Evanson: WNBA to Portland? It makes sense.
If you build it, he will come.
A line made famous in the 1980's movie "Field of Dreams," but with a couple of tweaks is applicable pertaining to the potential of the WNBA returning to Portland as part of a rumored expansion, brought forth by WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert during her 12-city-tour to kick-off the 2022 WNBA season this past week in Seattle.
"We're transforming the economics of the league," Engelbert told the Seattle Times. "We want to bring new owners into the league longer term. We need to find the right time to do that. We're doing a lot of data analysis. … We'll continue to do that analysis and hopefully this summer at some point we'll be able to say more. But we want to be thoughtful about it."
The statement came on the heels of Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart blasting the league for it's restrictive salary cap, which has led to fewer available roster spots for incoming players, not excluding first-rounders. The commissioner acknowledged that issue as part of her address to the media, but said she thought expansion was a more logical solution to the problem opposed to the notion of increased roster sizes—which Stewart suggested as part of her complaint.
With that expansion in mind Portland would be a logical candidate, for one only need to look to the Portland Thorns to understand that if you bring it, they will come.
The Thorns led the league in attendance this past season and it wasn't even close.
The "Rose City's" NWSL franchise averaged 14,391 people per game in 2021, nearly 8,000 clear of second place Racing Louisville FC and nearly 9,000 more than Seattle's OL Reign. Portland has an affinity for women's athletics and the Thorns have proven that out.
Additionally, both the University of Oregon and Oregon State University have nationally successful basketball programs, and pre-pandemic were both amongst the nation's top-15 NCAA women's attendance leaders per game with the Ducks ranking eighth (7,013), while the Beavers came in at No. 15 (5,450).
Oregon actually upped that number this past season, putting an average of 7,751 fans in the stands at Matthew Knight Arena over a 15-game home slate in 2021-22.
Casual conversations around expansion have included—amongst others—PDX, along with California's Bay Area (San Francisco/Oakland), Des Moines, Houston and Charlotte—of which the latter two previously had teams.
Portland too had a team—the Portland Fire—for three seasons before folding up the tent in 2002 after accumulating just 37 total wins. The franchise remains the only WNBA franchise never to qualify for the postseason.
Any new team will also need an ownership group and half of the league's teams are owned by the same city's NBA owner. With the uncertainty surrounding Trail Blazers ownership since the death of Paul Allen nearly four years ago, coupled with the rumors surrounding it's potential sale, that too could make things difficult for a potential expansion to "Rip City."
That's the bad.
The good however is that the landscape for women's sports has changed in that 20 years, with increasing ratings both locally and nationally pushing women's athletics ever-closer to the spotlight.
No, it isn't the NFL. After-all what is.
And no again, it's not the NBA. But this past season ESPN boasted it's highest ratings for the league in 13 years and said it's average viewership was up 49 percent from the year prior.
Last year's NCAA women's national championship game between South Carolina and Connecticut had 4.85 million viewers, making it the most watched college basketball game on ESPN (men or women) since 2008. Furthermore, this year, viewership was up 18 percent from 2021 and up 30 percent from 2019.
People will say the men's game between North Carolina and Kansas drew 18 million viewers, and they'd be right. But this isn't about comparing the men's and women's games, but rather about the trajectory the women's game appears to be on both nationally and here in Oregon.
The Ducks' Sabrina Ionescu—who's in her third season with the WNBA's New York Liberty—led the league in jersey sales in 2021, and when Nike made its inaugural Ionescu jersey during her senior season in 2019 it sold out in less than a day.
After missing most of her rookie season with an ankle injury, Ionescu played respectably last season for the Liberty, but early this year seems to be back on top of her game and poised to be one of the league's best and most popular players. That popularity has and will only continue to build WNBA fans in the "Rose City," and in the process increased thirst for the league and a potential team by way of expansion.
That's probably the "really good."
There's still a ways to go before the league makes a move regarding expansion. Engelbert's statement wasn't fraught with urgency, but rather felt more like an idea that remains in the infantile stage. But with rising concerns over limited roster spots for incoming college stars, increasing popularity, and ratings on the rise, it certainly feels like it's "when" rather than "if" regarding a bigger WNBA, and Portland has to be amongst the leaders to be a part of it.
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