December 3, 2022


healthy part of faith

WNBA, NWSL expansion could bring a team to Philly. Here’s how

10 min read

Between Sunday’s WNBA All-Star Game, the U.S. women’s soccer team’s ongoing World Cup and Olympics qualification tournament, and the 50th anniversary of Title IX, women’s sports have been in a big spotlight this summer.

But the spotlight has been less bright in Philadelphia than elsewhere because there’s no major professional women’s sports team here. There are one-off games here from time to time, but beyond that, fans wanting to watch pro women’s sports in person have to go to the nearest options of New York, New Jersey, or the D.C. area.

What will it take to change that and when could it happen? Here’s a look at where things stand in three sports with pro women’s leagues: basketball, soccer, and hockey.

You could barely inbound a pass at a WNBA arena without hitting someone who wants a team in Philadelphia. There’s been chatter for years about it, from players such as Broomall’s Natasha Cloud all the way up to Collingswood-born commissioner Cathy Englebert.

Everyone in the league knows Philadelphia has decades of women’s hoops history, from West Chester’s pioneers to Immaculata’s Mighty Macs to current coaching stars Dawn Staley, Geno Auriemma, and Cheryl Reeve. And 25 years ago, the defunct American Basketball League’s Philadelphia Rage came to town, playing a season and a half at the Palestra and Liacouras Center before the league folded.

But every time the discussion starts, it ends at the same roadblock: Where’s the billionaire owner?

Only recently has even a hint of an answer emerged. The Athletic’s report last month that comedian Wanda Sykes, a resident of Media, “is a part of a group with interest in bringing an expansion team to Philadelphia” got attention. So did Cloud’s assertion in March 2021 that something had been “in the works for a year and a half.”

Cloud later walked that back, but the Washington Mystics guard has not stopped banging the drum to get a WNBA team here.

Another locally bred star in the league, North Philly’s Kahleah Copper, also wants to see a team in her hometown.

“There’s a lot of young girls and there’s a lot of women’s basketball fans in Philly who would love to see that team and who would love to support that team,” said Copper, who will play in the All-Star Game (1 p.m., 6abc) at the same Chicago arena where she led the Sky to last year’s WNBA title. “So I’m definitely an advocate for it. I would love to see a team in Philly. It would be amazing for the city.”

We’ll hear from Englebert on Sunday morning, when she holds a news conference just over an hour before tipoff.

» READ MORE: After being a WNBA breakout star last year, North Philly’s Kahleah Copper is ready for an encore

Within the conversation about having a team here, there are split opinions about where that team should play. Lots of people around the league prefer sold-out smaller arenas to half-full bigger ones. So it might make more sense to play at the Liacouras Center, with its capacity of 10,000 — and emotional resonance in North Philly for a league with Black women at its core — than the 20,000-plus-seat Wells Fargo Center.

But this is for sure: Comcast Spectacor’s president of business operations, Valerie Camillo, would be thrilled to be asked for a key to her arena.

“The Wells Fargo Center would make a perfect home for a WNBA team here in Philly, and we’re more than ready to work with the Sixers to make that happen,” she said, adding that they could set up the arena so that a less-than-full house wouldn’t feel empty.

“Certainly, the question of right-size arenas is valid. I’m sure there will be considerations that are thought about, but if the desire is, ‘We need a venue,’ the Wells Fargo Center stands ready to have that conversation, and we think it can be a match.”

You can infer a few things from Camillo’s words, starting with the sense — which she acknowledged — that the Sixers would take the lead on getting a franchise here. If the ownership group ends up being different people, that would be fine with her, too. But, as of now, Comcast isn’t taking the lead on owning the franchise itself.

Nor, for the moment, are the Sixers. A source with knowledge of the situation said it’s too early to link the NBA team with efforts to bring a WNBA team here.

» READ MORE: Dawn Staley, Geno Auriemma and Cheryl Reeve keep Philly at the forefront of women’s hoops

The world’s game was the most recent professional sport to have a women’s team here, the Independence from 2010-11 in Women’s Professional Soccer. Before then, the Charge were around from 2001-03 in the Women’s United Soccer Association.

It used to be that facilities were an issue. The Charge played at Villanova Stadium because there wasn’t really anywhere better to go. By the time the Independence were around, Subaru Park existed, but the rent there was more than WPS’s low budgets could muster.

So the team played at Widener and West Chester’s football stadiums until finally getting into the Union’s home for a playoff game in 2011. It proved to be the last home game of the team’s existence, as the league folded that winter.

In the National Women’s Soccer League era, Gotham FC used to play at Rutgers’ soccer stadium in Piscataway, N.J. The team then known as Sky Blue FC drew some fans from around here, and its marketing department knew it. But everyone, fans included, also knew the team had to get out of there to have a truly professional home. So no one was offended when Sky Blue moved north to Red Bull Arena in Harrison.

Gotham has kept an eye on the Philly area, though. The team moved a regular-season game to Subaru Park last October to honor Carli Lloyd’s retirement, and the Delran native’s presence helped draw a crowd of 9,532 fans — well above Gotham’s average last year of 5,150.

» READ MORE: Looking back at the Philadelphia Charge’s first season, over two decades ago

Earlier last year, Gotham worked with the Union to have Subaru Park on standby as a Challenge Cup final venue if needed. This year, Gotham will play a home game in Chester again, on Aug. 20 against the Orlando Pride. That will be one of the best barometers of fan interest yet, since Lloyd’s famous name won’t be on the marquee.

Former Independence midfielder Kia McNeill, now the head women’s coach at Brown University, believes a team here could succeed.

