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The WNBA finds itself at a crossroad, 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. 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.

SOCCER

Germany qualifies for World Cup

As Germany became the first country to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, its former under-21 team coach was crying tears of joy after his first win in charge of Turkey. Stefan Kuntz was unable to keep his emotions in check after Burak Yilmaz’s penalty in the ninth minute of injury time earned Turkey a dramatic 2-1 win in Latvia to keep its qualification hopes alive. Germany booked its place with an error-strewn 4-0 win in North Macedonia. In Rotterdam, Memphis Depay scored twice, had two assists and missed a penalty as the Netherlands overpowered Gibraltar 6-0 to remain on course for qualification, two points ahead of Norway and four points ahead of Turkey in Group G. Croatia and Russia are assured of at least a playoff place after their respective results in Group H.

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HOCKEY

AHL will have 10 women officials this season

Ten female officials will work games in the American Hockey League this season, the highest level that women have reached in that position in professional hockey. Katie Guay on Saturday will become the first woman to referee an AHL game. Guay, fellow referees Kelly Cooke, Jacqueline Zee Howard, Laura White, Samantha Hiller, Elizabeth Mantha, and Amanda Tasson along with linespeople Kendall Hanley, Kirsten Welsh, and Alexandra Clarke are among 17 new AHL officials this season. “It’s been on our radar for a while now,” AHL president and CEO Scott Howson told The Associated Press by phone . “They’ve got good experience. Whether it’s Olympics, college hockey — both men’s and women’s — they’ve done some NHL prospect tournaments. It’s just time now for them to graduate into a higher level of pro hockey.” Many of the women participated in officiating combines run by the NHL and AHL in recent years. Guay, Cooke, Welsh and Hanley were also selected to work NHL prospect tournaments in 2019.

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Kraken to have 5 under COVID protocol for opener

The Seattle Kraken are expected to be without five players for the season opener at Vegas due to COVID-19 protocols, coach Dave Hakstol said. Forwards Jared McCann, Joonas Donskoi, and Marcus Johansson, and defenseman Jamie Oleksiak were placed on the league’s COVID-19 protocol list. Forward Calle Jarnkrok has been in the protocol since late last week. McCann, Oleksiak, Donskoi and Johansson were all missing from the final practice before the team departed for Las Vegas. Seattle general manager Ron Francis said at the start of training camp that the entire roster had been vaccinated. But it’s awful timing for the Kraken on the eve of the first game in franchise history ... The Chicago Blackhawks brought back Erik Gustafsson , agreeing to a one-year contract with the free-agent defenseman. Gustafsson was released by the New York Islanders on Sunday. The deal with Chicago is worth $800,000.

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MISCELLANY

Levi Jones named Indy Lights director

Levi Jones, a veteran sprint car driver and current USAC executive, was named director of the Indy Lights as the junior racing series readies for its transition to management by IndyCar. Indy Lights is already a feeder system to the top open-wheel series in the United States but had been independently operated. Lights is considered the final step on the “Road to Indy” ladder and the champion each year earns a $1.3 million scholarship to use toward funding a seat in the Indianapolis 500 and other IndyCar races. IndyCar will absorb Indy Lights and act as promoter and sanctioning body of the series beginning Nov. 1 ... One of Jimmy Pitaro’s top objectives when he became ESPN president was to get the National Hockey League back on the network. On Tuesday night, Pitaro’s goal will be realized. Besides the Seattle Kraken’s first game, the return of hockey to ESPN and the addition of Turner Sports are among the main storylines when the regular season begins this week. ESPN and Turner replace NBC, which was the league’s broadcaster since 2005.

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