Philadelphia’s pitch for a WNBA team – and how 76 Place could factor in

Philly remains the largest city in the nation without a WNBA franchise

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In just over a month, the Women’s National Basketball Association will kick off its 28th season. And for the 28th straight year, there will be no team from the fourth-largest media market for professional sports teams. 

Despite an abundance of factors seemingly working in its favor – including famously loyal fan bases, a justly deserved reputation as a source of elite players, and deep-pocketed investors expressing an interest in bringing a team to the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection – Philadelphia is still waiting to welcome its next professional basketball team. 

“It’s such an oversight because we’re rabid. We love (basketball) here,” Esther Rosen, a Philadelphia resident and account owner of @WNBAPhilly, said of the WNBA not prioritizing a Philadelphia team. “There are so many women (players) that come out of the city because the city is a basketball city … it’s such a huge part of our outdoor culture.”

Despite the lack of a team, a number of factors seem to suggest that the tide could be turning in favor of the city being granted an expansion team, among them the 76ers’ proposal to develop 76 Place, a Center City arena in Market East, Mayor Cherelle Parker taking office, and the league’s own expansion efforts. 

Philly fandom

The city was on the shortlist of potential expansion teams for the WNBA’s 2025 season but franchises were awarded to groups in the Bay Area in California and Portland, Oregon. Portland pulled the plug in November; now, barely more than a month away from the 2024 season tipoff, the search is still on for a second expansion team to bring the league to 14 franchises. Among the markets mentioned: Toronto, Denver, Nashville, Charlotte, Austin and Philadelphia – the largest city in the country without a WNBA team. 

Philadelphia’s women’s basketball history speaks for itself. Exhibit A: South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, who just wrapped up her second consecutive undefeated regular season, is a Dobbins Tech graduate. 

Dawn Staley, a Philadelphia native who graduated from Dobbins Tech, has found success in women’s basketball as a player and a coach.
Dawn Staley, a Philadelphia native who graduated from Dobbins Tech, has found success in women’s basketball as a player and a coach. Photo credit: Eakin Howard/Getty Images

Staley also played for the Philadelphia Rage – one of the eight original franchises of the American Basketball League, a women’s professional basketball league that existed from 1996 to 1998 before folding in its third season. (Prior to the Rage was the Philadelphia Fox, a member of the Women’s Professional Basketball League, which lasted for just the 1979 season before folding.) 

There are several current WNBA players from the region too, including Natasha Cloud, a Broomall native and St. Joe’s alumna playing for the Phoenix Mercury, and Kahleah Copper, a Prep Charter alumna and Cloud’s Phoenix teammate, who have each been outspoken about the market for a team in their hometown. 

Fans have also pleaded with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, a native of Collingswood in South Jersey and an alumna of Lehigh University, to bring a team to the region. 

“We’re looking for the right ownership groups with the right commitment, the right arena situation, the right city to support a WNBA franchise,” Engelbert said in 2022 when the league first began moving forward with its latest round of expansion. “Philly is definitely on a list.”

No official movement is on the horizon, however. In an email statement, a WNBA spokesperson told City & State: “We continue to engage in productive conversations with interested ownership groups in a number of markets but have no news to report at this time.”

Window for women’s sports

Not only is the WNBA the longest-running women’s professional sports league in the history of the country, but it’s rapidly growing. According to Bloomberg, league revenues for the WNBA were about $100 million in 2019. Revenues have nearly doubled in the last five years, with projected revenues for the latest season coming in around $200 million. 

Cloud, an outspoken WNBA player on issues related to social justice and inequality, has called on investors to give the WNBA a chance. 

“If you invest into us, there will be a return,” Cloud told The Philadelphia Inquirer last year. “But if you give us one foot in, one foot out, half-assed investment, of course we’re not going to produce.”

David Berri, an economics professor at Southern Utah University who closely studies the WNBA, told City & State: “It’s depressing how hard it is to find investors for this.”

“If you look at the numbers, WNBA revenue is now – on a per-team basis – larger 27 years in than NBA revenue was 27 years in, adjusting for inflation,” Berri said, explaining that the country’s wealthiest investors, a predominantly male group, have always had an emotional attachment to men’s sports. 

“What’s missing on the women’s side is that kind of emotional attachment,” Berri said. “Women constantly say, ‘If we make the case that we’re worthy of investment, even then, there’s always skepticism.’”

Berri pointed out that the history of men’s sports leagues’ profitability isn’t as encompassing as one might think. He referred to early professional football teams, many of which were unsuccessful, and Major League Soccer, which has relied in no small part on the legs of aging stars coming over from European leagues.

