Evanson: WNBA to Portland? You can certainly make the argument
Fans of the women's game of basketball have been asking that question of late in regards to WNBA expansion.
And "why not Portland?" is the natural follow-up for those same fans in and around the Portland Metropolitan area that thirst for an even higher level of the women's game they follow so closely at both the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, two of the country's better college programs.
But while the league itself recently put the brakes on expansion, at least in the near future, beyond that such appears inevitable, and more than a handful of cities are lining up for the rights to be a part of that development.
On paper, Portland seems like a natural fit. After-all, they have a historically popular and relatively successful NBA franchise to lean on, along with a Trail Blazers fanbase to tap into. They also have the National Women's Soccer League's Thorns, who according to many—including the New York Times—built the "blue-print for women's sports success" since being established in 2012.
The franchise has done more than its share of winning on the pitch during its nine seasons, earning two NWSL Shields (the league's award for earning the most regular season points), two league championships, and a Challenge Cup, which pits the league's 12 teams against one another in a annual tournament. Additionally, off the pitch, the Thorns have had the highest average attendance in the league in each of their first seven seasons and set a league attendance record of 25,218 at an August 11, 2019 match against the North Carolina Courage. Proving the city and its surrounding areas are more than willing to support the burgeoning women's professional sports scene.
That's the upside. The downside is that while success may seem imminent based on tangential prognostications, opponents of putting a WNBA team in the Rose City have direct failure to point to.
Portland had a WNBA franchise. The Fire were introduced prior to the 2000 season and entered the league along with the Seattle Storm. But while the Storm has become one of the WNBA's most successful franchises, bringing four titles to the city of Seattle, the Fire managed to last just three seasons, recording just 37 wins and are one of only two WNBA franchises never to have qualified for the postseason.
So, there's that. But the landscape has changed over the two decades since the Fire was extinguished, and one needn't point beyond Corvallis and Eugene to prove just that.
The Oregon State Beavers' women's team has won three Pac-12 titles in the last seven seasons, has secured seven NCAA Tournament bids in the last eight, and played its way to the Final Four in 2016.
Meanwhile, in Eugene, the Oregon Ducks' women's team won Pac-12 regualar season titles in each of the 2018, 2019, and 2020 seasons, earned a Final Four berth in 2019, and were many people's favorites to win the NCAA title before the 2020 postseason was cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Furthermore, the University of Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu was the overall number-one pick in the 2020 WNBA draft and presently leads WNBA players in jersey sales. During Ionescu's time at Oregon, average attendance at women's games rose from 2,595 during her freshman year, to 10,852 during her senior campaign.
Those local ties, and the success that's come with them can't be denied when eye-balling PDX for WNBA expansion.
Despite recent hesitation, the league will expand beyond its 12 teams, and will likely do so in the next two to three years. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has made that clear in recent conversations revolving around the topic. She believes there's more than enough talent to do so, but at the same time believes the economic model needs to adequately support such before making such a leap.
It's "part of a transitional plan," she told the New York Times in an interview this past week. But is Portland part of that "plan?" There's no way to know, but you could argue it should be.
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