PHILADELPHIA — About a month ago, in an interview with Sports Business Journal, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert discussed potential sites for two expansion teams. She mentioned eight cities she was considering. Philadelphia was not one of them.
If you think that is a gross oversight, you aren’t wrong. Philadelphia has a rich legacy of women’s basketball, and it goes beyond local legend Dawn Staley, a Dobbins Tech grad. One could argue that Immaculata’s Mighty Macs ushered us into a new era of women’s college hoops by winning three straight national championships from 1972-74. Cheyney University played in the first women’s NCAA championship game in 1982.
Some of the WNBA’s biggest stars shaped their careers here. Broomall’s Natasha Cloud played at St. Joseph’s. Kahleah Copper was born and raised in North Philadelphia. Before coach Cheryl Reeve led the Minnesota Lynx to four WNBA championships, she began her career as a player and assistant coach at La Salle. Before Maddy Siegrist was drafted No. 3 overall by the Dallas Wings, she set Villanova’s career scoring record — for men and women — with 2,896 points.
The history is there. The right ownership group isn’t. Which is a shame, when you consider that the 425th-richest person in the world, according to Forbes, owns an NBA team in this very city. Since buying the Sixers in 2011, majority owner Josh Harris has seen his net worth increase by just under $4 billion over the last seven years. His real time net worth stands at $6.1 billion.
Harris, a Penn graduate, hasn’t exactly endeared himself to local fans. Yes, he owns the Sixers, but he also is in line to own two major pro sports teams in two other cities that are division rivals of Philadelphia’s NHL and NFL teams. Harris acquired the New Jersey Devils in 2013 and is in the process of finalizing a deal for the Washington Commanders. He even tried to go 3 for 3, submitting an ownership bid for the New York Mets before Steve Cohen won out with a $2.4 billion purchase in November 2020.
It’s hard to imagine a fan base that would be more annoyed by this than Philadelphia’s. He hasn’t endeared himself to parts of the community, either. Harris, who was unavailable to comment for this story, has come under scrutiny for his new arena proposal in Center City in recent months.
If constructed, the privately financed arena would be built on East Market Street, adjacent to Chinatown. Many of Chinatown’s residents have condemned the plans, saying the construction of an arena will mean the destruction of their neighborhood. A WNBA team would not negate any of that. But it would show — in a big way — that Harris is willing to put his financial concerns aside for the benefit of Philadelphians.
To Harris’ credit, he has invested in local philanthropies. But lately, he has been seen as someone who prioritizes profit over community. Delivering a WNBA team to Philadelphia would be an attempt to rectify that. And what better way to invest in the city than by bringing in the first pro women’s basketball team since the ABL’s Philadelphia Rage in 1998? By doing something for Philadelphia fans, simply because it’s the right thing to do?
And it’s not just the right thing to do, but the wise thing to do. David Berri, an economics professor at Southern Utah University, has closely studied the WNBA over the course of his career. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mike Jensen, he said that it might take five or 10 years to see a profit. But the reward would be worth the wait.
“You eventually will have a business that, no matter how stupid you are, you will sell tickets, which is unlike other businesses,” he said.
Berri added that the WNBA’s current attendance numbers match up almost exactly with the NBA’s attendance numbers after 25 years. Average attendance so far this season is approximately 7,100 but varies from team to team. The teams that invest more in their facilities — and have more star power — often see higher attendance, like the approximately 10,000 fans the Seattle Storm averaged in 2022. If done right, Philadelphia could do something similar.
It’s not hard to imagine Cloud or Copper wanting to play in their home city. Or Siegrist returning to the place where she launched her career. Or an athlete who simply identifies with Philadelphia’s culture wanting to play here. If you put Caitlin Clark or Angel Reese, two of women’s college basketball’s biggest stars, on a Philadelphia WNBA team, people will certainly come — even over the summer, when folks go to the shore.
The Union averaged 18,256 fans from mid-May to late August, which spans most of the WNBA regular season. The NCAA women’s national championship game — which featured Clark and Reese — drew 9.9 million viewers, which is more than every MLS game on record. If the Union can draw Philadelphia fans away from the shore, so can the WNBA.
Last year, the WNBA posted its best postseason viewership in 15 years, averaging 456,000 viewers, which is a 22% increase from its postseason viewership in 2021. Its media rights agreement expires at the end of 2025 — when the league plans to add its two expansion teams. Team valuations are on the rise. In February, the Storm sold minority stakes in their team that valued their organization at $151 million, a WNBA record. And, as if that isn’t enough, a WNBA team might help Harris achieve his arena proposal.
One of the obstacles the Sixers face right now is what to do with their potential new arena over the summer. The WNBA’s regular season runs from mid-May to early September. There are 20 home games, which means that if Harris wants to host other events — like concerts — he could still do so.
Beyond that, there is a PR win for Harris here. Politicians, like former mayoral candidate Helen Gym, have voiced skepticism over the Sixers’ arena proposal. Tying the arena proposal to a WNBA team would only bolster the team’s argument that it would be good for the city. It also would make it somewhat harder for politicians to oppose it.
Sixers potentially interested?
It all makes sense. So, why isn’t it happening? The Sixers say that they are “interested in potentially investing in a WNBA franchise,” but are not engaged in any substantial talks at this point. That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Anyone can say they’re interested in doing something, and the Sixers aren’t even saying that. They’re saying that they are “interested in potentially” doing something. And that something isn’t owning. It is investing.
Simply investing probably wouldn’t get the job done. Harris has pockets deep enough to absorb the initial losses a WNBA team would incur. Comcast Spectacor, the company that owns the Flyers and runs the Wells Fargo Center, just invested $400 million in renovating its arena. And while Comcast, the parent company of Comcast Spectacor, yielded profits of $16 billion on sales of $121 billion last year, there is a limit to the resources it can invest in an initially unprofitable project.
Private investors — like Harris — can afford to invest in these types of projects, but Comcast — a publicly traded company — would have to keep its outside investors happy. In short, Harris is freer to spend than Comcast or Comcast Spectacor would be.
In an interview with The Inquirer’s Mike Sielski, Tad Brown, the CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, said that the biggest obstacle for the Sixers getting involved with a WNBA team is scheduling.
“It’s about where you play,” Brown said. “We don’t have that flexibility to create that right now. In the future, once we have the arena open, I’d say we’re certainly in that mix for conversations with the league about expansion.”
But that statement doesn’t hold up. In July 2022, Comcast Spectacor’s president of business operations, Valerie Camillo, said the Wells Fargo Center would make a “perfect home” for a WNBA team in Philadelphia, adding that the arena is “more than willing” to work with the Sixers to make it happen. In a statement, Dan Hilferty, chairman and CEO of Comcast Spectacor, said it would be “fantastic to have a WNBA team play at the New Wells Fargo Center,” and they are “open to working with potential ownership groups to make that a reality.”
A spokesperson said any cooperation from Comcast Spectacor would “not necessarily” be contingent on the Sixers staying at Wells Fargo Center, rather than moving to a new arena when their lease is up in 2031. So the Sixers do have the flexibility. They are just choosing not to use it.
No one is under the illusion that Harris will bring a WNBA team to Philadelphia out of the goodness of his heart. The truth is, it makes a lot of sense — for him and the city. But if he did want to do this out of the goodness of his heart, would that really be the worst thing?