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Prose and Kohn

The WNBA in Sarasota? One entrepreneur wants to make it happen

Steve Rosenfeld believes Sarasota is the perfect spot for a professional basketball team in the up-and-coming league.

Minnesota Lynx forward Alanna Smith (8) hits a layup against the Seattle Storm in a May 17 game. The WNBA is having a surge in popularity in 2024 — and entrepreneur Steve Rosenfeld wants to bring a team to Sarasota.
Minnesota Lynx forward Alanna Smith (8) hits a layup against the Seattle Storm in a May 17 game. The WNBA is having a surge in popularity in 2024 — and entrepreneur Steve Rosenfeld wants to bring a team to Sarasota.
Photo by John McClellan, CC BY-SA 2.0
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The WNBA is experiencing a boom in popularity thanks to young crossover stars and a style of play that appeals to old-school basketball fans, who prefer the women's game to the NBA's modern three-point-heavy, defense-light style. 

Could that popularity boom extend to Sarasota?

One entrepreneur wants to see it happen — and believes it's possible. 

Steve Rosenfeld, originally from Bronxville, New York, is the president and CEO at Columbia Skincare and the CEO of Columbia Microbiome Sciences among other ventures. He's also a fan of basketball, particularly women's basketball. 

He's so much of a fan that he briefly coached at the State University of New York at New Paltz, he said. Rosenfeld said he prefers the women's game to leagues like the NBA because of its "traditional" style of play, he said. 

Entrepreneur Steve Rosenfeld is on a mission to bring a WNBA team to Sarasota.
Courtesy image

"It's fundamental basketball," Rosenfeld said. "I find that the NBA, over the years, has become more like an entertainment venue than a sports venue. As a passionate fan of the game of basketball, I found the WNBA to be a welcome change." 

The one problem Rosenfeld has with the WNBA is its ownership. The NBA owns 50% of the WNBA, while its 12 team owners have the other 50%. 

The thing is, five of those 12 teams are owned by the NBA team owners that share their city. 

Entrepreneur Ted Leonsis, for example, owns both the NBA's Washington Wizards and the WNBA's Washington Mystics. The ownership situation has led to the league being run by a "good old boy network," Rosenfeld said, where things are less equitable for the league's athletes than they could be. Eventually, Rosenfeld got the idea that he could help break up this network by becoming an owner himself and being a voice for change. 

Where to set up this potential expansion franchise? Well, Rosenfeld has been living in Sarasota part-time since 2006, and he can think of no better place than here. 

"I can see, between the colleges and the incredible, increasing number of young families moving in, that we have a perfect environment to support a WNBA team," Rosenfeld said. "You have a large female athlete population. You have men — who until recently have been absent from WNBA events — with young daughters who are absolutely captivated by (Indiana Fever guard) Caitlin Clark and (Chicago Sky forward) Angel Reese. The window of opportunity is right now. I think we can have a strong impact on the growth (of the league) and the opportunities for better equity among female athletes." 

The challenges

Rosenfeld is right about fans being captivated by the league's newest wave of stars. There were 10 sellout games during the league’s opening week, and Clark's debut for the Fever, after a history-making college career at the University of Iowa, drew an average of 2.1 million viewers, which was ESPN's highest viewership for a WNBA game in its history. 

But problems remain. The league only this season began chartering flights for its teams, with mixed results, and players are notoriously underpaid, with players often having to play overseas during the offseason for extra income. Rosenfeld's desire to fix some of these things is noble. 

There's one problem with Rosenfeld's plan, and it's a large one: The WNBA does not see things the way he does. 

Rosenfeld said he has had multiple meetings with the league, going back three years, about creating an expansion team. Rosenfeld said the league is looking for owners with previous team management experience, preferably someone who is already an owner and runs facilities. That way, the team automatically has a place to play, or at least practice. The league's two latest expansion announcements, of the Golden State Valkyrie and an unnamed Toronto franchise, back up this assertion. 

In April, prior to the 2024 WNBA Draft, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said she is "pretty confident" the league will have 16 teams by 2028. With Golden State and Toronto coming, that leaves two expansion spots left. 

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things you need, committed long-term ownership groups," Engelbert said. "And so, the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls, we're continuing to engage with cities." 

Engelbert gave a list of some of those cities: Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver and Nashville. But also: South Florida. That phrasing usually means Miami, in practice. But what if it didn't this time? What if Rosenfeld is able to convince Engelbert and the WNBA to look at the opposite coast?

There are issues to work out. Rosenfeld does not have previous team ownership experience, he said, but he does know people who own teams and believes he can convince someone to found a potential Sarasota team with him. 

The biggest issue is where the team would play, and for that there is no answer, at least not yet. Rosenfeld said he's had casual discussions with Erik Zimmer, the director of investor relations with the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, about the idea, but nothing concrete has formed yet. Zimmer confirmed that the pair have talked and will likely meet again in a few weeks to more fully understand Rosenfeld's plans. 

Rosenfeld is not worried; with a potential expansion team not officially joining the league until 2028 anyway, he said, there would be time to build a new facility. But if a facility is not ready, could IMG Academy serve as a temporary solution? The WNBA did hold its 2020 "bubble" season there during the COVID-19 pandemic, after all. Rosenfeld said he has not had any discussions with IMG regarding that possibility, but from a distance, it makes some sense. 

Make some noise

So what's the next step in this process? Well, Rosenfeld said, it's simple. The city of Sarasota, and the surrounding area, must show the WNBA that it will support a team. That means making some noise. 

If you want a team to come here, use the #WNBASarasota hashtag on the social media platforms of your choice to let the league know it, and say why. If you have a whole lot to say, you can even send an email to [email protected] and state your reasons for wanting a team — or, in journalistic fairness, not wanting a team. If we get enough, perhaps we will feature a roundup of them in the future. 

Me personally? I'd love to see it. The city has shown that will support Baltimore Orioles spring training, putting up great attendance numbers despite the games not counting and most area fans having no attachment to the O's for the rest of the season, either pivoting to Tampa Bay Rays fandom or staying loyal to the team from wherever they lived before Sarasota. With a professional sports team to call its own, I imagine the excitement would be even higher. 

Rosenfeld said he's confident that enthusiasm for this idea exists. Now, it's about proving it. 

"We just have to sell the idea to the general public," Rosenfeld said. "We have to get people talking about the team. We need a vote of confidence that they will support it — or not. I need to send the message (to the WNBA) that, 'Hey, Sarasota wants this and can be an asset to the league.'"



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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