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WNBA expansion headed for 16 teams. Portland, Toronto and Philly are options

NEW YORK — The WNBA is looking to continue growing in the next few years. The league intends to reach 16 teams by 2028, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said before the draft, confirming The Athletic report from earlier Monday.

The league announced earlier this year that the Bay Area would receive an expansion team for a 13th league franchise, which is expected to start playing the 2025 season. The WNBA is looking at the 2026 season for its 14th team, Engelbert said. She named Philadelphia; Toronto; Portland, Ore.; Denver; Nashville, Tenn.; and South Florida as places the league is exploring as options. Charlotte, N.C., is also in consideration for the next team, sources with knowledge of the league’s plans told The Athletic.

“We’re talking to a lot of different cities,” Engelbert said. “I think I’ve thrown out names before. It’s complex because you need an arena and a practice facility and player housing and all the things, you need committed long-term ownership groups. The nice thing is we’re getting a lot of calls.”

The WNBA was close to bringing a team to Portland. The city was in strong consideration this fall, but those plans fell through during talks with the prospective ownership group.

Engelbert didn’t put a timeline on when the league would decide on its next city and ownership group. “These can either take a very long time to negotiate or can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation,” she said.

Engelbert added that 2026 “is definitely our goal,” but clarified it could be within a year or two of that for adding a team. She said she felt confident naming 2028 as an endpoint for having 16 teams.

The next few years will be momentous for the league. Its current TV deals with ESPN, CBS, Amazon and Ion run out after the 2025 season, and the WNBA is already drawing interest in its next media rights deal. Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns TNT Sports, has shown interest in acquiring WNBA rights, according to a person with knowledge of the talks.

The timing of the next team has added importance because expansion and the next media deal are intertwined. By adding more teams, the WNBA would be able to reach more television markets and play more games, giving its media partners more inventory.

That has put the new rights deal top of mind for Engelbert, and it will hold sway on the league’s direction and health for years to come. But the league could be well positioned going into talks with Caitlin Clark’s entering the WNBA this season along with college stars like Angel Reese, Cameron Brink and Kamilla Cardoso in what it hopes is a draft class that can help the league continue its ascent and bring some of the television viewership increases along.

“This is an important year for us around viewership, around attendance, around all the qualitative and quantitative factors that go into the valuation of media rights,” she said. “Because as I’ve said to my team, there’s not a day that we’re not — if we’re not working on things that feed into the valuation of our next media rights, we’re not focused on the right things. This is a really important focus for us.”

She also said the league will likely hold its expansion draft for the Bay Area team in December, after the season but before the next WNBA Draft.

(Photo of Cathy Engelbert: John Nacion / Sportico via Getty Images)

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