2008

14

2009

13

2010-now

12

Defunct WNBA teams

Relocated:

  • Detroit Shock — 1998-2009 (relocated to Tulsa, Okla.)
  • Orlando Miracle — 1999-2002 (relocated to Uncasville, Conn.)
  • Utah Starzz — 1997-2002 (relocated to San Antonio, Texas)
  • Tulsa Shock — 2010-2015 (relocated to Arlington, Texas)
  • San Antonio Stars — 2003-2017 (relocated to Las Vegas)

Folded:

  • Charlotte Sting — 1997-2006
  • Cleveland Rockers — 1997-2003
  • Houston Comets — 1997-2008
  • Miami Sol — 2000-2002
  • Portland Fire — 2000-2002
  • Sacramento Monarchs — 1997-2009

(Photos: Rob Carr / Getty Images and Lucas Peltier / USA Today)





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