February 17, 2024 

WNBA will have 13 teams in 2025, says commissioner Cathy Engelbert

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert discussed a wide variety of topics at NBA All-Star weekend.

INDIANAPOLIS — NBA All-Star weekend is a valuable time for the WNBA to expand its reach and pull off some valuable marketing. Since 2016, only four of the nine events hosted by the NBA have been in a city where a WNBA team resides. This year, with the festivities in the land of the Indiana Fever, commissioner Cathy Engelbert has a lot she wants to accomplish.

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“It’s extra special because we do have a W team here and we can activate in a different way. And our players — we had a couple of Indiana Fever players last night at one of the receptions I went to — you probably wouldn’t have that if we didn’t have a W team in the city where we were,” Engelbert said to The Next and The Indianapolis Star. She spoke to reporters Thursday morning in several different settings in the Indianapolis Convention Center. “[In] Salt Lake, we didn’t have a team last year. So yeah, I think it’s extra special.”

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The WNBA is everywhere in Indianapolis this week. A’ja Wilson was a coach in the celebrity game last night, multiple star players are coming to the NBA Crossover events in the coming days — where there is a special WNBA draft event for fans. Sabrina Ionescu is facing off with Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors in a special three-point contest. It’s a significant weekend for the league and its growth.

Speaking of the league and its advancement, there were plenty of questions for Engelbert about the state of the WNBA, the upcoming expansion, the timing of key events, and other changes coming to the association in the immediate future. With the league and the NCAA game rising rapidly in popularity, this is a key time in the WNBA’s development.

“It’s like a positive perfect storm of all these great things going on driving more corporate partners to step up more value valuation,” the commissioner said.

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A key part of the league’s growth is that it is quite literally growing in size — though perhaps not as big as expected. The league announced last October that Golden State has been awarded a WNBA team that will begin playing games in 2025, meaning there will be 13 teams for that season. Engelbert said before Game 1 of the 2023 WNBA Finals that the league’s goal was to add a second expansion team for 2025, bringing the league to 14 teams. Now, that won’t happen for this year.

“[There will be] 13 in 2025,” Engelbert said, referring to the number of teams in the league. “And then hopefully ’26, ’27 to get to a few more. Our goal hasn’t been made a secret, our goal is to get to sixteen, so three more in that timeframe. ’26, ’27 I’d say,” she added, noting that the offseason is a strategic time for things like this.

It was achingly close to being 14 teams. Portland’s expansion bid had reached the WNBA Board of Governors level, but things fell apart late in the process due to the league’s issues with Moda Center renovations — though Bill Oram of The Oregonian reported back in November that the renovation plans had been “well known for months.” As for the rationale behind why the league backed out in Portland, Engelbert implied that the ownership situation in the Pacific Northwest played a role.

“There’s definitely more to it. There’s always more to it. It’s never one thing. I still think it would be a great city for a W team. It’s still on the list,” Engelbert told The Next and The Indianapolis Star. “But you have to find the right long-term committed ownership groups with the right arena situation. And you know, I think the city and state and some of the government officials are still fired up about bringing a W team there, and now it’s about finding the right ownership group.”

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It’s not a surprise that the league will stick with 13 teams for 2025, at this point — after all, Engelbert herself has previously said on multiple occasions that an expansion team needs at least 18 months to get up and running, including to ESPN in December. Still, Engelbert had been leaving the possibility of the 14th team joining in 2025 open up until her comments on Saturday.

Engelbert stressed that the league is talking actively to eight cities as possible locations, but it has to be the right combination of ownership groups, arena situations, practice facilities, and player experience. The league hopes that players will be attracted to any market they add given the free agency implications.

The first step for the Bay Area squad being added next year will be an expansion draft, which will be followed by the 2025 WNBA Draft itself. Engelbert said the league would be studying their last expansion draft and team addition — the Atlanta Dream played their first season in 2008 — and make tweaks given the current reality of the WNBA.

The timeline for everything is fluid, but the expansion draft is currently planned to be late in 2024. “We’re excited to run an Expansion Draft later this year. That will be late this year,” Engelbert said. “And then that’ll lead into the college draft next year. So we’ll be finalizing all of that over the season, I’ll say.”

Once all that is complete, the league will be bigger once again. For the 2025 season, there will be more than 12 teams operating for the first time since the 2009 campaign.

WNBA Draft event 2024 NBA All-Star weekend
The WNBA Draft event for fans at the NBA Crossover during 2024 NBA All-Star weekend. (Photo Credit: Tony East)

So, for now, the league stands at 12 with a 13th group coming. If the league is going to reach 16 teams by 2026, three franchises would have to be added in the next 22 months.

The growth and changes coming to the WNBA don’t stop there. Engelbert shared that the league is excited about some of the marketing opportunities that will come in 2024 as a result of the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics. Team USA has a chance to earn an eighth-straight gold medal — the last Olympics the red, white, and blue fell short of gold was in 1992 when they finished in third.

There are also changes coming to the Commissioner’s Cup, which was announced in December. The new format will push the Cup games together in early June, where each team will play against the other five teams in its conference. The title game will be on June 25th this season.

“We’re excited to have that a little more compact and a little more meaningful and a bunch of games of consequence in there,” Engelbert said. She took some inspiration from the NBA’s new In-Season Tournament, which ironically took some initial inspiration from the Commissioner’s Cup itself.

“I did like the compactness of theirs,” she said. “We obviously talked with them… and kind of refined it,” she added. Engelbert explained that a factor in the format change as it relates to the NBA’s event was that they liked the lower percentage of a team’s total games in a season that were cup games on the men’s side. “That was probably the thing that compelled me to make [the Commissioner’s Cup] a little more compact, a little more meaningful for the teams to put on an arena, and we can do a few more things with it.”

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The league also has a new Collective Bargaining Agreement coming within the next few years, which likely ties in with some of their expansion timing. The last CBA was agreed on by the WNBA and the WNBPA in 2020, but an opt-out is expected to be exercised later this year — something Engelbert sounds likes she’s already planning for.

“We continue our relationship. I have calls with them in the offseason, obviously we meet at tentpole events like our All-Star and here. Nothing to report other than I’m sure they’re [the WNBPA] evaluating,” Engelbert said of the current CBA situation. “Obviously, we’re thrilled that we have this confluence of positivity coming in, and I’m sure it will be this time next year starting to negotiate what it looks like [20]26 and beyond.”

It’s a key time for the league right now, with women’s basketball exploding in popularity. Engelbert has a lot to consider and try to get right in the coming years as the WNBA grows, and some of that is evolving here at NBA All-Star weekend in Indianapolis.

Written by Tony East

Indiana Fever reporter based in Indianapolis. Enjoy a good statistical-based argument.

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