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WNBA expansion in Bay Area comes at 'excellent timing' with interest in league, looming CBA and media rights deals

LAS VEGAS — The Bay Area expansion franchise has been a work in progress for much of the last decade. The Golden State Warriors, who were granted the bid, date initial talks back to 2010 when Joe Lacob purchased the NBA team. They often talk about “basketball 365,” a reference to a yearlong presence.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who took her position in 2019, has engaged in talks about a team in the Bay Area on some level her entire tenure. It was only within the last month or so the final talks ramped up for the league’s long-awaited news announced last week.

“It was one of those things where both sides realized this is going to happen at some point,” Warriors president and COO Brandon Schneider told Yahoo Sports on Sunday before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. “But what’s the right time for it? And that’s what brings us to today.”

The organization will now transition from discussing a franchise to actually putting one on the court. The team does not have a name, a logo or a specific leadership team, but will begin play in spring 2025. From announcement to inaugural game is about 18 months, which is more time than expansion teams in the past, but still tight.

They’re also coming into the league at an intriguing time for the WNBA. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) can be opted out of after the 2025 season and the players’ union is expected to do so. Players will seek higher salaries, especially with the controversial prioritization clause in place, and better revenue sharing.

The most forward-facing issue is the CBA mandates commercial flights, while players and increasingly more team owners want charters. The Aces’ Mark Davis, Liberty’s Joe and Clara Wu Tsai and Mercury’s Mat Ishbia have all come into the league in the past five years and called for charters. Schneider said the expansion ownership group is “supportive of what’s right for the league.”

“I don’t think it’s up to us,” he said. “I think it’s more league [and] players working through those things. We’re supportive of continuing to grow. All the things that everybody wants, that happens over time as we continue to grow. You’ve got to have a model that supports all those things.”

Golden State Warriors president and COO Brandon Schneider speaks during a news conference to announce an expansion WNBA franchise in the San Francisco Bay Area. (D. Ross Cameron/USA TODAY Sports)
Golden State Warriors president and COO Brandon Schneider speaks during a news conference to announce an expansion WNBA franchise in the San Francisco Bay Area. (D. Ross Cameron/USA TODAY Sports)

The media rights deal is also up and Engelbert has been vocal about the infusion of revenue a better deal would net. The league will play its 29th season in 2025 and has aired primarily on ESPN networks since its inception. Viewership continues to rise as ESPN puts it in better viewing windows and the league expands to deals with other companies.

The timing of an expansion team with the CBA and media rights deal was not purposeful, Engelbert said Sunday. The team entry year was “more tied to our business transformation [and] our growth plan” that was pushed back a couple of years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it is actually excellent timing as it relates to the next collective bargaining [and] media negotiations,” Engelbert said.

The Bay Area franchise plays heavily into all of that, but first it will focus in-house. Among items at the top of the list is what everyone wants to know and has ideas about, including Engelbert.

Schneider said they walked into Michelob Ultra Arena together on Sunday and the commissioner asked him to remind her about a good name idea she had. He used the analogy of an engaged couple telling everyone the news.

“It’s like, ‘When are you getting married?’ Well, I don’t know,” Schneider said. “That’s kind of what’s happening with our name.”

Lacob said at the announcement ceremony the hope is it will "reflect what we have going on here in San Francisco and in the whole Bay Area and women’s sports.” He told ESPN the franchise will likely be called Golden State, which the Warriors changed their name to from San Francisco Warriors in 1971 to represent the entire state. Schneider said he thinks they’ll have something to share on that front in the next few months.

Warriors focus first on internal logistics

The immediate next steps will be building out a dedicated staff to specifically support the WNBA franchise, Schneider said. They’ll look to hire a president, general manager and coach over the next six to eight months, he said.

“That’s a big thing on our minds, just thinking about how to get everything set up because 2025 sounds like it’s a long ways from now, but that’s going to come up quick,” Schneider said. “We’re moving quickly.”

The GM and coach will look toward building a roster, first through an expansion draft. Engelbert, who intends to add a second expansion team for 2025, said the league will go through a “diligence process” with the expansion teams, current teams and Board of Governors to design a draft process.

“For us, that’s something for the league to figure out,” Schneider said. “We know it’s going to be fair. We know the league wants to do what’s right.”

On the business side, the team will build out sponsors. Engelbert said again on Sunday that one of the data points the league was interested in was Fortune 500 companies, and there are many of them in the area. Schneider said Rakuten, the Warriors’ jersey badge partner, and Chase have contacted them about the W team already.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry's jersey shows the Rakuten sponsorship patch. Rakuten is one of the brands who has reached out about the WNBA expansion team in the Bay Area. (Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports)
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry's jersey shows the Rakuten sponsorship patch. Rakuten is one of the brands who has reached out about the WNBA expansion team in the Bay Area. (Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports)

“You could go down the list of the biggest partners that the Warriors have, like a lot of our founding partners, and almost every single one of them has reached out [and] expressed a great level of interest in being involved in the WNBA,” Schneider said.

It’s one of the many metrics Engelbert said the Bay Area bid “rose to the top” on and that Schneider said the group is excited to grow in the WNBA.

“The Warriors have proven excellence,” Engelbert said. “It’s an ideal fit for our newest, our 13th WNBA franchise, and to have one of the most successful and valuable franchises in all of sports investing in the WNBA shows just how much people want to be involved in the league.”

Bay Area infrastructure key to expansion bid

The team said it sold more than 3,000 season tickets as of Sunday morning for games at San Francisco’s Chase Center, where the Warriors have played since its opening in 2019.

The franchise owns and operates the arena, a major plus for prioritizing the WNBA. Teams in the league are occasionally booted from their arenas for concerts or other arena bookings. Facilities are an asset Engelbert said repeatedly was important for any team’s bid. Other potential bid groups have told Yahoo Sports the same.

“We want to make sure that we have that committed owner that’s going to get a great player experience, because we want players to want to play, live and work in the areas in which we announce expansion,” she said.

Schneider said they will work through arena logistics, such as locker rooms and signage, and invest to make sure the team “has their own dedicated space” at the arena. The team will be headquartered and practice at the Warriors’ Oakland Facility, which the NBA team used as its own until moving in 2019.

“It’s my understanding it will instantly be [in the] top few practice facilities [in the W],” Schneider said. “We are doing a little bit of work, but it’s a great facility.”

The independent practice facility race is on with the Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury each in the process of planning or building, and the Las Vegas Aces making it back to the Finals in the first season of using their new one. Having their own space where they can go any time to get in work on the two full-size courts is “why they’re there,” Schenider said.

The franchise has also heard from potential local game carriers, though there haven’t been formal conversations about any of it since the final word of having a team “came together pretty quickly” in the past couple of months. It’s part of the business growth Schneider said will be critical for their franchise, and is why both they and the league are thrilled about the new team.

“Part of our excitement in this being the right time is women’s sports and the WNBA, in particular, we feel like it’s on an incredible trajectory,” Schneider said. “If you look at attendance, look at viewership, merchandise, all those things moving up. So we feel like we’re coming in at the right time.”