The 26th season of WNBA hoops tips off on Friday, and Colorado is still without a team.
Despite the efforts of the Colorado Xplosion, Colorado Chill and others, one of the 20 biggest cities in the country, Denver, remains without a top-level women’s team. While Denver and Colorado grow rapidly, so has the WNBA. TV viewership was up 49% in the 2021 regular season over the 2020 slate, according to a story released Friday in the Washington Post.
The paper also reported an expanded multiyear deal with Twitter that includes 12 games and a weekly Twitter Spaces segment as well as a 20% increase of viewers of last month’s draft. ESPN is using that momentum to launch a fantasy women’s basketball game on ESPN.com for the first time this year.
But the league has not expanded since 2008 and no team has relocated since 2018. The league has been very public about expansion being years away. There are currently 12 teams in the WNBA, but the league was up to 16 teams at one point.
Commissioner Cathy Engelbert confirmed to the Washington Post that the league is actively conducting analysis of 100 potential cities the league could expand to.
One of the reasons for this expansion push is that the dozen teams can only be filled with 12 women each, or 144 roster spots.
Earlier this week, the Las Vegas Aves cut recent University of Colorado graduate Mya Hollingshed after trading up to take her at No. 8 in the draft, even giving up a future first-rounder. Hollingshed is far from alone as the Aces also cut No. 13 pick Khayla Pointer and the Seattle Storm released No. 17 pick Elissa Cunane. There are plenty of more examples, but the overall total is 42% of players drafted since 1997 never touched a roster, the Washington Post found.
The talent is in the WNBA pool already, and some of that talent is coming from Colorado, as the state continues to push out star female athletes in basketball and soccer. Just looking at Final Four regular Stanford, there were three Colorado women on their Pac-12 winning roster this past season: Fran Belibi, Jana Van Gytenbeek and Ashten Prechtel.
One can only imagine that Colorado talent increasing about a decade after a team is put here. The Rapids came to Denver in 1996; there are now four women, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, Sophia Smith and Jaelin Howell, vying for the United States Women’s National Team roster right now. All four were born right around when the Rapids were. It’s easy to trace the growth model that kids in states with these sports are more likely to play them. Considering the quality of pro hoops being a WNBA and NBA, there’d have to be a stronger interest in the sport at the grassroots level.
What a potential WNBA team could do for Colorado prep athletes is one thing, but it’s fair to say that a fanbase may already exist for a future franchise. The Nuggets had the NBA’s 12th best attendance in the last full season before the COVID-19 pandemic, getting 18,450 fans a night. That interest trickles down, but not in full, to Boulder, where the Colorado Buffaloes Men’s team has a lively crowd of about 7,000 a night. The top women’s collegiate teams in the state don’t get great attendance numbers, but they’re not centralized in the metro area.
There’s not a ready-to-go facility, so Denver’s not perfect, but many people love a squad. The WNBA will expand; it’s just a matter of time. Between the league exploding in interest and the roster squeeze, they will have to measure how quickly to move. The collective bargaining agreement expires in 2027, and the next one is expected to bring massive changes.
Colorado is home to a multi-time Super Bowl champion football team, two-time Stanley Cup winning hockey team, championship-winning soccer club, two incredibly successful lacrosse teams, pennant hosting baseball team and countless terrific collegiate programs. The things missing from the city’s mantle are a Larry O’Brien trophy and a WNBA contender. A WNBA team could jump into Denver and capture the city’s love for basketball in a new way.
So to whoever potential owner that could be out there, don’t you think a growing city plus a growing league in a state with interest in women’s sports makes sense? To me, it does. When the WNBA does expand, consider the Mile High City.