4 reasons why the WNBA should expand to Iowa

wnba kate martin las vegas aces training camp

Former Iowa Hawkeye basketball player Kate Martin, left, at training camp for the WNBA team the Las Vegas Aces. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

By Amie Rivers

April 30, 2024

The WNBA is ready to expand, and it should expand to Iowa—giving us our first professional team.

The WNBA starts up this weekend, and it’s arguably getting the most attention since its founding in 1997.

Everybody knows that’s largely due to Iowa Hawkeye Caitlin Clark, who broke nearly every record and won nearly every individual award on her way to the pros. Clark was drafted No. 1 overall in April by the Indiana Fever, one of just 12 teams in the WNBA.

The league is relatively young, and has expanded over the years from its original eight teams. But 12 teams is still not a lot for a professional league: By contrast, the NBA—the WNBA’s male counterpart—is comprised of 30 teams.

While the WNBA isn’t seeing NBA ratings yet, viewership was up 21% in the 2023 season compared to 2022 (for the games actually broadcast nationally, a whole OTHER topic).

And, based on the WNBA draft viewership alone (2.4 million tuned in this year, a 300% increase), there’s reason to believe this season will smash some more ratings records.

So WNBA expansion right now makes sense. Even WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said she wants to expand the league, renewing that call again this month to expand to 16 teams by 2028.

With that, I ask: Why not put one of those teams in Iowa?

Iowa is not on Engelbert’s expansion radar. And folks might not think Iowa’s population can “support” a team (AKA, make WNBA execs yachtloads of money). After all, that’s why no other major professional league has taken a chance on Iowa in recent times.

But I’ve got three good reasons (and a fourth one that’s meh) why Iowa would be a great place to host a WNBA team:

The WNBA would have no top-tier competition

For one glorious year in 1949, Iowa had an actual NBA team: the Waterloo Hawks (we don’t count the Tri-Cities Blackhawks since they played on the Illinois side of the now-Quad Cities). While we lost that, there’s the NBA G League Iowa Wolves, which have been gaining a decent fanbase at Wells Fargo Arena.

But while the G League still features up-and-coming players and great basketball, I don’t think anyone would argue it’s the same thing as watching an NBA or a WNBA game—that is to say, watching players at the highest level of the sport.

Because of our population—at best, stagnating—it’s not likely that the NBA or any of the Big Four leagues are moving to Iowa anytime soon.

Weirdly, that’s an argument FOR bringing in a WNBA team: With no other league bringing their top talent, the WNBA would corner the market.

Of course, if being our only pro team was the sole argument, it wouldn’t work. I mean, would Iowa’s population *really* support a WNBA team? Well, sure, because….

Iowa has loved women’s basketball for a century

Iowa literally was the proving ground for girls’ basketball.

Before women’s basketball was a thing anywhere else—truly, before girls were allowed to play sports anywhere else—high school girls were playing 6-on-6 basketball all over Iowa starting in 1920.

And it was incredibly successful. Crowds packed into high school gymnasiums to watch them play. The state tournament (15,000-seat capacity) was frequently sold out.

One of those dominant players from Iowa (Denise Long of Union-Whitten) became the first woman drafted into the NBA (the San Francisco Warriors) in 1969 before there were even collegiate opportunities for women. (The NBA rejected the draft pick, but the Warriors started an unpaid league with Long, where women’s teams would play as an opener to NBA games.)

Bottom line: Iowa has a long tradition of supporting girls’ basketball and a deep well of players and fans immersed in the sport. We are not new, nor fair-weather, fans. And, when given the chance at watching greatness, we still throw money at it….

Iowa had the No. 1 draft pick (and 18th)

Professional sports leagues are nothing without their stars. And the brightest of the bunch right now is Caitlin Clark, the pride of Iowa.

With her logo 3s, no-look assists, and deft defense, she has been exciting to watch her whole collegiate career. And Iowans sold out Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the past two years, as well as many of the arenas around the country where the Hawkeyes played, to catch a glimpse of that greatness.

Losing Clark to Indiana hasn’t dampened any enthusiasm here: Fever tickets are now the most expensive ticket in the league. Teams outside of Indiana have made plans to move their games to bigger arenas to accommodate the crowds.

And, if No. 18 draftee and former Hawkeye Kate Martin actually makes the Las Vegas Aces 12-woman roster, I’d be willing to bet those direct-to-Las-Vegas Southwest or Allegiant flights start filling up, too. (Don’t forget a former Hawkeye, Megan Gustafson, is also on the Aces.)

It’s called the Caitlin Clark effect. But it proved one thing: Iowans respect—and will throw money at—greatness. And speaking of throwing money….

Des Moines would probably pony up the taxpayer cash

This one’s my most ick argument, but:

Given that Des Moines and Polk County taxpayers are already on the hook for many millions of dollars for a USL soccer stadium (again, a second-tier pro league), it’s fair to say the same (or perhaps better) deal would be on offer for a top-tier WNBA team.

Look, I’m not a fan of billionaire owners asking us for our hard-earned money, either. However, I am willing to bet Iowa taxpayers would (if begrudgingly) accept this for its first pro team (and certainly, any city would). And that’s not nothing in an era when voters in larger US cities are starting to question the value of public financing of a new stadium, particularly when they already field several other professional teams.

Give us a chance!

Women’s sports is having a moment, and all of the expansion cities make sense on paper.

But Iowa, unique among other possible expansion cities, has a century-long tradition of support, a built-in fanbase that has proved willing to support, and the desire to show up and throw tons of money at high school and collegiate women’s basketball players.

A women’s pro team makes sense in Iowa. All we need is a chance to prove it.

  • Amie Rivers

    Amie Rivers is Starting Line's community editor, labor reporter and newsletter snarker-in-chief. Previously, she was an award-winning journalist at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier; now, she very much enjoys making TikToks and memes. Send all story tips and pet photos to [email protected] and sign up for our newsletter here.

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