WNBA needs to stabilize and expand rosters before creating new teams

After signing a seven-day replacement contract, Maya Caldwell scored 18 points in her debut with the Atlanta Dream June 21. She was a starter for a game five nights later, after which she was released. Atlanta Dream photo.

As the debate over WNBA expansion continues this season, league commissioner Cathy Engelbert has stood firm on her original plan, which she laid out last February while revealing an investor capital raise.

Given the choice between expanding the number of players on rosters – which is currently capped at 12 – and creating more teams, Engelbert is opting for the latter.

“I think the conversation to be having is about expansion of the number of teams,” she said at a pre-draft press conference in April. “When you’re only in 12 cities in a country of our size and scale, with a global fan base like we have, we do need to be in more cities.”

Engelbert said expanding the “footprint” of the league by getting it into more cities was part of her plan in “building for the long haul,” and that roster expansion was a short-term solution to get more athletes on rosters.

In principle, this is a sound strategy from someone who has worked at high levels in the business field for 33 years. But given the endless and disruptive comings, goings and reshuffling of players from team to team this season, Engelbert would be wise to revise her plan of attack, and take smaller steps.

Under the WNBPA’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement with the WNBA, each team is allowed a maximum 12 players on a roster. Athletes make varied amounts, based on their years of service, but the total paid to all on a team must fit under a set salary cap. This is why some teams have less than a dozen employed.

In the most elite league in the world, where second- and third-round draft picks don’t often get roster spots, there are currently a total of 139 players out of a possible 144.

Prior to the 2022 season there was an uptick in free agency signings and trades, which put many veterans on new teams. When play tipped in May, many players were still overseas fulfilling commitments to teams there, which required their WNBA teams to find replacements for them. Then the injury bug has bitten several franchises, depleting rosters and creating additional need for temporary personnel.

The result has been movement as we’ve not seen in the league before.

For example, rookie Evina Westbrook was cut from the Storm roster and picked up by the Lynx before being cut there and picked up by the Mystics. Kaela Davis played through two temporary contracts for Seattle, and Kiana Davis one – after catching an emergency flight to get there on a game day.

Maya Caldwell set the Atlanta Dream on fire briefly, on a one-week contract, and has not been heard from again. Yvonne Turner has been passed around from team to team, and Jazmine Jones and Joyner Holmes were cut and then re-signed by the Sun – a common tactic by teams over the last few years. Many other athletes have similarly come and gone.

Is it any wonder that every single team has had massive ups and downs this year? Not a single squad has been without some form of erraticism, vascillating between wins and losses on what seems like a whim. But team sports rely so much on interactive chemistry and familiarity, and that has been hard for any team to find, given the revolving roster doors. “Who will be in the starting lineup this week?” is a viable question for many squads in 2022.

These circumstances also make it hard for journalists to write about teams, and especially players. We are told that the WNBA wants “every story told.” But what if I write about someone who is cut a few days later, or switches teams? I’ve seen it happen this season. Yet, for the most part, I just see less copy about the league overall. I have to think that is related to roster uncertainty.

Either way, it hurts the growth of the WNBA.

It would have to be less expensive to allow one or two more players per roster, rather than have teams continue to sign seven-day contracts, pay for replacement player flights and lodgings, and deal with the constant disruption to team flow. An investment of $100,000-$200,000 more per team would go a long way toward continuity, and strengthening the product.

Even if the extras were designated practice players, to be activated only when someone else on the roster was injured (which is a given in any season), that person would have already been part of the team, would know the plays, and most importantly, would be in tune with the flow and the vibe of the squad.

Engelbert has said a two-team expansion could come by 2024, and that’s great if franchises could truly be set up to succeed. But in the meantime, the CBA needs to be amended to expand rosters to a reasonable number of players.

Quality comes from continuity and building over time. The WNBA needs to have stable teams before it expands.