“Many of my former teammates still are in touch with host families or fans from Philly, and I don’t think we can say that about other teams we played for,” she said. “There was definitely something special about Philly and the fan base there. … I am hoping with some of the expansion talks going on in the league that Philly becomes part of the conversation in the coming years.”

There are many Philly-area natives in the NWSL right now, including one of its top young prospects: Voorhees-born San Diego Wave striker Amirah Ali.

“Philly has some really crazy fans and people who are really willing to support at all costs, so I think that a women’s team in Philadelphia — no matter the sport — would just thrive,” Ali said. “I’ve been to plenty of Philadelphia Union games, and I know that if there was a women’s team there, I think people would also love to see those games. So I think that’s really something that should get in the works soon if it can.”

» READ MORE: Amirah Ali is learning from Alex Morgan and other San Diego stars in her rookie season

Among the league’s veterans from the Philadelphia area, Williamstown’s Brittany Ratcliffe has played in Boston, Kansas City (twice), and Salt Lake City, and now is in her second season with the North Carolina Courage. She grew up a Charge fan, and still has some souvenirs from back then.

“I hope one day an NWSL team comes to Philadelphia, and it would be an awesome full-circle moment in my career to take the field for them,” Ratcliffe said. “But if it comes many years down the road, I cannot wait to support them and be their biggest fan. … There is a different type of bond that is built when it’s ‘your team,’ and Philadelphia is the place that helped me build my bond for professional sports.”

It’s hard to believe the NWSL would say no if a good ownership group comes along. Right now, there is none on the horizon. But Union president Tim McDermott said the team’s work with Gotham has sparked serious internal conversations about what’s possible.

“It’s certainly on our radar, and been on our radar for the past few years,” McDermott said. “We’re having conversations with folks at the NWSL league office, we’re trying to get an assessment of the overall market interest.”

McDermott said the Union would need to expand their practice facilities to accommodate an NWSL team, and the front office is studying how to do so.

“It’s definitely something that we are bullish on, it’s something we are very tuned into,” he said. “We’ll continue to study it and see what the corporate interest is, see what the fan interest is, and make sure that we have all the appropriate facilities that would be necessary to do this in the right way.”

» READ MORE: Why Philadelphia should remain an NWSL expansion contender

Believe it or not, hockey might be where a Philly pro team is closest to fruition. While the WNBA and NWSL’s next expansion teams likely won’t start until 2024, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association’s planned new six-team league could have a team here next year.

“We’re in direct contact with the PWHPA about their plans, including the possibility of bringing a team to Philly,” Camillo said. “We’re actively evaluating what makes the most sense for us, for the sport, and for the city. … We definitely see it as an investment in growing the game.”

The PWHPA is stacked with players from the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams. It exists right now as the Dream Gap Tour, a barnstorming circuit that plays games at arenas around the country. In March 2020, just before the pandemic, they played at the Flyers’ Skate Zone in Voorhees.

“If all goes as we hope, there would be a professional women’s hockey league in the 2023 season unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” said PWHPA chairperson Jayna Hefford, a former Canadian star player who won four straight Olympic gold medals from 2002-14. “Philadelphia is a city of knowledgeable and passionate hockey fans. We believe it could be a fantastic market for a professional women’s hockey team.”

Hefford also said the Flyers “have been incredibly supportive of the PWHPA mission,” and Philadelphia “produced really positive results in our market demand analysis.”

» READ MORE: This year’s Women’s Frozen Four at Penn State was the latest sign of progress for women’s hockey in Pennsylvania

There is an existing pro league, the six-team Premier Hockey Federation, but the Olympic stars have long had friction with it. A few years ago, Comcast looked into investing in a franchise in the PHF under its former name, the National Women’s Hockey League, but the company ended up staying out for reasons including the league’s instability (which still is an issue).

These days, the Flyers are one of the PWHPA’s official NHL partner teams, and that’s not the only local tie. The U.S. women’s hockey players’ labor team is headlined by Philadelphia-based John Langel, the longtime Ballard Spahr attorney who represented the 1999-era U.S. women’s soccer team.

In April, Canada’s Sportsnet reported that the PWHPA was assembling a plan to launch a league this January. In May, the PWHPA signed partnerships with two headline-making sports investment groups: one run by Billie Jean King and one run by Mark Walter, the chief executive of Guggenheim Partners and the lead owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Walter also has stakes in the Lakers and English soccer club Chelsea, whose women’s team is one of the world’s best.

The wheels are moving now, and Camillo is tuned into the process.

“It’s important for us to help be part of the solution to establishing a growing, flourishing women’s game in the United States,” she said. “On a personal level, I believe that Philly is the best sports town in the world. And this city needs and deserves women’s professional sports franchises.”

» READ MORE: How John Langel linked the U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team’s stars to World Cup soccer legends

The venue question is tricky. The Wells Fargo Center is undoubtedly too big, but the Flyers’ Skate Zone’s main rink only seats a few hundred fans. Penn’s 2,500-seat Class of 1923 Arena is the right size, but the 52-year-old arena’s locker room facilities might not be good enough for a professional team to call home.

“The first piece of it would be ownership, and then the second would be facility,” Camillo said. “We can play a significant role in [finding] a solution for that. But we would also be open to the idea of, if the Wells Fargo Center isn’t right for Day 1, what venue might be, and how do we create partnerships there?”

For now, the behind-the-scenes work continues.

“We’re actively exploring ownership of a franchise,” Camillo said, “Some of these teams likely may not be profitable in Year 1, and so this is an investment and women’s sports and investment growing the game, and we’re very cognizant of that. … We’re open to what makes sense to launch, create and grow a healthy franchise in Philadelphia when we get to that point.”