Can Craig Greenberg Help Bring A WNBA Team To Louisville?

The mayor needs a mogul. Craig Greenberg wants to bring the WNBA to Louisville at a time women’s professional basketball is still struggling for solvency. He needs someone with many spare millions and a willingness to wait, perhaps indefinitely, for a return on investment. 

He is chasing expansion without the incalculable benefit of a ready buyer. 

“We’re working a few angles,” Greenberg said. “We’re making it known in WNBA world that we would love to have a team here. I think the community would support it. I think Louisville has the potential to be the women’s professional sports capital of the world. . .

“Let’s make it happen.”

With the average NBA franchise now worth close to $3 billion (according to Forbes’ October valuations), and MLS expansion fees reportedly reaching $500 million, the odds against Louisville reclaiming major-league status in any major men’s sport fall somewhere between daunting and D.O.A. Forty-seven years since the demise of the ABA Kentucky Colonels, the city continues to lag larger, wealthier and faster-growing markets in the pursuit of pro sports, and the price of admission grows progressively prohibitive.

Gaining a foothold in female pro sports is far less expensive and, therefore, far more realistic. At present, the Ville’s lone top-tier pro team is Racing Louisville of the National Women’s Soccer League. And though the WNBA’s May-September regular season runs through the heart of the NWSL schedule, and could cannibalize Racing’s fan base rather than complement it, Soccer Holdings chair John Neace is on record as on board.

“We’re all for raising the profile of women’s professional sports in Louisville,” Neace said, “and wish local officials luck in their pursuit of another top-tier team.”

It won’t be easy. The WNBA has been contemplating expansion for years and has narrowed an initial list of more than 100 cities to about 10, including the San Francisco Bay area, Toronto, Philadelphia and Nashville. If Louisville is somewhere on that list, WNBA executives have yet to return LEO’s calls about the city’s potential candidacy.

Undeterred by his relatively late start, Greenberg invited WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and former league president Donna Orender to attend the Kentucky Derby as his guest shortly after taking office in January. Engelbert declined. Orender accepted. Greenberg emerged encouraged.

“I think there’s so much potential,” he said. “We’ve got Racing. We’ve got the Kentucky Oaks. Let’s keep building upon that.”

There is, to be sure, an audience for women’s sports hereabouts. The University of Louisville women’s basketball program has ranked among the nation’s top five teams in average attendance 13 years in a row. U of L’s women’s volleyball program continues to court claustrophobia in its compact campus arena. Still unclear, though, is how well pricier WNBA tickets would sell in a state that ranked 47th last year in disposable income per capita.

U of L’s women’s basketball season tickets are on sale for $176 for 16 home games — $11 per game, with further price breaks available for young fans and seniors. Racing Louisville’s 2023 season tickets started at $196 for 14 games, $14 per game. 

The WNBA’s Indiana Fever also has a season ticket package available at $14 per game, but the league’s average ticket price was $47 as recently as 2021, according to 

Though the Wall Street Journal estimates the sale of minority interests in the Seattle Storm valued that franchise at $151 million — roughly 10 times the rate of the WNBA’s highest previous franchise sales — the league’s growth has been uneven and its reliance on NBA subsidies unbroken. Now in its 27th year, the WNBA peaked at 16 teams and has been at 12 since 2010. The stated goal of announcing a round of expansion by the end of 2022 proved overly ambitious.

“We want to make sure the new ownership group is set up for success,” Engelbert said before last year’s WNBA Finals. “So we will announce it when it’s right, when we have reached agreements with different ownership groups… You need to find the right owners with the right capital.”

The problem, presumably, is persuading rich people to invest in an enterprise that has yet to prove it can be profitable. Craig Greenberg’s challenge is finding someone who shares his vision and can afford to see it through.

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