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Increasing teams – not rosters – still the priority, WNBA commissioner says

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert addresses the media prior to the draft last month.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert addresses the media prior to the draft last month.

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert remains committed to expanding the number of teams in the WNBA over expanding the roster size, she said.

In the two weeks leading up to the roster finalization deadline this past Thursday, outcry over player cuts reached a crescendo, as several first-round picks and fan favorites were let go. Critics, and rostered players themselves, called for increasing the roster limit from 12 to at least 14.

When the question came up prior to last season, Engelbert said that expanding the league’s reach in more cities was her priority, as she endeavors to make the league and its athletes recognizable worldwide. She said she told a group of players the same thing at an event recently.

“Knowing that expanding the number of teams will open up roster spots, and….essentially getting our next media deal a little more flair in hopefully multiple cities (will result in) more fandom,” she said.

Engelbert said she has told team owners and players that she’s always willing to listen to arguments for increased rosters and salary caps. But the prioritization clause of the Collective Bargaining Agreement played a large role this year.

The three-year-old contract stipulated that beginning this season, athletes would have to return from overseas to their team by the season opener, May 19, or they wouldn’t be able to play this year. The result was that training camps were full, and Engelbert said that made player cuts seem particularly bad.

“I think that’s what was a little different, which is why there’s a little more noise around the roster cuts, is prioritization,” she said. “There were a lot more veterans (in camp) and less players playing overseas.”

“In recent years, people probably didn’t notice that there were maybe 15-18 players that weren’t here for training camp into probably the first two weeks of the season, and this year they’re here. So think about that. And maybe those players in camp got waived two or three weeks into the season, and people didn’t notice as much.”

Engelbert said she recognizes how difficult it is to make a WNBA team, with more than 300 Division I schools and 144 spots available.

“It is hard to make a team, but we don’t want to denigrate the quality of the game, either,” she said. “I think we’re ready for expansion in the next few years.”

Once those teams have been added, Engelbert said she might consider more roster spots.

Earlier this month the commissioner, who will mark her fourth year at the helm this summer, said the list of cities for possible expansion had been narrowed to 20. Toronto may be on that list, as the Chicago Sky and Minnesota Lynx played there May 13 in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd.

The defending champion Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty were tagged as “superteams” to beat going into the year, but Engelbert said she is predicting a far more even fight to the finish.

“I think there’s going be more parity than we all think,” she said. “I do think it’s helpful to have the attention on the superteams, coming out of free agency. But I think there’s more parity coming.”