Between Sunday’s WNBA All-Star Game, the U.S. women’s soccer team’s ongoing World Cup and Olympic qualifiers and the 50th anniversary of Title IX, women’s sports have been in the spotlight this summer.
But the spotlight has been less bright in Philadelphia than elsewhere because there are no major professional women’s sports teams here. There are the occasional one-off games here, but beyond that, fans looking to see pro women’s sports in person will have to head to the New York, New Jersey or DC area options.
What will it take to change that and when will it happen? Here’s where things stand with the women’s league in three sports: basketball, soccer and hockey.
You can file a pass at a WNBA arena without hitting someone looking for a team in Philadelphia. There’s been chatter about it over the years, from players like Broomall’s Natasha Cloud to Collingswood-born commissioner Kathy Englebert.
Everyone in the league knows that Philadelphia has a history of women’s hoops, from the West Chester Pioneers to the Immaculata Mighty Macs to current coaching stars Dawn Staley, Geno Auriemma and Cheryl Reeve. And 25 years ago, he came to town, playing at the Palestra and the Liacouras Center for a season and a half before the Philadelphia Rag League, which was defunct in the American Basketball League, folded.
But every time the conversation starts, it ends the same way: Where is the billionaire owner?
Only recently has a hint of an answer emerged. The media’s resident comedian Wanda Sykes “is part of a group interested in bringing an expansion team to Philadelphia,” the Athletics noted in a report last month. In March 2021, Cloud Certification also said something was “about a year and a half away.”
Cloud later walked back, but the Washington Mystics guard didn’t stop beating the drum to get the WNBA team here.
Another homegrown star in the league, North Philly’s Kahleh Copper, wants to see a team in her hometown.
“There’s a lot of young girls and there’s a lot of women’s basketball fans in Philly who love to watch that team and want to support that team,” said Cooper, who will play in the All-Star Game (1 p.m. 6abc) in the same Chicago arena where she led the Sky to the WNBA title last year. “So I’m definitely an advocate for him. I would love to see a team in Philly. It would be amazing for the city.
We’ll hear from Engelbert at his Sunday morning press conference.
» Read more: After becoming a WNBA breakout star last year, North Philly’s Kahleh Copper is ready to cheer.
In the discussion about having a team here, there are differing opinions on where the team should play. Many people around the league prefer sold-out smaller arenas to half-full-sized ones. So playing at the 10,000-capacity Liacouras Center and for a league with black women in North Philly has more emotional resonance than the 20,000-plus seat Wells Fargo Center.
But this much is for sure: Valerie Camillo, president of Comcast Spectacor’s business operations, is thrilled to be asked for the keys to the arena.
“The Wells Fargo Center will make a great home for a WNBA team here in Philly, and we’re more than ready to work with the Sixers to make that happen,” she said. It almost never feels empty at home.
“Certainly, the demand for right-sized platforms is valid. I’m sure there will be considerations, but if the need is, ‘We need space,’ Wells Fargo Center is ready to have that conversation, and we believe it can be a match.
You can glean a few things from Camilo’s words, starting with the sentiment — which she received — that the Sixers will be the frontrunner to win the franchise here. If the ownership group is a diverse group of people, that’s fine with her. But, so far, Comcast isn’t leading franchise ownership on its own.
Or for now, the Sixers aren’t. A source familiar with the situation said it’s too early to link an NBA team to the effort to bring a WNBA team here.
» Read more: Dawn Staley, Geno Auriemma and Cheryl Reeve continue to lead Philly in women’s knitting.
The World Game was the last professional sport to have a women’s team here since the 2010-11 Independence in Women’s Professional Soccer. Prior to that, the charge was in the Women’s United Football Association from 2001-03.
Earlier it was a matter of facilities. The Chargers played at Villanova Stadium because there is no better place to go. At the time of independence, there was Subaru Park, but the rent was more than WPS’s low budgets could muster.
And so the team played at Widener and West Chester football stadiums until finally coming home to the Union for the playoffs in 2011. It was the team’s last home game when the league ended that summer.
During the National Women’s Soccer League era, Gotham FC played at Rutgers Soccer Stadium in Piscataway, NJ.The team, then called Sky Blue FC, attracted some fans around here, and the marketing department knew it. But everyone, including fans, knew the team needed to get out of there to have a real professional home. No one was disappointed when Sky Blue headed north to Harrison’s Red Bull Arena.
Gotham was monitoring the Philly area. The team moved its regular-season games to Subaru Park last October to honor Carli Lloyd’s retirement, and the Derran native’s presence helped draw 9,532 fans — more than Gotham’s average of 5,150 last year.
» Read more: Looking back at the first season of the Philadelphia Chargers two decades ago
Earlier last year, Gotham worked with the alliance to make Subaru Park a stand-in for the Challenge Cup finals if needed. This year, Gotham will again play a home game in Chester on August 20 against the Orlando Pride. This will be one of the best barometers of fan interest so far, as Lloyd’s famous name isn’t on the marquee.
Former Liberty midfielder Kia McNeil, now the women’s head coach at Brown University, believes a team here can succeed.
“A lot of my former teammates still have connections with host families or Philly fans, and I don’t think we can say that about the other teams we’ve played with,” she said. “There was definitely something special about Philly and the fan base. … I hope that Philly will be a part of the conversation in the coming years with some of the expansion talks going on around the league.”
