Portland loves women’s sports. That was the message U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden conveyed to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at a promotional event on Monday aimed at boosting the city’s campaign for a new WNBA team.
Engelbert was hired by the WNBA in the midst of a business transformation for the league.
“We have 12 teams in a country of over 300 million people. That is not enough,” Engelbert said. “So that’s why we talk about expansion; you have to be in more cities to grow more fandom.”
Several local sports leaders also spoke at the roundtable discussion, held at the Sports Bra, a Northeast Portland pub that gained national attention for only televising sports played by female athletes. The discussion highlighted the success of local collegiate programs and the Portland Thorns, one of the most successful franchises in the National Women’s Soccer League.
“This is a city that supports women,” said Thorns General Manager Karina Leblanc, a longtime professional goalkeeper. “Leading a women’s team that understands their purpose and their reason in the city, they want another sisterhood to do that with.”
Portland is up against around 20 other cities to host a WNBA team within the decade.
Engelbert said the league is looking to add up to two teams. Though an exact timeline was not offered, she said the teams could be added within the next few years; the announcement would come at least a year prior.
If Portland is chosen to host a WNBA team, it would be the first time the city has been home to professional women’s basketball in more than 20 years.
Portland hosted two earlier professional women’s basketball teams. In 1996, before the WNBA was created, the Portland Power played in the American Basketball League. The team only played three seasons before the entire league folded in 1998. In 2000, the Portland Fire played in the WNBA. The team also lasted only three seasons and dissolved in 2002.
Engelbert said that before choosing a city, WNBA leaders must make sure financial backing exists for a new team. This means finding an owner, corporate sponsors and season ticket holders.
The WNBA will also look at how much communities support NCAA sports. University of Oregon women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves noted that 2020 games against Oregon State sold out; the rivalry and fan support gained national attention that year.
“In a matter of two days we would draw over 22,000 fans to see us play,” Graves said. “So again, that just shows the love that this state has for this sport.”
A few months ago, Northwest entrepreneur Kirk Brown confirmed that he is interested in buying a WNBA franchise. Brown reportedly made more than $1 billion co-founding the company Zoom Info.
“This is a long-term commitment that someone makes to stand up a WNBA team in the market,” Engelbert said.
There is no exact timeline for the new teams to be added, though Engelbert said 2025 or 2026 would be ideal.