November 12, 2023 

Locked On Women’s Basketball: Is WNBA expansion in jeopardy? The Portland Problem, Part 2

'Whatever it is, they're never gonna find ... a better market to expand to than Portland.'

Today’s episode of Locked On Women’s Basketball continues Friday’s discussion of WNBA expansion and how a the bid for team in Portland came undone. Host Jackie Powell is joined by longtime NBA reporter and author of The Rose Garden Report Sean Highkin, who has been following the WNBA Portland story since February.

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This time, the conversation began by addressing how former Nike CEO Phil Knight fits into the picture, and his influence on the basketball scene in Portland. Namely, why his name hasn’t come up in relation to a WNBA ownership bid.

“I don’t think [Knight] would really have a lot of interest in owning a WNBA team and being a tenant of the building that the Blazers own, when he’s also trying to buy the Blazers and they very publicly are not interested in selling specifically to him,” Highkin explained. “I get it. Obviously, he would be, in a lot of people’s minds, a dream owner for a lot of reasons because of how powerful he is and how big Nike is, and Nike has invested in the WNBA. But from that standpoint, just because of the dynamics between him and the current Blazers ownership, and [how] publicly a lot of that stuff has unfolded with his interest in buying the team, I just I don’t see that happening.”

The two also discussed the impact of commissioner Cathy Engelbert’s announcement that the WNBA Portland bid had folded, in particular, what might happen if local efforts to salvage the bid are successful.

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The conversation then turned to how the WNBA community has responded to the news, and what the impacts of having one incoming expansion team could be.

“The league has been expecting this large influx of money at around the year 2025, [from] a new media rights deal, in addition to expansion fees from potentially two teams,” Powell explained. “And so if the WNBA enters a situation where they’re not getting $100 million for expansion fees, that puts the league in a bit of a bind. Cathy Engelbert has been trying to gather up as much as she can bargain when it comes to a new CBA, [but] I don’t see any reason why WNBA players would want to let this agreement continue through 2027. I mean, they’re going to opt out. There have been too many discussions about how travel is not what it should be, charter flights, that issue could be solved with some of that money. So that is that is a definite concern, much more of a concern than an odd number of teams, to be quite honest.”

“To me, just watching this kind of from the outside and being tapped into it from the Portland side, I think the mistake that they made was not waiting until they had both teams 100% locked in before announcing it,” Highkin said. “About a month ago, they announced the Bay Area team, they had the whole press conference, and [Engelbert] said then, ‘Oh, we’re gonna add a second team for 2025, we bring it up to an even number.’ You should have had every single thing signed and finalized with Portland, before you even announce the Bay Area team.”

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“Maybe they were comfortable doing [that] because they thought that the Portland thing was just a formality to get done. Which to be fair, I thought it was a formality to get done. … But obviously, as we know, basically a done deal doesn’t mean actually a done deal. So now that this falls apart, your options are either: go into the 2025 season with only 13 teams, … that’s not ideal from a competitive standpoint, or you have to scramble to put a 14th team together just to have a 14th team and it’s not going to be in as much of a position to succeed as a Portland team would have been,” Highkin continued. “Whatever it is, they’re never gonna find … a better market to expand to than Portland, as far as checking all the boxes of what the level of fan interest would be, and the NBA team that owns the arena being totally supportive of there being a team playing.”

Jackie and Sean also covered the WNBA’s geographic spread, how a WNBA Portland team would help maintain balance in the league, and evaluated the WNBA’s overall expansion strategy. Make sure to tune in to part 1 of this episode to hear more about the history of the WNBA in Portland and the local perspective on the failed bid.

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