Jurisdictions With Legal Sports Betting Might Get Preference For WNBA Expansion

Written By Derek Helling on October 15, 2021

There has been a lot of chatter about WNBA expansion over the past couple of years. It seems like every time WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert takes an interview, it’s one of the main topics. The intersection of that issue with legal sports betting came up in a recent discussion.

Engelbert recently told ESPN that sports betting might drive the league’s decision on where to expand to. Although there will likely be many other factors in play, regulated sportsbooks’ presence or lack thereof could shorten contenders’ odds.

Engelbert says legal sports betting will help determine expansion choices

In an article that Tisha Thompson and Mechelle Voepel published Friday, Engelbert spoke on increasing the league’s commercial value. The conversation didn’t exclude sports betting.

Engelbert called sports betting a way to bring in new fans who “we don’t necessarily have today watching our games.” She called the opportunities for franchises to partner with gambling companies, like the Phoenix Mercury have with Bally Bet, a seven- to eight-figure value.

For existing fans, perhaps the most intriguing part of her comments was in relation to the intersection with expansion. She stated that sports betting could help determine where WNBA expansion teams land.

Currently, the majority of states plus Washington, D.C. have some form of regulated sports betting within their borders. Only four of the 12 existing WNBA franchises; the Atlanta Dream, Dallas Wings, Los Angeles Sparks, and Minnesota Lynx play in states without any such options.

Despite that, the Mercury are the only of the other seven teams to have such a partnership. Engelbert obviously would like to change that, for existing teams and franchises to come.

Which markets now are lower on the list?

There will be many other factors in WNBA expansion decisions. Those will include other sponsorship opportunities, investor interest, facilities availability, and fan interest. With everything else being equal, however, a market that has legal sportsbooks live might get preference over a market that doesn’t.

Judging on that point alone, it seems places like Oakland or San Diego are at a disadvantage. Sports betting remains illegal in California right now. Although a ballot measure to change that should go to voters next year, it could limit such wagering to tribal casinos.

Also seemingly cast with longer odds to land a franchise now because of this are:

  • Boston
  • Columbus
  • Dallas
  • Houston
  • Kansas City
  • Louisville
  • Miami (although gaming compacts to allow Florida sports betting are in place, legal challenges seriously threaten their implementation)
  • Oklahoma City
  • San Antonio
  • San Francisco

For other potential markets, this means their chances just got a little better. The opportunities could extend beyond the borders of the United States of America as well.

Which places are set up to compete?

This might be good news for places like Toronto or Vancouver, as Canada recently repealed its prohibition against single-event wagering. In the US, all of the following cities either already are or soon will be within states with legal online sports betting but currently lack a WNBA franchise:

  • Baltimore
  • Denver
  • Detroit
  • Memphis
  • Nashville
  • New Orleans
  • Philadelphia
  • Portland, OR

It’s too early to tell how much of a factor this element alone will be in the decisions. What seems certain, however, is that the opportunity to include legal sports betting in the product won’t hurt a contender’s chances.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a lead writer for PlayUSA and the manager of BetHer. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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