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The WNBA Roster Crunch Is Only Getting Worse

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
Thirty-six women’s basketball players had their dreams come true Monday night. Because of the WNBA roster size problem, only a handful will still be around in a few weeks.

If you weren’t paying attention last night, you should check quickly to make sure the Dallas Wings didn’t draft you.

The team that went 18-18 and lost in the first round of the 2022 WNBA Playoffs ended up with picks 3, 4, and 5 in the 2023 WNBA Draft, as well as Nos. 11, 19, and 31. That’s six rookies in a draft with 36 total picks.

It means the Wings will have options when training camp opens. Stephanie Soares, the No. 4 pick that the Wings acquired in a trade, will miss the 2023 season as she recovers from an ACL tear, but Maddy Siegrist, Lou Lopez-Sénéchal, Abby Meyers, Ashley Joens, and Paige Robinson will all compete to play alongside the likes of Natasha Howard, Arike Ogunbowale, Teaira McCowen, and Diamond DeShields.

Here’s the problem: The Wings brought six players (five this year) into the WNBA, which has a roster size of 12 players per team and only 12 total teams. Not only will it be impossible for each newcomer to make the squad, but multiple first-round picks around the league won’t make a roster at all. Keep in mind there are only 12 picks per round, as opposed to the NBA, which has 30.

There are only 144 roster spots available in the league, and it might not even be that many. Some teams could opt to carry 11 players in order to pay their stars a little more while not exceeding the salary cap.

The WNBA roster size problem is hardly a new one. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert fields questions about the roster crunch every time she speaks with the media. It was no different on Monday before the draft. This year, she pushed back on the notion that a problem exists. This, despite knowing that even some of the players she was about to greet on-stage would not make a roster.

“We think today our rosters are the right size,” she said in her pre-draft press conference before shifting the discussion to expansion.

Engelbert added that roster size will be a discussion topic in the next round of collective bargaining, but for now, she hopes that by adding up to two teams to the league in the coming years — and opening up 24 more roster spots as a result — the problem will begin to solve itself.

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That answer, however, may not satisfy longtime WNBA fans who have grown frustrated by the lack of movement on expansion.

Take a look at the last three WNBA Drafts and how she has answered the expansion question:

  • 2021: “Expansion is certainly on the list of things I’ve been thinking about down the road. It is interesting to note how competitive and how deep the talent in this league is, and so it’s certainly something that as we come out of this pandemic, hopefully, next year, that we’re prepared to start talking about.”
  • 2022: “When you’re only in 12 cities in a country of our size and scale with a global fan base like we have, we do need to be in more cities. I mentioned we were doing an exercise around, kind of a whole data analytics exercise, looking at 100 cities, looking at all of these metrics, which ones would be the best cities to start thinking through to have a WNBA expansion franchise.”
  • 2023: “Earlier this year, you probably saw I visited Portland. Next month, I’ll be in Toronto. My plan is to continue to visit a few more markets in the coming months with groups that we’re having discussions with, with potential ownership groups that have showed interest.”
    “I’m not going to give a timetable. We might have been talking about it, but as you know I have a philosophy that we needed to have more transformation of the league economics because the last thing we want to do is bring new owners in who are going to fail…So I am so glad we didn’t rush it. Yes, now it’s time to really get into the due diligence phase with some of these cities, some of these ownership groups. Start deciding on what an expansion draft might look like. We’ve got great drafts coming up in the next few years.”

So there has been incremental progress. Over three years, expansion has progressed from something Engelbert hoped to explore, to a list of 100 cities, to Engelbert actually visiting a few. But there’s still no timetable for an announcement. Her calls for due diligence and setting up new ownership groups to succeed are reasonable, but meanwhile, there is a very real problem, and most of the players selected Monday won’t be around to reap the benefits of that due diligence.

This is not an either/or situation, either. Expanding the WNBA roster size would not prevent it from also adding teams. Adding teams would not prevent the league from expanding rosters to 13 or 14.

“I don’t understand why we don’t have [roster expansion] already,” Hall of Famer and former New York Liberty star Rebecca Lobo told Boardroom at the women’s Final Four. “There might be 10 players in this draft that stick. And that might even be a high number.”

Lobo isn’t being unrealistic. Out of last year’s 36 picks, 14 did not play in a WNBA game all season (though to be fair, a couple were injured). Second-round picks who were not hurt played an average of 16 games. Just three third-round picks appeared in a game last year, with only Jasmine Dickey playing in more than four.

One solution Lobo offered: add a practice player spot or two to WNBA rosters. Those players would not travel with the team, be paid a full league salary, or play in games unless called up. But they would have league housing, some money, insurance, and would know the team and system so that when they are called up, there is less of a learning curve. It would improve the overall product and give more players opportunities.

It’s an option. And eventually, it seems, expansion will help alleviate the problem. But for now, it’s reasonable to estimate that half of Monday night’s draft class is rushing to move out of their dorm rooms, relocate to a new city, and start a new life at 22 years old, knowing there’s a real chance their dream will come to an end in a few weeks.

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About The Author
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg is an editor and writer at Boardroom. He came to the brand in 2021 with a decade of experience in sports journalism, primarily covering college basketball at SB Nation as a writer, reporter, and blog manager. In a previous life, he worked as a social media strategist and copywriter, handling accounts ranging from sports retail to luxury hotels and financial technology. Though he has mastered the subtweet, he kindly requests you @ him next time.