Canadians have waited over 25 years, but experts agree the WNBA’s first stop north of the border is a sign of a growing appetite for the game — and an indication of things to come.
The league announced this week that Toronto will host a pre-season game on May 13, with the Minnesota Lynx facing the Chicago Sky at Scotiabank Arena, home of the Raptors and Maple Leafs. It’s seen as a step toward expansion to Canada at the opportune moment.
“Toronto has built up a very strong basketball culture in recent years,” said Katie Lebel, assistant professor in the University of Guelph’s department of management, with research interest in sports business.
The Raptors’ 2019 championship and an increase in the number of women involved with basketball overall has led to a bigger female fan base in Toronto and across the country, she added: “The city has the infrastructure in place to make this a great event, and there is a pent-up demand for women’s professional sport. It checks all of the boxes.”
Like the NBA in the early 1990s, when several pre-season games were held in Canada prior to approval of the Raptors franchise, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert says her league is eager to see how the market responds.
“This is a way to assess the popularity of the sport in Canada,” Engelbert told reporters in a conference call this week.
The commissioner said Toronto is on the short list of potential additions to the 12-team league. The timing of expansion and number of teams has yet to be announced.
Lebel said interest in the women’s game is high in Canada, noting increases in WNBA viewership over the past several seasons on multiple platforms.
“I think this event will surprise people,” she said. “Make no mistake: Toronto would not have been selected to host an exhibition game here if the WNBA didn’t think they could sell a lot of tickets.”
It’s part of a larger picture regarding Canada’s interest in supporting women’s sports in general, said Cheri Bradish, associate marketing professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and director of Future of Sport Lab and Sport Initiatives.
“We already have evidence of the momentum in the marketplace,” she said, noting the league is stocked with plenty of Canadian talent that has helped to generate fan interest.
The Lynx have Natalie Achonwa from Guelph on their roster, and the team is expected to re-sign Bridget Carleton of Chatham. Hamilton’s Kia Nurse, an unrestricted free agent who made her WNBA debut with Chicago in 2018, is another high-profile talent. All three have played prominent roles with Canada’s national team and would help draw crowds in Toronto, Bradish said.
The NBA just held a regular-season game in Paris, and has played several pre-season dates in Europe and Asia to help the game grow globally. The NFL and MLB have done the same. It makes just as much sense for women’s sports in general, and basketball in particular.
“If you look at all the verticals of growth and revenue generation of a professional team, it’s uncharted territory with these women’s teams. Yet if you turn and look at men’s sports, it’s a bit saturated, actually,” she said.
“If you’re looking at a place to invest your money in sport, you’re actually going to get a greater return on women sports financially right now, because the entry point is lower, yet the opportunities are far greater.”
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