It’s been the question in every WNBA fan’s head for the last few years — WHEN is the league going to expand? The WNBA has experienced exponential growth over the past handful of years. From television viewership, to ticket sales, to social media engagement, everything is looking up in WNBA world.
Currently, there are 12 WNBA teams. All are in the United States, but still, there are many unserved regions of the USA that are looking to bring a WNBA franchise home. One of the most talked about markets with high expansion potential is NOT in America — Toronto.
The Toronto WNBA hype has been around for many years, but it’s really ramped up in 2023. It started with the announcement of the WNBA Canada exhibition game in May, when the Chicago Sky and Minnesota Lynx came to play in Toronto. The excitement for the WNBA was REAL that weekend, and many realized Toronto had an actual case to be able to support a WNBA franchise long term.
Since then, the pressure on the WNBA to announce expansion has increased. It seems like WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert can’t go anywhere without being asked when the league plans to announce expansion.
Here’s what we know:
The WNBA’s stance on expansion
We all know Commissioner Engelbert is a media trained queen. She knows how to answer a question without really giving a full answer. When asked about WNBA expansion, Cathy has been giving the same answer all season. The league is analyzing data to see which cities would be the best hosts for teams — they want to prove that long time support would be there.
There are about 10 cities on a short list that the WNBA is considering for expansion. Toronto seems to be one of them. The league (and Cathy) have mentioned possibly making an announcement “this year” about expansion, but they also said that last year and then backtracked, so... we’ll see.
All we know is that we really don’t know much. The league seems to be looking into it, but they don’t seem to be dropping anymore hints.
There are also a lot of barriers to think about when you think about expansion — especially when you talk about adding an international team into the mix:
The Flights Dilemma
As it currently stands, most of the travel that WNBA players do during the season is commercial/public transit. They fly regular coach in regular planes with all the regular people of the world with all of the regular delays that happen daily.
This has been a huge talking point in the WNBA for the past few seasons, as players have started speaking up about how unfair it is that they, as professional athletes, have to fly commercial. They often get delayed, which causes them to miss out on rest before games. They are all very tall, which makes flying on commercial airlines quite uncomfortable. There is also the issue of safety, as WNBA players grow in popularity and public awareness — people recognize them in airports and there have been instances of harassment for teams this season.
The New York Liberty had a 13-hour travel day that included bus rides, commercial flights and time spent at three airports to get from Connecticut to Las Vegas.— AP Sports (@AP_Sports) July 5, 2023
The wear-and-tear on their bodies is one reason players are lobbying for charter flights. https://t.co/Qt2gCWxSso pic.twitter.com/xwXsGC2mVS
There are a few exceptions to the commercial flights rule. For example, New York and Connecticut will usually bus when they play each other, since those two markets are literally next to each other. In the 2023 season, the WNBA also allowed for teams to charter flights when they had back to back games on their schedule (when they play one day in a city and then have a game the next day in another city). The WNBA also announced that all playoff flights this season would be chartered — though they were put under scrutiny a few weeks ago when they announced some tweaks to that promise.
Players, teams, and executives have been trying to do something about the flights dilemma for a few years. New York Liberty owner Joe Tsai was fined $500,000 by the league a few seasons ago for getting a charter for his team on a back to back game before the rule was imposed — the league cited it was “unfair advantage.” Then Tsai tried to gather sponsorship support so that the league could have chartered flights, but the WNBA refused that as well, still citing unfair advantage.
The WNBA fined the New York Liberty a league-record $500,000 for taking chartered flights last season against CBA rules, per @SInow.— Front Office Sports (@FOS) March 1, 2022
Other possible remedies included:
➖ Suspending owners
➖"Losing every draft pick you've ever seen"
➖ Even "termination of the franchise" pic.twitter.com/b2yy3OUgfJ
This issue is going to be a hot topic in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the WNBA and and the Women’s National Basketball Players’ Association (WNBPA).
