Why doesn’t Philly have a WNBA team? The local history of women’s basketball and the case for bringing it back

Best fan base, large media market, plenty of stadium space — it’s a no-brainer.

The Washington Mystics' Natasha Cloud, a Delco native, is trying to help bring a WNBA team to Philly

The Washington Mystics' Natasha Cloud, a Delco native, is trying to help bring a WNBA team to Philly

Cloud: Jessica Hill / AP Photo; Skyline: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Women’s basketball is more popular than ever. Over 330,000 people watched the WNBA draft last week on ESPN, a reach topped only by last year’s no-live-sports-in-the-pandemic edition. As the league heads into its 25th season, there’s a question that continues to ricochet:

Why isn’t there a WNBA team based in Philadelphia?

Widely acknowledged as one of the best sports cities in the U.S., Philly also has one of the largest media markets. But although there are people trying to bring the WNBA into the fold, league officials continue to shut down rumors it could happen soon.

Granted, Philadelphia has been home to other women’s basketball teams in the past, and they failed to garner a large fan base. But they were likely ahead of their time.

WNBA buzz has built quickly over the past couple of years. Sports fans’ heads snapped to attention when last April’s draft featured Sabrina Ionescu, the first NCAA basketball player to rack up 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. In August, the league leapt into the national spotlight as players on the Atlanta Dream protested their former owner (and former Georgia Senator) Kelly Loeffler’s comments against Black Lives Matter support — which the entire league had backed.

So has the time come for Philly to get in on the action? One of the most prominent advocates is Mystics player Natasha Cloud, who is from Delaware County.

In an interview last month with WRNB 100.3 host MinaSayWhat, Cloud dropped that efforts to bring a WNBA team to Philadelphia have been in the works for almost a year and a half.

“It’s not necessarily a secret … we are trying to get a Philly team,” Cloud said. “Put a little pressure, not only on the city, but on the [WNBA], too. For us to progress, our league needs to expand. We have to have more than 144 jobs.”

After her comments went viral, Cloud clarified on Twitter that the initiative so far is just backed by individuals, and not endorsed by the league itself. A WNBA spokesperson said the focus remains on the 12 current franchises, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia.

History of women’s basketball in Philly

There have been three prior attempts to make pro women’s basketball a thing in Philadelphia.

In the late 1970s, the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) had a team called the Philadelphia Fox. It didn’t even last a year, with money issues being a major culprit — the last-minute owner once said he financed operations using his own credit cards. The Fox were canceled in the middle of the 1979 season. The WBL shut down entirely two years later.

Next up was the Philadelphia Rage, who were part of the American Basketball League in the late ’90s.

The team, which featured future Hall of Famer and Philly native Dawn Staley, started out in Richmond, Virginia, and then moved north for two seasons. Signing Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee brought some attention, but it wasn’t enough, and in 1998 the entire ABL declared bankruptcy and ceased operations.

Part of the ABL’s problem was that the WNBA launched right around the same time. Since 1997, there have been 18 franchises, though only 12 teams are active: Atlanta, Chicago, Connecticut, Indiana, New York, and Washington in the east; Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Phoenix, and Seattle in the west.

Two decades after the Rage’s demise, Philadelphia native Tamika Milburn decided to try again with a franchise in the Women’s Professional Basketball Association.

With a home base in Chestnut Hill, the Philadelphia Reign launched in 2019. The team barely had time to make headway before the pandemic arrived, and its current status is unclear. The entire league league is relatively new, with teams primarily located on the East Coast. The WPBA website does not appear active.

The case for bringing it back

What exactly makes Philadelphia such a good city for a WNBA team?

For one, the size of its media market. In Nielsen’s 2021 television rankings, Philly ranks fourth behind Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Though people watch sports on all kinds of platforms these days, broadcasts in Philly reach at least 3 million homes. Six out of the top 10 TV markets have WNBA teams.

Second, there’s space for it. Because of the WNBA schedule, which begins in May, the team wouldn’t have to worry too much about finding a place to play.

Temple’s Liacouras Center or Penn’s Palestra would be relatively available during the summer, and depending on Sixers’ and Flyers’ postseason activity, the Wells Fargo Center could be open as well. And if the Sixers made good on their rumored desire to build an entirely new arena, they could share it with their WNBA counterpart.

Finally, the city’s overall embrace of sports culture — and specifically of basketball.

From Philly native Wilt Chamberlain to Julius “Dr. J” Erving to Allen Iverson, the city’s history is full of beloved stars. Neighborhood courts are never empty, and the college scene is always bumping, from Villanova to Drexel.

Then there’s the Sixers: a dedicated fan base stood by the team during the Process years, and everyone else has recently flocked back. Last year, Forbes magazine ranked Philly fans ninth-best in the NBA, and the Sixers led the league in attendance in both 2019 and 2020.

Cloud, the Delco native Mystics player, is likely aware of all these things. “Listen, it’s in the works,” she said on the radio last month. “I’m trying my damndest to bring a team back to Philly.”

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Tagged

WNBA, NBA, Women, Sports, Sixers