The City of Portland finally has an opportunity to add another major league sports franchise, and it’s a chance the city needs to take.
With WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert in town this week, the city can put its best foot forward and attract another major sports franchise.
Unlike pipe dreams like major league baseball, a WNBA team actually stands a pretty good chance of happening and a pretty good chance to be successful.
Much has changed since the Portland Fire folded in 2002. Namely, the WNBA has continued to strengthen its position as a premier global women’s basketball league. Portland has also shown it can be a keystone in a professional women’s sports league, with the reigning NWSL champion Thorns the most widely and consistently supported team in that league.
Why would an effort to bring a WNBA team to Portland be successful when efforts for other major sports leagues have not?
The first is that bringing a WNBA team to Portland would not require any new construction. The city already has a perfect arena in the Moda Center, and the team would provide the building with plenty of full dates during the NBA offseason. Nothing would need to be done to improve or build out the Moda Center to accommodate a new team other than adding branding was required.
The second is that effort actually has political will behind it. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has been pulling hard to get a WNBA team back in Portland. He invited Engelbert to town to be part of a forum on women’s sports in Portland.
“I’m thrilled that Commissioner Engelbert is coming to Portland so she can see and hear how our entire state has proven to be an epicenter for women’s sports,” Wyden said. “Look at the off-the-charts attendance numbers that the Thorns draw for soccer in Portland or the huge crowds that women’s college basketball draws throughout Oregon, and there’s no doubt a WNBA team would be a slam-dunk success in the Moda Center.”
That single statement represents more political backing than any pro potential sports addition to Oregon has received since the Timbers and Thorns. No, the WNBA is not Major League Baseball, the NHL, or the NFL. But when you don’t require large infusions of public money or need to use land which could be used to bring in jobs or build housing, it’s a lot easier to muster political will behind the effort.
Unlike efforts to bring in other major league sports franchises, the WNBA effort also has potential ownership groups lurking around. Tech entrepreneur Kirk Brown has confirmed interest in owning a Portland WNBA team and certainly has the money to pull it off.
Finally, Oregon has a great history of supporting women’s sports. As mentioned, the Thorns have been a tremendous success, and in terms of comparing oranges to oranges, the state’s NCAA Division I women’s college basketball teams have a history of drawing well when they are successful.
The WNBA is also in a far different place than it was two decades ago when the Fire…flamed out. The league is approaching 30 years old, is on more secure financial footing, and is doing significantly less shuffling off franchises from what it was in its early years. The league is home to the best women’s basketball talent on the planet, and a planned moderate expansion of two teams by 2024 is a good indicator of the league’s financial health. If a league rapidly expands, it typically means the league and its existing owners badly need a quick infusion of cash. However, if a league isn’t looking to expand at all, it’s an indication that the league doesn’t believe there is a big enough revenue pie to split between the teams. A two-team addition would allow the league to add one team to each conference. Reportedly, in addition to Portland, the league is considering San Francisco, Oakland, Nashville, Philadelphia, and Toronto as other expansion cities.
That means that Portland is competing against San Francisco for a franchise because nothing against Oakland, but most of the cities’ professional sports franchises are looking to leave, and the Warriors just built a perfectly suitable arena across the bay in San Francisco.
San Francisco certainly has the monetary firepower to bring in a WNBA team, but what it doesn’t have that Portland does would be a built-in rivalry for the league to market around. Putting a team in Portland would allow an I5 basketball rivalry to be rekindled; from a Portland perspective, there would be no better time to do it. The Seattle Storm is going through a rebuild, possibly allowing the Portland team to be competitive against them immediately.
Before a team can be competitive on the court, the city of Portland needs to show it can be competitive off the court. That’s what the city has a chance to do this week when some of the leading lights in sports in the state have an opportunity to show why Portland should have a team. The WNBA has a chance to put a franchise in a spot where it can and should be successful. That time is now, and there is no place like Portland for that to happen.