PHOENIX — The WNBA finds itself at a crossroads as viewership continues to trend upward. The 2021 playoff broadcast numbers are up 78 percent from last season and 54 percent from 2019 as the league continues to command more attention.

With interest at an all-time high but only 12 franchises in the league, the conversation centers on expansion. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has talked about the situation at length, but she gave her most tangible update Sunday before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.

“Expansion is on the horizon,” Engelbert said.

The league is conducting data analysis to vet possible cities using metrics such as the popularity of the WNBA and Division I college basketball in the area as well as merchandise sales. Engelbert said the league is using about 15 metrics to evaluate a variety of locations, then possible ownership groups have to be determined. There is no timeline, but she hopes to have more information during the 2022 season.

“The data looks like it’s going to read out some interesting information for us to start having exploratory discussions with certain cities,” Engelbert said, “and make sure that we can find great ownership groups to support a WNBA team and great fan bases. So that’s why I think looking at how those cities are already supporting the WNBA, whether it’s viewership, merch sales or other things or whether they’re supporting women’s sports or women’s college basketball are great indicators of how it would get supported if a WNBA team were to go in that market.”

A thrilling postseason that included a down-to-the-final-seconds Game 5 semifinal between the Phoenix Mercury and Las Vegas Aces has brought the playoff format back into the conversation. The first two rounds are single-elimination games before the five-game series begin. Engelbert said the league is discussing whether to keep that format or change to a three-game series. The WNBA changed to its current setup in 2016.

There are an array of logistics that must be considered, including having to add more games and how that would affect broadcast windows and arena dates. The league already has issues with teams having to play outside of their home arenas in the playoffs because of the facilities being booked for other events.

“We see there’s other single elimination like the wild-card games in baseball, like obviously the NCAA March Madness tournaments,” Engelbert said. “So it’s exciting. Single-elimination games are exciting. I’m sure whatever we change it to in the next three to five years, we’ll be looking at it again because there’s pros and cons to every different playoff format. So we want to be very thoughtful about what we do.”

Single elimination may be exciting, but it’s not what players or coaches favor. Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP for the Seattle Storm, would love to see a change.

“I think from the players’ standpoint we all would like the single elimination to be gone,” she said. “Just because you work all season for an opportunity, and to have one game just kind of makes it over really quickly. Yeah, it’s the format for college, but this isn’t college. This is the WNBA. Also, I think extending the playoffs and making series out of all the rounds just makes for more viewers, more eyes to watch us and more people to be a part of it.”

Mercury Coach Sandy Brondello acknowledged both Phoenix and Chicago benefited from the single-elimination games as the Nos. 5 and 6 seeds advanced to the Finals. Since the current format was instituted with teams seeded 1 through 8 regardless of conference, 2021 is the first time that teams seeded that low advanced to the Finals. Previously, the lowest seed to reach the Finals was the Washington Mystics as the No. 3 in 2018.

Brondello is not a fan and thinks, with the talent and depth of the league increasing, a full series would be more fair to all teams.

“I like series,” said Sky Coach James Wade, whose team claimed Game 1 of the Finals, 91-77. “I don’t know if it’s always the best teams that win the single-elimination games, but pretty sure that it’s always the best teams that are winning a series. I think you want to facilitate that as much as you can. It makes for a better product, and we’re the only basketball league professionally that does that.

“I really would like the opportunity to play in a series from the beginning. We’ll see if that’s possible. . . . It just makes for more basketball and even better story lines. . . . Me personally, I love preparing for a series.”

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