WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert believes expansion starts with teams, not rosters

“That’s where you build fandom, grow revenue, and that’s where all the players will benefit versus adding a roster spot here and there.”

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Over the first three weeks of the WNBA season, Cathy Engelbert has been on a league-wide tour, most recently making a stop in Chicago for the Sky’s championship banner and ring ceremony.

AP

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has made it clear that on hot-button topics such as league expansion and chartered flights, she’s on the side of financial stability.

Over the first three weeks of the season, Engelbert has been on a league-wide tour, most recently stopping in Chicago for the Sky’s championship banner and ring ceremony Tuesday — two weeks after it was reported the league is interested in adding two expansion teams over the next few years.

Engelbert said Tuesday this isn’t completely accurate.

“It could be just one expansion team,” she told reporters.

She hasn’t definitely given a timeline, only saying it has been great having conversations about the WNBA’s growth and that she’s hopeful there will be more to say this summer. But there’s no mistaking she believes expansion should involve adding new teams, not roster spots on existing ones.

“[New cities are] where you build fandom, grow revenue, and that’s where all the players will benefit versus adding a roster spot here and there,” she said.

Asked if roster expansion might still happen before the league’s collective-bargaining agreement expires in 2027, Engelbert noted that 24 roster spots would be available if the WNBA grew by two teams. However, nearly all of the current 12 teams are operating with 11 players, not a full 12. When the CBA was reached in 2020, maximum player salaries nearly doubled while the salary cap increased by just 30%, forcing general managers — many of whom are also coaches, like the Sky’s James Wade — to get creative in how they fill out their rosters while staying under a strict cap.

“I appreciate the players, but they know what they signed in the CBA,” Engelbert said. “Roster sizes were not on their list. Getting paid more was on their list.”

Roster expansion is certainly on their list now, with several WNBA stars publicly pushing for this change, including the Sky’s Candace Parker, who has expressed that the league — despite having fresh talent feeding in from the NCAA — won’t have enough names to fill out new expansion teams, given the impending retirements of a number of Hall of Fame-bound players.

Engelbert pointed to reduced individual playing time as another drawback of roster expansion, but players and coaches don’t see it that way.

“Honestly, I think we should do both,” veteran Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot said of adding new teams and expanding rosters. “I don’t think 12 [players] — which is really 11 players — is plausible. But if we’re at a position where they think we can expand and be successful, we should take advantage of that, too. Why is it so crazy to have 14 teams with 14 players on each roster?”

Engelbert is adamantly pushing what she believes is working for the WNBA coming off two seasons impacted by the pandemic, and that’s the economics. In February, the league announced a $75 million capital raise, the largest ever for a women’s sports property. That investment, according to Engelbert, has largely funded marketing efforts and improved digital products and fan outreach, all in an effort to increase revenue.

Ultimately, however, the players are the product driving the league’s revenue. And their opinions on expansion must be heeded.

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