Tuesday November 28, 2023

Why the WNBA Pulled Out of Portland

  • The WNBA was reportedly on the cusp of announcing a new team in Portland when it reversed course.
  • The league’s explanation for the sudden change of heart has been questioned.
Oct 5, 2023; San Francisco, CA, USA; WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert makes opening remarks during a press conference to announce an expansion WNBA franchise in the San Francisco Bay Area at Chase Center.
D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports
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Not too long ago, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that the WNBA would bring a team to Portland.

Reporting indicated that an announcement was imminent, and league commissioner Cathy Engelbert had previously called Portland “an ideal destination for a WNBA franchise.”

However, last week, Engelbert abruptly reversed course in a letter to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, citing planned renovations to the Moda Center, where the NBA’s Trail Blazers play and were prepared to share with a WNBA team.

Bill Oram, a sports columnist for the Oregonian, joined the Front Office Sports Today podcast to explain why, based on his reporting, Engelbert’s explanation may be a cover for the real reason that the league changed its plans days before they were set to announce a Portland team.

Listen to the full episode here:

Oram on why Engelbert’s explanation doesn’t fit with other facts:

[Engelbert’s] justification was that renovations the Portland Trail Blazers have planned to the Moda Center and the surrounding complex in consecutive summers later in the decade would displace the WNBA franchise, and that did not work for the WNBA. That came as a shock to a lot of people in the market for a variety of reasons, one being that those renovations had not been a surprise. 

Portland was seen as being on the very edge of making an announcement of having landed a WNBA team. That was seen as imminent. To then have that fall through over something that had been well-established and part of conversations for months, if not years, left a lot of people scratching their heads. 

On an alternate explanation for the WNBA’s reversal:

What I had heard last week and had been chasing down ever since was that the real death knell here was the withdrawal from the project by Kirk Brown. Kirk Brown had been the proposed owner of the team. He was the one putting up the $50 million expansion fee and is a former co-founder of ZoomInfo. So he had been the face of this — not a particularly outspoken advocate, but he was seen as the financial backbone of this proposal. 

Just a few days ago, they were planning on rolling out this team [on Oct. 26]. And it was only a few days before that Kirk Brown pulled out because of differences he had with the WNBA, including branding of the team. The name that he liked was getting significant pushback from the WNBA. He wanted to name it the Rose City Royalty. My understanding is that Cathy Engelbert felt that had a connotation that the WNBA didn’t want to get behind. 

At a certain point, Kirk felt that there were a lot of hoops to jump through and a lot of rules in joining the ranks of WNBA ownership. This is somebody who is an entrepreneur, has been the head of a major company, and maybe he was not totally comfortable with that level of oversight. And so he ended up pulling out really just days before this team was expected to be unveiled.

On whether a new investor could revive efforts to bring a WNBA team to Portland:

There are efforts underway to round up and build a new ownership group. Whether those will be successful, I do not know. Whether Jodi Allen has any interest, that would not track just because she is in the process of divesting assets and is moving toward an eventual sale of the Trail Blazers. But I know that there are people in Portland who are working feverishly to try to get together another ownership group and present that to the WNBA and see. 

On what the WNBA does next:

It’s interesting, because the WNBA has now backed itself into a corner where it says, ‘The reason we’re not doing this is because of renovations to Moda Center.’ Well, that’s not going to change, those renovations are going to happen. And so if that was the disqualifier, how do you walk that back when, you know, a white knight rides in to save the day? 

They were all-in on Portland. … You’ve heard reports out of Toronto that the MLSE group had pulled its bid. It’s similar in Denver — it sounded like that momentum had stalled. I don’t get the sense — and people I’ve spoken to have said this as well — that the WNBA is pivoting to another city.

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