WNBA Confidential: Which city would be best fit for expansion? GMs anonymously weigh in

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WNBA Confidential: Which city would be best fit for expansion? GMs anonymously weigh in


The first part of our WNBA general managers anonymous survey focused on questions related to players and coaches in and around the league. But GMs are also forced to understand far more than just the makeup of their own team. Part 2 of our survey dives into a number of league-wide topics, including expansion, rule changes and a potential new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

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The Athletic surveyed the league’s general managers, who are most often the top basketball executives on their teams, to get their thoughts on various matters. All 12 general managers were asked to participate in the exercise while being granted anonymity so that they could speak freely, and nine took part. Of those, some declined to answer specific questions, but this is still a comprehensive look at how the league’s foremost decision-makers think about the present and future of the WNBA.

When exactly the WNBA will expand into more than 12 markets remains in question, but there was some consensus that the league should expand to another market on the West Coast. (The Athletic asked this question before our reporting that the Golden State Warriors are close to bringing a WNBA franchise to the Bay Area.)

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It should be noted that general managers were asked for one city, but some discussed up to three in their response. One of the general managers who mentioned multiple cities noted it would be important for the league to add another East Coast and West Coast team “to have our conferences stay even.”

Bay Area

“It’d be an automatic fan base from Day 1.”

“They’re all in.”

Portland

“That city supports women’s basketball, and the natural rivalry between Portland and Seattle would be fantastic.”

“The infrastructure is there and the fan base is – they’ve been pleading, give us a team.”

Toronto

“I’m very intrigued by Toronto, to have all of Canada supporting that team.”

Philadelphia

“Big media market. Long-time basketball city. I think that would be a great place for our people.”

This was one of the questions in our GM survey that we also asked players throughout the season. Though the answers are not mutually exclusive (there’s no reason league expansion couldn’t come with increased rosters), a majority of general managers, much like the majority of players, hoped to see rosters increase.

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Add roster spots

“I think our time would be best spent expanding roster size in the most immediate, just because fiscally, it’s not as big of an impact league-wide. … Just have this pool of talent that we have in the system already that we can pull from, even if someone comes down with the flu and you know it’s not gonna be super long-term, but you just have them at your fingertips. I think that would be the most fruitful.”

“Maybe those last two — if rosters expand from 12 to 14 players — are unique in that we only travel 12. Those are developmental players. Some are in, some are out. But we’ve got some backups there so that we don’t have to go grab somebody when somebody gets hurt.”

“I think having 11 players is just sometimes tough. … The hardest thing is you have the team for four, five months, so you try and establish a culture and all of a sudden you lose two or three players and you have to sign somebody for that. And those players are only there for practice purposes, not most of them for playing purposes. So it affects culture. … I think quality goes down.”

Expansion

“I think to continue to grow our league and have a national presence, we need to be in more markets and be more relevant to more people locally.”

“I just think we need to be able to grow the eyeballs on this league in order to get all these things that all of us want for the players.”

Both

“The WNBA does need at least two more teams. The women’s basketball world and country is ready for more. It would bolster the excitement that the W is creating right now. More roster spots, even if it is allowing two-(to)-three players as practice/reserve players would be welcomed. That way when injuries occur, you have players who know the system and can step in seamlessly.”

“Both have value, apples and oranges. A portion of expansion fees should be distributed to teams to expand rosters, (and the) cap to address hardship (and) IR issues and also allow for younger talent, player development investment.”

 

What should be prioritized in the next CBA negotiations

As the individuals whose work is most directly impacted by the collective bargaining agreement, it made sense to ask general managers what they’d like to see updated in the next document. The current CBA runs through 2027, but there is a potential early opt-out in 2025, so negotiations could be on the horizon in the next two years. Per WNBPA first vice president Kelsey Plum, the players association is already surveying its constituents for their priorities in the next agreement.

Travel

General managers had a wide set of ideas about what needs to be addressed during the next round of bargaining, but the one topic that came up from four individuals was travel, and the issue of charter flights. The league currently prohibits teams from flying on private charters, but with a 40-game season on the docket in 2024 during an Olympic year, a greater impetus will be placed on travel conditions. As one general manager put it: “This will be pretty in our face next year with the Olympics and having a condensed schedule, but prioritizing player health and the travel.” Another general manager expressed a similar sentiment regarding player safety as it relates to travel and other issues, saying the goal of the next CBA should be “reinforcing player health and safety as the primary lens through which all policies and guidelines are filtered.”

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Soft cap

Another item of interest in the upcoming CBA that two executives mentioned was moving to a soft cap instead of the current hard cap, giving teams greater financial flexibility and freedom to spend. This would make trades easier to facilitate during the regular season. Given that most teams are at or above the cap at the trade deadline, one general manager proposed a massaging of the trade rules so teams could exchange players whose contracts were within 10 to 20 percent of each other rather than an exact match.

Maternity exceptions, visibility, expanding rosters

Expanding roster sizes as well as refining the nuances of hardship and maternity exceptions was also mentioned. Finally, two general managers prioritized visibility of the WNBA on national platforms. “Right at the top of my list is visibility, the TV visibility,” one said. “There needs to be a WNBA game, or two, on every night just like in college.” Another echoed the importance of visibility being the first step toward making greater gains. “Getting exposure that our players deserve on a national scale, with more TV games,” the GM said. “I think that’s the biggest thing and everything else will follow.”

What rule needs to be changed or re-evaluated before next season?

Challenge rule / reviews

Five general managers interviewed for this survey hope to see changes either with the league’s challenge rule or official review protocols. One of them, who struggled to separate the two from each other, noted that the broad hope is to help foster accuracy with officials’ calls late in games. Multiple GMs want more challenges. “Why don’t you get one per half?” one general manager asked. Another suggested a team should retain a timeout if it wins a challenge, and a third GM raised the idea of a time limit being put into place regarding official reviews. A number of coaches, for what it’s worth, also have strong opinions regarding such situations and hoping for changes to the challenge rule.

Charter rules / roster increases

One general manager was hoping to see charter rules changed, with team owners, specifically, being given the option to fly their team charter if they want to pay for it. Another suggested expanding roster sizes, echoing some of the reasons mentioned above.

Editor’s note: The WNBA Confidential series is part of a partnership with Michelob ULTRA. The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos of skylines and Cathy Engelbert: Sarah Stier / Getty Images; iStock)





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