Toronto shows it can be a ‘great market’ for WNBA during pre-season test run

Danielle Michaud and Michael Grange discuss the WNBA's preseason game in Toronto between the Minnesota Lynx and Chicago Sky, and how the passionate Canadian fans proved the appetite for a possible expansion team.

When WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert stood at the podium about an hour before history was made Saturday afternoon, she tried to put the possibility of league expansion into proper context.

It was an impressive presentation.

Heading into its 27th season, the WNBA has been taking a business-like, nearly scientific approach to its first expansion since 2008. The timing is TBD – at one point 2024 was a target but it there is no firm timeline. The league started with a data analysis of 100 different cities, gauging them for demographic, ‘psychographic’ and other elements — TV ratings for women’s sports, women’s NCAA basketball and the WNBA among them — that may or may not make them a good fit for a new franchise in the world’s best women’s basketball league.

The list was then cut to 20 as the league drilled down into potential ownership groups, arena access, practice facilities and access to capital for investment and the like. Finally, over the past off-season the league cut its short list down to 10.

“Toronto scored very high on the list,” said Engelbert.

How could it not?

You can do all the studies and background checks and in-depth analysis you want, but sometimes you just need to trust the eye test. And the ear test. And the wallet test, too.

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If Saturday afternoon’s first-ever WNBA game in Canada — a pre-season contest between the Minnesota Lynx and the Chicago Sky — was some kind of audition for Toronto’s suitability as an expansion city, well, it passed.

Scotiabank Arena was full. The crowd was loud — almost ear-splitting at times, when the large sub-section of young girls really let themselves be heard — and the lines for merchandise were long, reportedly selling out by halftime.

The WNBA did its part, with the two teams putting on a tightly contested game that Chicago won 82-74, coming back in the fourth quarter to do so. The Lynx’s Tiffany Mitchell led both teams in scoring with 19. Fourth-year WNBA forward Bridget Carleton of Chatham, Ont. got the start for Minnesota as the lone Canadian active for the game (Lynx teammate Natalie Achonwa of Guelph, Ont. is on maternity leave).

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Carleton scored three points on four shots in 12 minutes and added an assist and handled 36 hours as the focus of attention well, even if she was almost overwhelmed at times. Carleton took the first shot of the game, a tough turnaround in the lane in transition  — “the one I air-balled,” she laughed later — moments after welcoming the crowd of 20,000 to Canada in a pre-game address. But mostly she found out what it’s like to be everyone’s favourite player for an afternoon.

“The support was amazing, for the WNBA in general, but for me I felt the love from all the fans, so that was really cool to see,” Carleton said. “It’s not often that I get to play in Canada, so that was a cool experience for me.”

It wasn’t just the hometown favourite that felt it.

“It was really incredible: a sold-out crowd, they really brought the energy. It was biggest crowd I’ve played in front of and it was really fun,” said Sky forward Morgan Bertsch. “It really gets you energized as a player and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as being part of the first game played in Canada.”

The anticipation had been building for weeks. The game was virtually  sold out in minutes after a pair of pre-sale events in early March, the second one coinciding with International Woman’s Day. For the big day itself, the crowd represented a wide swath of Toronto’s multicultural population, but the most common colour was orange — in keeping with the league’s official colour scheme.

None of this was a surprise.

“I’m biased, first of all, but obviously I think Toronto would be a great market, I think we’re proving that this weekend,” said Carleton, who was an all-star at the FIBA Women’s World Cup last October in helping the Canadian senior women’s team to a program-best fourth-place finish.

“It’s almost a trial run  to see what it would to have a WNBA team here. Obviously with the success of the Raptors, winning a championship in 2019, you feel the excitement around basketball in general in Canada. There’s like a culture … that people want to be part of it, it’s not just putting the ball in the hoop … it’s about going to games, engaging on social media, the whole thing around basketball. It’s exciting to be part of that growth and I think we’re proving that Toronto is a good market for that growth.”

The 14 corporate sponsors who signed on have a presence at the game would seem to agree.

Or as veteran Sky guard Courtney Williams put it: “Selling out itself, speaks volumes. I’m excited to play in front of a crowd like that.”

Not surprisingly, Englebert wouldn’t put too fine a point on who the potential owners of a theoretical Toronto franchise might be.

For her purposes, being vague is good. When you are only a 12-team league and one that doesn’t require an expansion fee in the billions, there are a lot of potential markets and a lot of owners who could conceivably step up and afford a team in a league where the estimated franchise likely tops out in the $40-million range. Stay vague, keep the interest high and who knows what some deep-pocketed owners might be willing to pony up. No point bidding against yourself.

From a Toronto perspective, If the league is going to expand by two franchises the competition will be steep considering there is only one WNBA team in California (the Los Angeles Sparks) and the ownership of the Golden State Warriors has indicated interest if (and likely when) the league places a franchise in the Bay Area. Portland is another market with great potential given the support the region has shown for basketball at Oregon and Oregon State and the way the National Women’s Soccer League franchise there has been supported. Cities adjacent to other women’s basketball hotbeds — Nashville and Charlotte specifically — are possibilities.

As for local ownership? It’s hard not to imagine that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – which owns the Raptors, Maple Leafs and Toronto FC among other properties — wouldn’t be at the front of the line. While the game was hosted by NBA Canada, MLSE provided soft support in the background to make sure it came off smoothly. Raptors president Masai Ujiri — who has assembled one of the most female-forward organizations in the NBA — was courtside.

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Ironically, MLSE made a pitch to the NBA (which launched the league in 1997) to acquire a WNBA franchise in the early days of the league but was rejected, according to former MLSE president and chief executive officer Richard Peddie. “David [then NBA commissioner David Stern] thought MLSE was too young to take that on and he may have been right,” said Peddie. The league then approached MLSE about adding a franchise during the league’s last round of expansion in or around 2007 or 2008, says Peddie, but this time it was MLSE that passed.

There may have been some hard feelings about being snubbed the first time around, and the WNBA at that time wasn’t a particularly viable business, both on a revenue basis and if increasing franchise valuations were the standard.

As MLSE has found out to its detriment since it decided to buy the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts, being a high-profile owner of a money-losing heritage property is awkward for all involved. Without an exit strategy or a viable next buyer, MLSE risks looking like the corporate bad guy if the Argonauts fail.

Though no one wants to say it, it’s likely one of the reasons why the multi-billion organization has been hesitant to get involved with professional women’s hockey or be an early investor in professional women’s soccer: better to let the leagues and marketplace  establish themselves and — if necessary — pay a premium to be involved later to take on the burden of having to shepherd  them through their early growing pains. It makes better business sense to support female sports at the grassroots level and wait for the industry to grow up up around them.

Risks like that associated with the WNBA seem distant. The league recently raised a $75-million capital fund that saw the league as a whole valued at nearly $500 million. Passion for women’s sports and women’s basketball seems to be at an all-time high, with record ratings for the recently concluded NCAA Women’s Tournament and the 2022 WNBA season.

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“That’s why we’ve been doing so much of the economic and financial transformation [recently] so not only our current owners but new owners could come in and thrive,” said Englebert. “It’s been happening before our eyes, getting our teams to thriving versus surviving.”

It certainly got the attention of those on the floor.

“Listen, you guys have something special here in Toronto,” said Sky head coach James Wade, who jokingly declared Scotiabank Arena his house as the only WNBA coach to win a game in the building while speaking glowingly about the reception at the arena and around the city. “This blows me away, my last three days here have been amazing.”

It was one game, one afternoon, but if the WNBA was wondering if Toronto could be a place where their teams can thrive, they don’t need to any longer.

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