October 5, 2023
Sights and sounds from WNBA expansion day at the Chase Center
'Right team, right place, right time'
SAN FRANCISCO — It’s safe to say that this moment of professional women’s basketball expansion, on center court at the Chase Center, with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert seated between San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Golden State Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber was years — maybe even decades — in the making.
But as Warriors team President Brandon Schneider said, “Right team, right place, right time.”
All was indeed right in San Francisco on Thursday morning as the WNBA announced the addition of its 13th franchise, which will be operated by the Golden State Warriors, one of the most valuable entities in professional sports and owners of four NBA titles since 2014.
The announcement was a who’s who of the women’s basketball universe with WNBA legends Sheryl Swoopes, Seimone Augustus and Ruthie Bolton, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, and the Bay Area women’s basketball scene with Cal coach Charmin Smith and her staff, and former Stanford All-Americans Jayne Appel, Jeanette Pohlen and Erica McCall.
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“We are getting a team in the Bay Area,” Lacob said. “For me, personally, this is a very, very exciting moment to fulfill a dream that I’ve always had for women’s basketball.”
The as-yet unnamed Bay Area franchise will begin play in the league in the 2025 season.
The WNBA may not be done with announcements. Englebert said that the league will announce a second expansion franchise that will join the league in time for the 2025 season. Howard Megdal at The Next reported Portland has already been discussed at the Board of Governors level.
Players will come to the Bay Area roster through both free-agent signings and an expansion draft following the 2024 season. So for now, without an identity or a roster, the Warriors will work to build excitement about the possibilities.
“We will get the players,” Lacob said. “And we will hire a great coach and meld this into a team. I don’t think it’s going to take a long time.”
The team will play its games at the four-year-old Chase Center, where Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green do their work in the winter and spring. And they will be headquartered in the team’s former practice facility in downtown Oakland, with practice facilities and offices. The geographic split will embed a Bay Area identity for the team and place the WNBA in the immediate vicinity of much of the Warriors’ community work.
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Putting a WNBA team has seemed like an inevitability for a long time, with both Englebert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver each mentioning the Bay Area in expansion discussions. Englebert confirmed that the league’s conversations with the Warriors predated the pandemic. Lacob tried purchase the Los Angeles Sparks in 2014, and said he has been waiting for the right time to make this move for at least that long.
“Over the last 18 months, we’ve held bid meetings with a handful of potential markets optimistic for this moment,” Englebert said. “We’ve used three consistent pillars when evaluating the data for an expansion team, a team in a city that provides a platform for deep and innovative fan engagement, has a clear path for stakeholder and franchise success, and adds value to the current WNBA content, media and entertainment footprint, and the San Francisco Bay Area has proven to meet the mark and well exceed the mark in each of those three areas.”
As reported by Sportico, the Warriors have paid approximately $50 million to get their long-wanted team, a figure that Englebert wouldn’t confirm but to call it “significant and record-breaking”.
At the time that Mark Davis purchased the Las Vegas Aces just two years ago, Front Office Sports estimated that a WNBA franchise was worth approximately $13 million. Davis reportedly paid the equivalent of $2 million.
Times, and valuations have changed very quickly, a testament to the growth of the market in women’s sports.
Englebert said that the addition of the Bay Area media market will add to the league’s value and position it better financially as it heads into another collective bargaining agreement with players in two years, assuming the players opt out, with big issues such as salaries, roster size and charter travel already on the to-do list.
“Ultimately, in sports, the reason that men get paid so much, that they get their travel taken care of, it’s the media money,” Englebert said. “We are really focused on that funding to fix what we, and what I want for the players.”
The Warriors were not the only interested party. AASEG, a group that was fronted by former WNBA player Alana Beard, ultimately did not submit a bid for the team despite public pronouncements in the spring that they would pursue a franchise for Oakland, according to Engelbert.
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In the end, it was hard to deny the Warriors’ ability to run a championship-level franchise.
Lacob, a former Stanford women’s basketball season-ticket holder, was a founding owner in the American Basketball League, which ramped up quickly after the 1996 Olympics and signed 11 members of the U.S. National team. Lacob owned the San Jose Lasers and said he lost “a lot of money” when the ABL folded less than two years later after the WNBA arrived on the scene.
This investment, he said, is much less risky and rewards for expansion will likely be high, particularly for Bay Area sports fans.
“This has always been on my list,” Lacob said. “If you know anything about me, I have things on my list and this is one of them. I’ve wanted to do this and it hurt me not to be able to do this sooner for our fans of women’s basketball in the Bay. Our fans totally deserve a team.
“We are ready, the state of women’s basketball and women’s sports is ready. It’s really ascending.”
Swoopes joked that she just might move to California and suit up again.
“If I could come out of retirement, I would,” Swoopes said. “To me, it makes sense. It’s just so exciting to hear expansion. We’ve been talking about it and talking about it and for it to actually happen, my first thought is more jobs and more opportunities.”
Jennifer Azzi played for Lacob’s Lasers back in the late ’90s. She worked for the Warriors organization as recently as two years ago when she moved to Las Vegas to take a front-office position with the Aces.
“This has been a long time coming,” Azzi said. “I spent a lot of time talking with the Warriors folks about what it might look like to have a team. I think this shows the strength of the league and the kind of things that are possible when you invest in the WNBA.”
Women’s Sports Foundation CEO Danette Leighton, who worked for the Sacramento Monarchs back in the league’s early days, said she thinks this expansion shows that women’s sports – not just the WNBA – is now “smart business.”
“The momentum is real,” Leighton said. “After 50 years of Title IX, we are finally seeing the fruits of our labor. We have great fan bases, attendance, investment, sponsorships. We have been waiting for this for a long time, but in reality, this is very smart business.”
“With the Warriors, we have ownership that is doing it not just because they care, but because they see it as a smart business decision.”
But make no mistake, Lacob wants to win and he wants to win quickly. So he made the same pledge he made when he purchased the Warriors back in 2010.
“We will win a championship in the first five years,” Lacob said.
The Warriors won their first title under Lacob four years later.
Written by Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.