This story originally appeared in Sunday Basketball Notes.
Interest in the WNBA, especially with television coverage, has been soaring. And this year’s Finals featured two of the league’s top stars in their prime in Las Vegas forward A’ja Wilson and Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, the last two league MVPs.
With mainstays Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retiring, the league will have to sell its next class of stars, hoping players such as Wilson, Jones, Seattle’s Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, and Atlanta’s Rhyne Howard emerge over the coming years. The league also needs an infusion of talent after a couple of disappointing rookie classes.
“Building rivalries and household names has been an important part of where I studied prior leagues and their rise into really valuable sports media and entertainment properties,” commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in an interview with The IX. “I think what we have going on right now is kind of a change of the guard with Sue and Sylvia and others retiring this year. But handing off to, and there was no better series to show that rivalry building than Seattle and Vegas with the changing of the guard to a Sylvia, a Kelsey [Plum] and [Stewart].”
Engelbert is promising the league will invest more in promoting players. Bird leaves a huge void because she played so long, also with Team USA, and was wildly popular. All-time greats Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi appear close to retirement. The next generation needs to emerge.
“That is part what we want to happen obviously organically, but also we are doubling our marketing budget to market more around these rivalries and make sure we are putting front and center with our [advertising] partners, that we are putting front and center these athletes that Americans are seeing them more and globally they are more recognized,” Engelbert said.
“We are getting there, and that’s certainly a big part of the strategy.”
The prospect of expansion keeps coming up, especially with how difficult it has become for quality college players to make WNBA rosters. And there are cities such as Oakland and Toronto that would love to have a team. Boston would be a possibility if an ownership group emerges.
Engelbert said the league is looking at market size, potential fan base, NCAA popularity, and whether there is a viable venue. The days of playing in cavernous NBA arenas and losing money appear to be done.
“So we’re not in any rush as I say, coming off two kind of tough COVID years for ownership,” Engelbert said. “We want to make sure the new ownership group is set up for success. So we will announce it when it’s right, when we have reached agreements with different ownership groups. But we continue to work hard on it, but it’s been a pretty intense season and we’ll work even harder in the offseason.”
There has been support for a return to Northern California. The Sacramento Monarchs were one of the league’s original teams before dissolving in 2009. With the success of the Stanford women’s program and Oakland seeking more professional sports after losing the NFL Raiders and NBA Warriors, it would seem a natural fit.
“I think I made it no secret coming into the league coming off of a large career at Deloitte with a large Bay Area practice, not to have a team in the Bay Area, whether it’s Oakland, San Francisco, or the Silicon Valley, didn’t seem right to me,” Engelbert said. “Certainly Bay Area generally, including Oakland or San Francisco, is certainly on our list, high on our list. If you think about if you’re running a data analysis which informs, you can find the right ownership groups, the psychographics, the demographics. The W is everywhere right now. But such a great market out there given women’s college basketball and very popular in the Bay Area. Yes, that’s definitely on the list.”
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.