A Tale of Two Leagues: Expansion Plans for NWSL, Silence on the Topic from the WNBA

By: Casey Dobson
Posted: June 18, 2021

Image courtesy of lastwordonsports.com

With women’s sports riding an unprecedented wave of growth it’s unsurprising that the topic of expansion is on everyone’s minds and all over the timeline. If you’re a business or investor, it simply makes good sense to get into the women’s sports game because women’s sports can do one thing that men’s sports can’t; get bigger. So, if the fan interest is there and the money could be easily brought in, what’s the roadblock?

The easiest way to answer this is to look at the two dominant women’s leagues in North America, the WNBA and NWSL and their approaches and history with expansion, or lack thereof. The former has been a league of 12 since 2010 while the latter saw their tenth team come in this season, with two more on the docket for 2022. 

How did we get here?

NWSL’s 11th Team: Los Angeles

The NWSL made waves last year when they announced they would be bringing women’s pro-soccer to LA and showed us who they would be doing it with. The LA team, named Angel City FC, were backed by the largest female ownership group in US sports history, boasting names from the sports world like Abby Wambach, Serena Williams, Candace Parker, Lindsey Vonn, and Mia Hamm, just to name a handful. On top of the world class athletes, Angel City FC was also being brought to life in part by some of Hollywood’s biggest A-list celebrities like Natalie Portman. 

League commissioner Lisa Baird has always been vocal about the cautionary approach the NWSL takes to expansion, saying that “the growth trajectory is incredibly exciting, but we need to be strategic and thoughtful about how fast we expand and the communities we partner with.”

So why bring the action to LA? Baird acknowledged a large part of the decision was the league fanbase that already exists in the area and the massive general interest in women’s soccer. And when you’ve got an ownership group like the one club president Julie Urhman was able to pull together, you’d be hard pressed to turn away the opportunity. 

NWSL’s 12th Team: San Diego

Earlier this month, the league caught many off guard when they announced that their twelfth club would compete out of San Diego, also starting in 2022. The league had actually already made the announcement of the twelfth franchise but it had originally been given to Sacramento. The ownership group behind the club had put forward a request for a change in territory rights back in April. 

Given how selective the NWSL has been in allowing new groups to join, it was surprising to see an expansion side essentially relocate before having kicked a ball. But Baird was honest in saying that “growth has to be done thoughtfully and deliberately. That’s exactly what we’ve done here. San Diego NWSL has all the hallmarks of a successful expansion club: a committed ownership group with the resources required to invest in the success of our league and our players, in a community full of soccer players and fans, in a region that has been underrepresented in our league. I can’t wait to watch it all come together.”

With the relocation announcement came the news that the club had hired two-time Women’s World Cup winning coach, Jill Ellis as their president. Ellis, who had admitted to being unsure of where her future in the sport lay after she left the USWNT program, made a statement indicating she aims to hire a female head coach as well as an all-female executive staff. Former Manchester United women’s coach and England national star, Casey Stoney, has been linked to the bench boss job but Ellis would not confirm the rumours. 

A crucial element to the future success of both southern California expansion sides is the passion of the fans that has been in place long before the arrival of the club. Even Commissioner Baird illuminated that fact when speaking about the choice of cities, making it seem potentially more important than any other element. So, if passion can drive soccer expansion, why is a different story being written in basketball?

The WNBA

The fan consensus is there for WNBA expansion which is what makes it so head-scratchingly confusing that there hasn’t been any growth in the last few years. And the truth of the matter is that there is no real, concrete, agreed-upon reason for this. 

Every analyst and expert has their own hypothesis for the league’s reticence, but it isn’t like commissioner Cathy Engelbert is letting anyone in on those discussions. “Expansion is certainly on the list of things I’ve been thinking about down the road,” said Engelbert on a media call, “it is interesting to note how competitive and how deep the talent in this league is and so it’s certainly something that as we come out of this pandemic, hopefully next year, that we’ll prepare to start talking about it.

She hit the nail on the head by pointing out that the talent is there, and that’s why so many people are calling for expansion. Beyond expanding the league to solve this problem, many have floated the idea of roster expansion, but that seems like an even more distant dream. “I think that roster expansion is probably further down the road in the next CBA” admitted Engelbert. She followed up by reiterating the intention to start the conversation on expansion “in the next couple years, We’ll be talking about the different cities where we think the WNBA could thrive.”

Should these new NWSL teams pan out the way they are currently tracking to, both from an ownership financial and league perspective, that should show the WNBA that expansion isn’t some dark and foreboding distant future, but the next logical step for the ever growing industry of women’s sports.

For more NWSL coverage from Venus Sports, click here.

For more soccer thoughts and opinions, check out Casey’s author page or Twitter.

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