October 8, 2023 

Cathy Engelbert addresses expansion, media rights and Liberty-Aces WNBA Finals

The commissioner's annual pre-WNBA Finals address touched on a variety of topics.

When WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert took the stage for her annual pre-WNBA Finals press conference, she had a lot of reasons to be smiling.

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Engelbert spoke less than an hour before the tip-off of the highly-anticipated championship series between the league’s two “superteams” in the defending champion Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty. The game — which Las Vegas won 99-82 — came three days after the league announced it was expanding, with San Francisco becoming the home city for a 13th team.

But Engelbert emphasized her previous statements on Sunday, saying that, “The goal is to add a second one or [become] a 14-team [league] by 2025.”

On Thursday, Howard Megdal of The Next reported that Portland, Oregon is expected to get the second expansion team. When asked about the potential 14th team, Engelbert left her answer on the city and the timing of an announcement open-ended.

“We’re in discussions with various cities to be that 14th team, hoping to have something by the end of the year,” Engelbert added.

The expansion happening in 2025 will come in the final season of the WNBA’s longtime media deal with ESPN. On Saturday, Sportico reported that the NWSL has agreed to its new media deal with four entities to broadcast the women’s soccer league, which could be used as a barometer for Engelbert and the WNBA.

“I think obviously a rising tide lifts all boats. We want women’s sports to rise together. We obviously think we have a really compelling narrative for media companies to carry the WNBA and our product on their networks or streaming,” Engelbert said. “Obviously with all the disruption, there’s going to be some combination of both. While we compare notes here and there with other women’s sports leagues. We’re really focused on the WNBA and getting all of our quantitative and qualitative metrics in line as we get into the next media negotiation for us.”

There were plenty of metrics for Engelbert to use to show the league’s growth. The WNBA set new records for viewership, attendance, and social media engagement during the regular season.

“The goal is to keep growing the business and building the league to grow this legacy of these players and for the next generation of players,” Engelbert said. “In the country’s longest-standing most tenured professional women’s professional sports league. So as we move into the next season [and] in the future, we’re also focused on globalizing the game, how the media landscape is shifting, what content is interesting to our fans, and in what format, short form, long form, how are younger fans consuming our content? And that’s just the hard to give everyone in the league’s ecosystem.”

Engelbert also believes that the WNBA Finals between the Liberty and Aces could be the start of a major rivalry that helps grow the league, in the same way that the Lakers-Celtics rivalry helped grow the NBA.

Put on the map by that big rivalry where now there’s documentaries and shows about Larry Bird and Magic Johnson coming out of the college game into the pros. There are some similarities here,” Engelbert said. “There are some similarities in building our household names in A’ja Wilson and Stewie [Breanna Stewart], and a lot of other players on both teams, by the way. It’s not just A’ja and Stewie. They just happened to compete in the MVP race this year along with Alyssa Thomas. Yeah, it’s a great thing that’s going on right now.”

Engelbert also addressed each team in the Finals specifically. For New York, which is making its first WNBA Finals appearance since 2002, she praised Clara Wu and Joe Tsai’s ownership group for investing in the Liberty franchise since the Tsais bought the team in 2019.

“I knew it would take a few years; they’ve done even better than I thought, but it was important that a player’s got to play at Barclays, and they got treated with a quality from that perspective,” Engelbert said. “I think they’ve done a great job and come a long way and designed free agents, three top free agents in Stewie, [Jonquel Jones], and [Courtney Vandersloot] this year to go with the [Betnijah Laney] to bring in the rest of their supporting crew, which is why they’re here in the WNBA finals. It’s a great story about investing and building a roster that will compete for a championship.”

Meanwhile, on the other side, the Aces are looking to become the first team since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02 to win back-to-back WNBA championships. Engelbert discussed the sports culture being developed in Las Vegas since the Aces moved to town in 2018.

“I think Las Vegas is such an important market,” Engelbert said. “I mean, it’s kind of a sports capital and entertainment capital. And there wasn’t a professional basketball team here. And so the Aces is kind of led as a first ever to win a professional championship here in the city of Las Vegas. And then, the Golden Knights followed that and so and I’m sure Mark Davis is hoping the Raiders will follow that but, really thrilled with the fan base that has been built here, the ability to put that team on the court a few years ago when they moved, and really just grow into the superstars that they are today through both draft and free agency.”

The Liberty and Aces will play Game 2 of the WNBA Finals on Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. The series will shift to New York from there, with Game 3 set for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Sunday, Oct. 15 at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.

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Written by Aya Abdeen

Aya Abdeen is a student in sports journalism at Arizona State University and has been a contributing writer for The Next since December 2022. She is also a sports reporter for the Sun Devils’ women’s basketball team for The State Press. Her work has also appeared on AZPreps365.

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