Regardless, it’s also a huge factor when it comes to expansion to Toronto.
With all 12 teams currently being in the USA, there is no need to go through customs or border patrol when travelling for games. You just go through security, get on the plane, and go — no passport needed. If the league were to expand to Canada, and commercial travel was still the norm, every team would have to go through customs every time they came to and from Toronto. Most of us have been to Pearson Airport — we know how big of an ask that is for professional athletes to have to do that multiple times a week.
It works for the NBA and the Toronto Raptors because every team has their own chartered plane. They go through private customs and border security and it is simple and efficient. The WNBA would need to fix the problem with league travel before launching an expansion team in Toronto, or the issue with in-season travel would only get worse.
Team Expansion vs Roster Expansion
There are many people inside the WNBA who think it is still too soon to think about Team Expansion and instead the league should expand the roster spot of current WNBA teams.
Right now, each team gets 12 roster spots, with a hard salary cap of $1,420,500. While in the NBA, teams can go slightly above the salary cap and into the luxury tax bracket, WNBA teams are strictly forbidden from going about their cap.
Due to this, many teams have started only signing 11 players in order to be able to pay more. This causes another huge problem — lack of access in the WNBA. It is an extremely hard league to find a place in, and most of the rookies who get drafted to teams in the league’s yearly WNBA draft don’t end up making rosters anyway. This causes another problem of lack of player development opportunity in a growing league. Many college players who are extremely talented and have successful careers in the NCAA can’t find a place in the WNBA.
There’s 144 roster spots in the #WNBA. Sometimes less than that when teams only carry 11 players. There’s over 50 players entering this year’s draft. That’s almost 200 players. That means over 50 players will not be on a roster this season. The WNBA needs expansion REAL soon..— Women’s Hoopz (@WBBWorldWide) April 3, 2021
Yet, you can’t ask the older veteran players to “hang it up” early just because of this. Why should they cut their career short just to try and fix a problem they did not create? It’s the league who needs to allow more spots for WNBA teams to be able to keep on more younger players. Many have suggested things like “practice team” spots for player development in order to develop young talent.
Another issue that comes with these small rosters and a hard salary cap is paying players what they deserve. In 2023, many teams ended up paying star players less in order to be able to sign all the players they wanted on their teams. Teams like the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty, who gathered “super team” rosters this year, paid players such as Breanna Stewart, Candace Parker and more way less money than they deserve. These players obviously agreed to it, for the benefit of the team, but there is no way a team’s best players should be taking substantial pay cuts in order to accommodate like this.
For all these reasons, many think the league needs to focus on roster expansion and raising the team salary cap before they think about adding more teams to the WNBA.
So does Toronto ACTUALLY have a chance?
When the topic of expansion comes up, Toronto seems to be top of mind for cities who deserve a team. There is obvious support here in terms of fans. The city has the facilities to support a team, and it seems like the WNBA would be welcomed here with open arms. Even players have enjoyed their time here in recent years.
While Toronto certainly deserves a team, it would be unfair to bring the WNBA and it’s players here until a few kinks in the system are corrected. The flights being the biggest wrinkle in expansion to Toronto hopes. Until the WNBA allows chartered flights all season long, travel to Toronto would be far too complicated.
The next chance for a new CBA is in 2025, when the WNBPA will have the option to opt-out of their agreement to negotiate a new one. It is basically a sure thing they will opt-out, with talks about chartered flights and salaries, television deals, and other issues being so frequently brought up in recent years. Plus, the WNBA and its popularity have grown so much since the last CBA, the players have more of an edge up now than ever.
So will the league expand before that? Will Toronto be included? It’s hard to tell. DOn’t expect to know too much more until an official announcement is made.
All we can do is keep supporting the WNBA in Canada and hope that those efforts push the league to make necessary changes. The WNBA would thrive in Canada and hopefully one day it will be a reality.