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WNBA's Plans for Portland Expansion Team Fall Through
Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has deferred Portland's bid over arena renovation concerns.
Just under a month ago, the WNBA officially announced a 13th franchise in San Francisco to begin play in 2025. That day, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said she wanted to add a 14th team that same year. Multiple media outlets reported that Portland was expected to be that second expansion team, with a vote from the NBA's Board of Governors set to finalize the decision soon.
It turns out that optimism was a little premature.
On Wednesday afternoon, as first reported by The Oregonian, the WNBA's planned expansion to Portland was scuttled, at least for now, by concerns over the timing of a multi-year renovation project the Trail Blazers plan to complete on the Moda Center before the end of the decade.
"[I]n light of the potential renovation of the Moda Center currently anticipated to take place during consecutive summers, consideration of a WNBA franchise for Portland will be deferred for now until the timing and scope of the arena improvements are settled," Engelbert wrote in a letter to Oregon's senior U.S. Senator, Ron Wyden, who has been involved in the effort to bring a team to Portland. "When the time is right, we look forward to pursuing prospects for bringing the WNBA to Portland."
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The news is certainly a blow to sports fans in the area, and those working behind the scenes, who saw Portland as an ideal market for a WNBA franchise to be successful, but it isn't entirely unexpected. There are still a lot of moving parts and plans yet to be finalized when it comes to the Moda Center's future. The Blazers own the Moda Center but were not directly involved in the ownership group pushing for WNBA expansion. That group was led by ZoomInfo cofounder Kirk Brown.
Portland is set to host the NCAA Women's Final Four in 2030, creating a hard deadline for the final two years of a three-phase renovation project for the arena, which the Blazers' parent company, Vulcan Inc., has been financing. The first stage took place this past summer, when the area around the baseline seats underwent some structural improvements. Two more summers' worth of improvements need to happen before 2030, but it hasn't yet been finalized which two summers between now and then would be targeted.
One of the factors going into that decision is the Blazers' lease with the city of Portland, which is set to expire in 2025. The team is currently in negotiations on a new long-term lease, which is expected to be completed in the coming months, but they may want to get that finalized before making a firm commitment on the timeline of the remaining renovations.
The arrival of a potential WNBA expansion team was another factor. One scenario that was discussed involved the Moda Center renovations being put off until 2027 and 2028, to give the WNBA team two years at the beginning of its existence to play at the arena before being temporarily displaced to the Veterans Memorial Coliseum while the renovations were completed.
However, the Coliseum may have created more issues. That building, which opened in 1960, would also need some significant upgrades in order to be a viable arena for a WNBA team, even on a temporary basis. And since the Coliseum is owned by the city of Portland, not the Blazers, those upgrades were not planned to be a part of the Moda Center upgrades the team is paying for. Brown's ownership group would likely have been responsible for the costs of upgrading the Coliseum.
Brown has never made himself available to reporters during the WNBA's expansion efforts (he was in attendance at the February roundtable event at the Sports Bra that Wyden hosted for Engelbert, but did not speak). Because of this, it's unclear how far he would have been willing to go financially to help with those costs. He had indicated to the league that he was willing to pay the expansion fee for a team, which sources say was in the neighborhood of $50 million. But it's unknown whether he would have also been willing to fork over additional tens of millions to update a 60-year-old building for the team to play in temporarily for two years towards the end of the decade. It's worth noting that ZoomInfo's stock price has fallen by 59 percent over the past year.
The Portland WNBA expansion effort did not fall short due to a lack of motivation by Brown or the Blazers, or due to a lack of interest from the public. In her letter to Sen. Wyden, Engelbert called Portland an "ideal destination" due to its support for women's sports.
As recently as a month ago, people I spoke with close to the process were highly optimistic a deal was imminent, and there were whispers that Nike and Wieden+Kennedy were preparing a rollout campaign. Nobody was ready to truly declare it a done deal, but it got about as close as it could get before falling through.
But with so much unsettled around the Blazers' lease with the city and the upcoming renovations to the Moda Center, the league was not prepared to go through with the plan to bring a team to Portland. Maybe one day, after the arena lease and renovations are squared away, that will change. There's no question the public interest is there.