WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert will visit Denver on Wednesday as the league assesses the city’s potential for an expansion team, possibly as early as 2025.
The group that is meeting with Engelbert declined to discuss it, but a source who is closely involved with Engelbert’s visit confirmed she will be in the city to meet with an investment team and tour gyms where a WNBA team could play and practice.
The investment team includes Robert Cohen, chairman and chief executive officer of IMA Financial Group; Navin Dimond, CEO and co-founder of Stonebridge Companies, a hospitality and hotel development company; and his daughter Ashley Dimond, who works as Stonebridge’s director of strategy, the source said.
Cohen and the Dimonds declined to comment for this story.
Bill Hanzlik, a former Denver Nugget and founder of the youth sports organization Gold Crown Foundation, said he has been involved with the investors as a potential non-profit partner. He told The Post that he did not know specific details, but that the WNBA will want to know how potential investors plan to participate in charities in their communities.
“We would love to have a WNBA franchise,” Hanzlik said. “It would be great. Girls in sports is a big priority of ours.”
Engelbert will be accompanied by Todd DeMoss, the WNBA’s associate vice president of basketball operations, the source said. They will visit Ball Arena, home of the Nuggets and Avalanche, and Magness Arena on the University of Denver campus as they scout future practice and home game facilities.
Engelbert told Front Office Sports in May that the WNBA has a list of 10 cities where it is considering adding one or two teams by 2025. Denver is reportedly on that list. Other cities include Portland, Austin, Nashville, Charlotte, Toronto, Philadelphia and the Bay Area in California.
At a news conference earlier this month, Engelbert reiterated her intention to expand the league, saying, “We need more than 12 teams. We need to be in some big cities in this country where our demographics and psychographics and all our data and information shows there’s some great markets out there for WNBA basketball.”
Engelbert also has acknowledged that increasing the number of franchises would give more women an opportunity to play professional ball in the United States. Each WNBA roster is capped at 12 players, so it’s not unusual for women who are drafted to be cut before the season begins.
In 2022, CU Buffs star Mya Hollingshed was cut by the Las Vegas Aces before the season started even after being chosen eighth overall.
The WNBA’s popularity is growing along with a growing fan base for NCAA women’s basketball.
Viewership for WNBA games was up 46% on ESPN through the first half of the season compared to the same point during the 2022 season. ABC recorded 647,000 average viewers across eight WNBA games in 2023, Front Office Sports reported just before the league’s all-star break in July.
While Colorado hosts five major professional sports leagues for men it does not have any pro sports teams for women in spite of producing some of the biggest stars in women’s sports.
Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday, played at Colorado State. Phoenix Mercury forward Michaela Onyenwere graduated from Grandview High School in Aurora, and Aces forward Alysha Clark was born in Denver.
Two women from Colorado played for the U.S. Women’s National Team this month in the soccer World Cup: Lindsey Horan of Golden and Sophia Smith of Windsor.
The city was home to a professional women’s basketball team for two-and-a-half seasons from 1996 to 1998, but the Colorado Xplosion disbanded after the ABL collapsed amid competition from the WNBA.
Now the WNBA is the longest-tenured women’s sports league in the United States.
In July, a group named “For Denver FC” launched a campaign to recruit a professional women’s soccer club to the city. That group has a dozen or so volunteers and some financial support.
The three major investors in the WNBA effort are committed, the source said, and the group is recruiting minor investors and celebrity supporters.
Two of the investors — Cohen and Navin Dimond — were involved in Denver and Colorado’s push to host the 2030 Olympic Games, although that effort failed to gain traction.
Cohen is a founder of the Metro Denver Sports Commission and Denver Sports. He’s also on the board of the U.S. Olympic Museum, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Foundation and Visit Denver.
Navin Dimond is chairman of the Denver branch board for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and sits on the boards of trustees for the University of Denver and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and on the Denver Metro Convention and Visitor’s Bureau board of directors.
Ashley Dimond also serves as secretary for the Dimond Family Foundation.
All of the investors bring money and the expertise to run big, complicated organizations, The Post’s source said.
Conversations among investors about recruiting a WNBA expansion franchise to Colorado began in late 2021 and informal conversations with the WNBA started in early 2022, the source said.
Engelbert and DeMoss are expected to attend a reception Wednesday evening with the investors and other boosters. Area women’s basketball coaches and other major sports figures are on the guest list, although many contacted by The Post declined to confirm their participation.
It’s unclear how much money investors will need to buy a WNBA expansion team. The league does not disclose its sales prices when a team changes hands. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that the Seattle Storm was valued at a league record $151 million after its owners sold minority shares to raise money for a practice facility.
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