The Women’s National Basketball Association is considering one or two cities for expansion, and Nashville is among the frontrunners, according to a report from Chantel Jennings and Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic.
The WNBA plans to narrow down expansion finalists sometime between September and December. The league is currently considering 10 to 12 cities with Nashville, Oakland, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco and Toronto the likely favorites to land a team.
“There’s no crisp or clear formula, but you see cities that rise to the top pretty quickly,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The Athletic. “And we’re also looking at our current WNBA franchise cities and comparing what lessons we’ve learned and what’s worked and not worked over the last 25 years. We really want to set up new owners for success.”
The Athletic reported expansion fees for the WNBA could be north of the $15 million to $20 million range. Once approved, the expansion teams could begin playing as early as the 2024 season dependent on access to existing usable facilities, corporate sponsorship commitments and season ticket sales.
Population demographics, sports history and fan attendance are among a few of the key contributing factors the league is taking into consideration for possible expansion markets.
The popularity of the Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State women’s basketball programs, plus the close proximity to the University of Tennessee Lady Vols could play into Nashville’s favor.
The Nashville Sports Authority commissioned sports management consulting firm CAA Icon to conduct a Women’s Sports Initiative Strategic Assessment last year.
The results yielded support for a women’s professional sports franchise in Nashville with 80 percent of the near 4,400 responders saying they were in favor of a women’s pro team depending on the sport.
Fifty-three percent of the respondents said they would support either a WNBA or National Women’s Soccer League franchise, and 41.6 percent said they were extremely interested in a women’s pro team.
In February, the Sports Authority voted to accept CAA Icon’s recommendation to pursue next steps with both the WNBA and NWSL, and the firm will reportedly present its WNBA-specific report to the league sometime in June.
“We always bet on Nashville,” Sports Authority Executive Director Monica Fawknotson told The Athletic. “The community is very supportive and excited about the opportunity for the WNBA. Nashville and the state of Tennessee [have] such a strong history and support of women’s basketball.”
If Nashville did land a WNBA franchise, the franchise could potentially play at Bridgestone Arena, which has hosted a women’s Final Four and the SEC men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, or at Municipal Auditorium, which previously hosted the OVC men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Bridgestone would be considered the likely frontrunner as it has a higher capacity for basketball games (18,500 seats compared to Municipal’s 8,000), and the 2014 Final Four was one of the more successful in the event’s history. In total, the event drew 8.38 million viewers, and it was the most-watched (4.27 million viewers) and highest-rated (2.8 rating) national championship game since 2004.
Municipal would also presumably need to undergo significant renovations if used as a WNBA facility.
The WNBA currently has television rights deals with ESPN/ABC, CBS, Amazon Prime and Twitter, and the league’s playoff games are averaging television viewership numbers that rival those of the MLS.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_