There are plenty of Philly locals in the NWSL right now, including one of its young prospects: Voorhees-born San Diego Wave forward Amirah Ali.
“Philly has crazy fans and people who are willing to support at any cost, so I think a women’s team in Philadelphia — no matter the sport — will thrive,” Ally said. “I’ve been to a lot of Philadelphia Union games, and if there’s a women’s team there, I know people like to watch those games, too. So I think this is something that should be put into action as soon as possible.
» Read more: Amirah Ali is learning from Alex Morgan and other San Diego stars in her rookie season.
Among the league’s veterans in the Philadelphia area is Williamstown’s Brittany Ratcliffe, who played in Boston, Kansas City (twice) and Salt Lake City and is now in her second season with the North Carolina Courage. She grew up a fan of the Chargers, and still has some memorabilia from back then.
“I hope one day an NWSL team comes to Philadelphia, and it will be a great full-circle moment in my career to take the field for them,” Ratcliffe said. “But many years down the road, I can’t wait to support them and be their biggest fan. … There’s a different kind of bond that builds when it’s your team, and Philadelphia is the place that helped me build my bond for professional sports.
It’s hard to believe the NWSL would say no if a good ownership group came along. Now, there is no one on the horizon. But union president Tim McDermott said the group’s work with Gotham has sparked serious internal discussions about what’s possible.
“It’s definitely on our radar, and it’s been on our radar for the last few years,” McDermott said. “We’re talking to people at the NWSL league office, trying to assess the overall market demand.”
McDermott said the league needs to expand its practice facilities to accommodate the NWSL team and the front office is studying how to do that.
“It’s definitely something we’re proud of, it’s something we’ve learned a lot from,” he said. “We’re going to continue to study it and see what the corporate needs are, see what the fan needs are and make sure we have all the necessary resources to do it the right way.”
» Read more: Why Philadelphia should remain an NWSL expansion contender
Believe it or not, hockey might be the closest Philly pro team gets to fruition. While the WNBA and NWSL’s next expansion teams won’t start until 2024, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association’s proposed new six-team league could have a team here next year.
“We will be in direct contact with the PWHPA about their plans, including the possibility of bringing a team to Philly,” Camillo said. “We’re actively evaluating what’s most important to us, the sport and the city. We see it as an investment to grow the game.”
The PWHPA is stacked with players from the US and Canadian Olympic teams. Now, like the Dream Gap Tour, there’s a balcony circuit that plays games in arenas around the country. In March 2020, before the outbreak, they played at the Racers Skate Zone in Voorhees.
“If all goes as we hope, there will be a professional women’s hockey league unlike anything we’ve seen in the 2023 season,” said PWHPA Chair Jayna Hefford, a former Canadian star who won four straight Olympic gold medals since 2002. 14. “Philadelphia is a city of knowledgeable and passionate hockey fans. We believe it could be a fantastic market for a professional women’s hockey team.
Hefford also said that flyers “have been incredibly supportive of PWHPA’s mission” and that Philadelphia has “provided good results in our revenue needs analysis.”
» Read more: This year’s women’s Frozen Four at Penn State was the latest sign of growth in women’s hockey in Pennsylvania
There is an existing pro league, the six-team Premier Hockey Federation, but the Olympic stars have long clashed. A few years ago, Comcast wanted to invest in the former National Women’s Hockey League franchise in PHF, but the company was held off due to the league’s instability (which is still problematic).
Currently, the Flyers are one of the PWHPA’s official NHL partner teams, and that’s not the only domestic tie. The U.S. Women’s Hockey Players’ Labor Team was headlined in Philadelphia by John Langel, a longtime Ballard Spear attorney who represented the 1999 U.S. Women’s Soccer Team.
In April, Canadian Sportsnet reported that the PWHPA was making plans to launch the league this January. In May, PWHPA signed a partnership with two headline sports investment groups: one led by Billie Jean King and one led by Mark Walters, CEO of Guggenheim Partners and principal owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Walter also has stakes in the Lakers and English soccer club Chelsea, whose women’s team is considered one of the best in the world.
The wheels are now in motion, and Camilo has been corrected in the process.
“It’s important to us to help be part of the solution to establishing a growing and growing women’s game in the United States,” she said. “I personally believe Philly is the best sports city in the world. And this city needs and deserves women’s professional sports franchises.”
» Read more: How John Langle connected the stars of the U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team to a World Cup soccer legend
The question of location is difficult. The Wells Fargo Center is undoubtedly huge, but the Flyers’ Skate Zone main stage only seats a few hundred fans. Penn’s 2,500-seat 1923 Arena is the right size, but the 52-year-old arena’s locker room facilities may not be enough for a professional team to call home.
“The first part will be ownership, and the second will be utility,” Camilo said. We can play a significant role [finding] For that solution. But if the Wells Fargo Center isn’t the right fit for Day 1, we’re open to the idea of what it could be and how we can partner there.
For now, the work behind the scenes continues.
“We’re actively looking into franchise ownership,” Camilo said, “some of these teams may not be profitable in Year 1, and this investment and women’s sports and investment raises the game, and we’re very aware of that.” of that. … When we get to that point, we’re open to whatever makes sense to start, create and grow a healthy franchise in Philadelphia.