The WNBA’s New Home

by Clay Kallam

Before we get down to it, a little geography lesson:

The San Francisco Bay Area consists of several more or less distinct geographic regions, and there are no cities with large populations. (San Francisco itself only has bout 750,000 residents.)

The South Bay is San Jose, the Silicon Valley and assorted suburbs. The North Bay is the least populated and is the best example of Northern California’s easy living and great weather. The West Bay isn’t really called the West Bay, as it’s San Francisco itself and a peninsula of land that includes Stanford and some very rich suburbs. The East Bay has the most people, with the western side of a range of hills consisting of cities (think Berkeley and Oakland), and the eastern side full of suburbs.

There are two large arenas in the entire Bay Area, HP Pavilion in San Jose (where the Sharks play) and Oracle Arena in Oakland (where the Warriors play). The two primary college arenas are Maples Pavilion at Stanford, fairly small and difficult to get to from the East Bay and North Bay, and Haas Pavilion on the UC Berkeley campus, which has absolutely no parking and is traffic hell to get to if it’s sold out.

With that in mind, consider the WNBA’s Bay Area expansion options. It must place the franchise where it will a) have a good place to play, and b) be easy to get to for the two main support groups for WNBA teams: The gay-lesbian population and families with young daughters who play basketball.

Back to geography. The South Bay is volleyball country. Usually one of its high schools is in contention for the national championship, and so most young girls who fit the athletic profile for basketball wind up playing volleyball. There are a couple powerhouse high school basketball teams, but there’s not a real girls’ basketball market for the WNBA to draw from.

The South Bay is also far removed from the gay-lesbian centers of San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland. The Bay Area’s transit system doesn’t reach San Jose, and it’s a long, nasty drive from the East Bay or San Francisco to HP Pavilion.

The combination of those two factors makes HP Pavilion a bad location for a WNBA team – especially since the folks who run HP want no part of a WNBA franchise.

There are no places to play in San Francisco or the North Bay, so cross those two areas off the list of potential homes for a WNBA team – which means we’re down to Stanford (Maples), Cal (HaOracle arenaas) and Oracle.

The two college sites won’t work: Both are too hard to get to, and there’s no parking in Berkeley. (Mass transit isn’t really an option, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into.)

That leaves us with Oracle Arena, right off the freeway, with a mass transit stop (for what that’s worth), in the heart of the East Bay, which is big on girls’ basketball, and basketball of every kind. It’s also easily accessible from the gay-lesbian centers in Berkeley and Oakland, and not that hard to get to from San Francisco (though not that easy, either).

So why hasn’t the WNBA put a franchise at Oracle already? Isn’t it a natural site for a team, given the size of the media market and the good location? Two words: Chris Cohan.

Cohan, who has owned the Warriors far too long, is a nasty, litigious, borderline incompetent businessman who sued his best friend from junior high. He has run the Warriors into the ground, and done a terrible job managing Oracle Arena (as part of the Warriors’ ownership, he books all the events into Oracle). Not only didn’t he want a WNBA franchise to partner with the Warriors, he has made it impossible, either through conscious effort or simple poor management, for anyone else to work out an arena deal for a WNBA team.

Which has meant no WNBA team in one of its most compatible markets.

But that is going to change, and hopefully sooner rather than later. Cohan owes the IRS $150 million or so (not to mention long-suffering Warrior fans a well-run operation), and has put the team on the market. Larry Ellison, who owns Oracle, is one of the suitors, but whoever buys the team has to be a better fit for the WNBA than the hard-to-get-along-with Cohan.

Which means David Stern, Donna Orender and friends will be pressuring prospective Warrior purchasers to make it easy for the WNBA to play at Oracle in 2011 – and that will be no hardship. If any WNBA team is positioned to turn a profit, it’s an East Bay franchise, and if the new owner doesn’t want the team for himself, then he can still fill 17 dates at Oracle by playing nice with prospective WNBA investors.

So yes, the sale of the Warriors is not only good news for Bay Area NBA fans, it’s also good news for Bay Area WNBA fans, and the league itself. There has never really been anywhere to play but Oracle, and as long as Cohan was there, it wasn’t going to happen. He will be gone (not a moment too soon, whenever it occurs), and a WNBA team will arrive.

And that too, won’t be a moment too soon.