“When it comes to investing in women, what you often hear them say is: ‘We will invest if the model is solid … I need to know what the revenues are, what the costs are, what my expected returns are,’” Berri said. “They treat investing in women’s sports as if they’re buying a Taco Bell franchise … (If that’s the case), then why do you put $300 million into Major League Soccer franchises?”

The lack of official movement in Philadelphia, while frustrating for fans, doesn’t mean the opportunity is lost. Rosen said that given the women in leadership positions and the increasing popularity of some of women’s sports’ biggest stars, now is the time to double down on promotional efforts. 

Having “women in leadership is an important factor in promoting women’s sports,” Rosen told City & State. “What it comes down to is there needs to be investment on both sides. And by both sides, I mean the men’s professional leagues need to be willing to share not just market space, but – in the beginning, at least – they need to be willing to share resources.”

Waiting for the dough

Despite increasing revenue and popularity, the financial resources available to women’s sports leagues still lag behind other sports ventures with similar popularity. 

Berri said even as the WNBA doubled its revenue in five years, and women’s professional sports leagues like the National Women’s Soccer League and Canadian Women’s Hockey League continue to grow, a major factor in the lack of investment in professional women’s sports is gender inequality and the skepticism that investors have when it comes to women’s teams. 

WNBA expansion is also closely linked to the NBA. NBA leadership talking points include a preference for their WNBA teams to have unique and committed owners outside of NBA ownership groups, but as of today, five of the 12 WNBA teams share direct ownership with their NBA counterparts. 

“Some members of the NBA front office still see the WNBA as a charity – that they did it all to be nice and they want everyone to be grateful to them,” Berri said. “No; it’s a business – and it can be a very successful business if you’re patient enough.”

With such a close connection between the two leagues, many look to 76ers ownership to step up on behalf of the city’s basketball fans. 76ers co-owner David Adelman, the face of the 76 Place proposal and discussions, has expressed some interest in investing in a WNBA team. 

Discussions over 76 Place, the proposed 76ers arena, will take place after the passage of this year’s Philadelphia budget.
Discussions over 76 Place, the proposed 76ers arena, will take place after the passage of this year’s Philadelphia budget.

There have also been rumors that comedian, actress and Philadelphia native Wanda Sykes could be part of a potential bid. But Adelman, who has mentioned a potential deal with Sykes, has yet to offer a full commitment given the arena situation and the WNBA’s 2025 expansion. 

“I’m not going to bring a WNBA team right now and sign a second lease at the Wells Fargo Center. I’m already having issues in my current lease,” Adelman told Crossing Broad Sports last year. “You’re talking ’27, ’28, or ’29 until they’re even going to do the next round of expansion teams. So I’m not sure why we’re getting all stirred up. But on a personal level, I’ve committed that I’d throw some money into the deal because I think it’s important.”

Sykes couldn’t be reached for comment by the time of publication, but a 76ers spokesperson told City & State that WNBA support isn’t out of the question. 

The 76ers spokesperson said in an email the team “proudly supports the growth of women’s sports – both at the youth and professional levels – across the region and is interested in having a WNBA team play in its new arena at Market East in 2031.”

Political arena

It may be too short notice for investors and fans to coalesce around a WNBA team in Philadelphia in 2025, but that doesn’t mean the window is closing. 

Discussions over 76 Place, the Market East arena, will play out this year and will be a major talking point after the city approves its budget in June. Following budget negotiations, many in the city will turn to Parker and city council members to decide on the arena that opponents say will harm the surrounding Chinatown community. 

Without going into specifics on a team or the arena proposal, Joe Grace, Parker’s spokesperson, said the administration is “always supportive of its professional sports teams.” 

It’s a business – and it can be a very successful business if you’re patient enough.
– David Berri

“Sports teams bring fans into our city, who not only patronize the sporting events in question, but then go to our restaurants, stay in our hotels, and participate in everything that Philadelphia has to offer. Our sports teams are integral to our city’s culture,” Grace said in a statement. “We’ll await any concrete news regarding the potential for a WNBA franchise in our city before commenting further.”

Berri said having a second team pledge to make the arena their home could bolster the pro-arena argument even more. Although it may not significantly move the needle, developers “might be able to pull that off” by making the pitch that “we’re doing this for gender equity reasons.”

Regardless of a potential new arena, Rosen remains optimistic about the future, reiterating that fans’ voices can go a long way in swaying public opinion. 

“Whether it’s a physical moving and shifting to a new building, or a moving and shifting culturally, there is a window right now for us to be loud enough to shout through.”