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WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert gives league update, from expansion to future developmental opportunities

UNCASVILLE — There is only one week left in the WNBA regular season before playoffs begin later this month.

Currently, the Connecticut Sun (22-10) sit in third place after securing its spot in the playoffs on July 28 with its win over Seattle. At the top spot is Chicago (23-8) followed by Las Vegas (22-10). Seattle (20-12) and Washington (20-12) round out the top five teams to have already clinched a playoff berth.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert spoke with media this week before the Sun’s 87-63 win over the Phoenix Mercury. She addressed several topics, including league expansion, TV contracts and possible developmental opportunities for players in the future.

Here are the three biggest takeaways from Engelbert’s talk:

League Expansion means finding the right cities and owners

Engelbert said the league has done a data analysis of about 100 cities to look at demographics and college and WNBA fandom to find the best possible fit for new teams. She said her goal from Ella is to bring in one to two new teams by 2024-25.

“As you get into narrowing it, we’re looking for the right ownership groups, arena is going to be really important, the commitment of the ownership group, the diversity of the city for instance. When you look at our fan base we skew younger more urban, more female and so you’re looking for a market that’s really going to support a WNBA team and long-term investments. Those are the types of things we’re looking at and talking about. There are a fair amount of cities who have quite frankly expressed interest in us, which we love, and then there’s cities that have of course we know go to the top of the list when you get all the demographics and psychographics. …. The more we talk about it, the more I think we have interest and we’re trying to grow the league and one of the ways to grow the league is to be in more cities, to be the longest tenured professional women’s sports league in the country in our 26th year.”

Possible developmental opportunities for players

Right now there are only 144 possible roster spots across the WNBA’s 12 teams. That leaves a lot of talented players without a home who may get waived during training camp or go undrafted. When asked about developmental opportunities for players that aren’t able to make teams, Engelbert said she hopes more teams become invested in 3×3 basketball.

“I think 3×3 could be really interesting. Some of our teams are already sponsoring, especially Seattle and I think Chicago, and some others are stepping up to sponsor 3×3 teams. I think that could be an interesting place for development opportunities, feeding then into the WNBA for players who don’t make rosters,” Engelbert said. “I think we’re thinking about all that. I don’t think we’re ready for the big G-league type model yet, but yeah I think there are some things that we could do to have more development feeding into the W. Right now the college system is great, I mean that feeder system is great but for those that don’t make a roster is there an opportunity for them to play here in the US? Whether it’s the offseason or even during our season and be pulled up. … But I think that’s a little longer term off than expansion but something that I definitely think about every draft year when some of our third-round picks don’t make teams, but they’re really good players.”

TV contracts and broadcast model for WNBA, women’s sports

One of the biggest complaints fans of the W have with the league is the lack of access to watching games. The league has partnerships with various platforms, including ESPN, ABC, and Amazon Prime, however that requires the fan to constantly jump around streaming services each time they want to watch a specific game. Engelbert said she hopes to break this model not only for the W, but also for the whole of women’s sports.

“The big issue with media rights for women’s sports, particularly I’m focused on the WNBA, is the under-valuation of our media rights which has gone on for too long. … You look at our WNBA viewership, we compare really well with the NHL, with NASCAR and with MLS and their rates fees are five to 15 times ours and no matter what package we put together in the future, the valuation model has to be disrupted for women’s sports. … We’re hoping that as we transform the league, the model, as these players get elevated as household names, that if you build it they will come kinda thing and that will get the appropriate valuation for whether short form, long form content or just a game package. Where today we’re not there yet because the media companies have to kinda transform their own valuation model. But if we can chip away at it, we’re gonna hopefully lift all women’s sports on that so this is a big focus of mine. Other than getting Brittney Griner home as soon as possible, the big business issue is trying to disrupt the media rights valuation model that women’s sports are valued on.”

maggie.vanoni@hearstmediact.com

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