How WNBA and NBA are taking different approaches to expansion and media deals

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

As much as old-school fans may not like it, expansion will always be a topic in major professional sports. This is the case for the simple reason that expansion is free money for a league’s existing owners. 

Obviously, when a prospective owner decides they want to be part of a league, they pay an expansion fee to an entity’s existing owners (or “governors” in basketball speak) and each of them get a piece of that pie. 

That is why expansion will always be a topic regardless of the sport. This is the case in men’s sports such as the NHL and the NBA and is the case in women’s sports such as the NWSL and the WNBA. 

In the cases of the W and its male equivalent, both of their expansion efforts are happening around the same time that both leagues are in the process of potentially inking new media rights deals. 

But both appear to be taking opposing approaches to how they are going at expansion. 

On the WNBA side of the ledger, expansion was always a hotly debated topic among fans for many years, but never really happened for real until recently. The W recently announced its intent to expand to the San Francisco Bay Area with that team beginning play in 2025. A few days ago, we learned the name of the team will be the Golden State Valkyries. 

In addition, according to a report from the CBC’s Shireen Ahmed, a deal is done for the WNBA to expand north of the border to Toronto with the first year of that team being in 2026. The team would play its games at Coca-Cola Coliseum and would feature Teresa Resch and Larry Tanenbaum as part of its front office. 

But the WNBA’s expansion efforts appear to be taking off prior to when its media rights deal will come up for grabs next year. Because of the exponential growth that women’s basketball has seen over the years not to mention the addition of new markets, the W is all but guaranteed that whatever money it gets from a new television rights contract will be a record amount. 

Its current television and streaming partners include ABC/ESPN, CBS/CBS Sports Network, Amazon Prime and Ion Television which has its Friday night package. That may change following next season and it is happening around the same time that the WNBA will be in the midst of collective bargaining talks with the WNBPA. 

Next year has the potential to be another landmark year in the W’s history of all sides play their cards correctly. 

Cathy Engelbert has set a goal for the WNBA to be at 16 teams by 2028. Golden State gets the W to 13 teams and 14 would be Toronto. This means two more expansion spots would be up for grabs and Engelbert also recently mention that she would like for the 14th and 15th teams to be announced this calendar year. That could be Houston, Philadelphia, Charlotte or other cities. 

As for the NBA, almost every time over the last few years that a report regarding expansion has surfaced, it has always been met with fast denial from either commissioner Adam Silver or a spokesperson representing the commissioner. But let’s be honest. 

Remember what we said earlier about expansion being free money for the owners? The owners want to expand the NBA. What the NBA has been waiting for is for its new television and streaming rights to be negotiated. It appears that Amazon will be part of that arrangement and it also looks as if NBC may welcome itself back into the NBA family. 

What is complicating the NBA’s situation is its current contract with Warner Bros. Discovery (TNT). Its Inside The NBA program with Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal is one of the marquee shows on sports television regardless of network or streamer. 

In addition, WBD also manages the NBA’s (and the WNBA’s for that matter) media properties – including NBA TV,, NBA League Pass and the NBA’s mobile app. There is a reason why NBA TV is based in Atlanta in the same studio that houses Inside the NBA and there is a reason why NBA TV airs reruns of Inside the NBA. 

In a previous time, NBA TV called Secaucus, New Jersey its home.

Regardless of how things play out on the NBA’s side, once its media rights situation has been crystallized, expect the league to be a bit more open about its expansion intentions. There is no way they can watch other leagues go to 32 teams while it remains stuck at 30. 

Not to mention for all intents and purposes, we already know the NBA’s picks to click for expansion. Those two are Las Vegas and Seattle. Silver has talked about Mexico City here and there but that seems more like a smokescreen. 

The reality is that LeBron James wants to either own a team outright when he retires or be part of an ownership group. Owning a team in Vegas would give him that opportunity. In addition, the NBA has to right the wrong of Clay Bennett stealing the Sonics from Seattle and moving them to Oklahoma City (even though we love on our buddy Tyler DeLuca here). 

For all we know, Kevin Durant (who is also on the back end of his career) may decide to be part of an ownership effort to bring the Sonics back to Seattle as an IOU of sorts to the city that first drafted him. 

In short, the WNBA is expanding prior to its media rights being up for grabs while the NBA looks to do so afterwards. These are two opposing approaches to go about expansion and a television contract while both leagues are so attached at the hip on many issues. 

Basketball – particularly on the women’s end of the ledger – is experiencing a massive boom period. And while league expansion is a scorching hot topic both inside and outside of the WNBA’s New York City headquarters, one can be sure W executives are also smiling from ear to ear at the prospect of its financial coffers expanding thanks to an influx of new television dollars.

Because television executives are finally expanding their horizons and realizing that investing in women’s sports is not only good public relations – it is good business (and has always been).