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WNBA in Toronto: Could a expansion franchise be

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Micaella Riche remembers her first exposure to the WNBA like it was yesterday.

Riche was a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 2010 when then Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen came to one of her practices.

Growing up in the Ottawa area, Riche had never seen professional women’s basketball up close and said that she barely even knew of the WNBA’s existence back then.

What she saw on the court, changed the way she viewed the game and her place in it.

Now ahead of the WNBA’s first ever game on Canadian soil – a sold out pre-season match between the Lynx and Chicago Sky at the Scotiabank Arena this afternoon – Riche is hoping other young girls with big dreams won’t have to wait as long to see world-class women’s basketball up close.

“The pace at which she (Whalen) played and how much she elevated our practice was incredible and I remember just thinking like this is a whole other level of basketball that I’ve never seen before. It was like ‘Whoa, there’s a whole lot more to this’ you know,” Riche told CP24.com this week, recalling the practice. “It has changed now with social media but to see it (the WNBA) in real life, in front of your eyes, is absolutely a different experience. Not only does it make it more attainable but it also just makes it more tangible.”

Toronto has long been rumoured as a potential home for a WNBA expansion franchise and today’s game, which sold out in less than 24 hours, will likely only contribute to those rumours.

Riche, who went on to play 126 games for the Golden Gophers and now serves as the director of basketball operations with a Toronto youth charity, will be among the nearly 20,000 in attendance.

She said that she hopes having the WNBA in town, even for just one day, will allow young girls to “dream a little bigger.”

But she is clear that what Toronto truly needs is its own WNBA franchise, calling it an “absolute no-brainer” and imploring “whoever needs to put money in to make it happen” to do so.

And she is not alone in that sentiment.

“I think it would be a huge step forward for women’s basketball and honestly, just women’s sports,” McMaster University’s Sarah Gates, who grew up in Newmarket and was selected as the U SPORTS Women’s Basketball Player of the Year in March, told CP24.com. “I know for me growing up it was hard to find like a lot of mentors and role models that were female within sport. In basketball, there’s a lot of females that play but all my coaches were males up until university when I got a female head coach who has been a huge mentor for me. So I think being able to see female athletes play at a professional level within the GTA would be huge for the next generation of athletes.”

WNBA has short list of potential expansion cities

Today’s game is widely viewed as a test case for the Toronto market, as the WNBA continues to evaluate a short list of 10 to 12 cities that it has identified as candidates for an expansion franchise that could begin play as soon as the 2024 season.

The league has held a series of special events in the city in conjunction with the game, including player appearances and autograph signings.

It has also erected a 12-foot-tall sculpture of the WNBA logo outside the CN Tower for much of the week.

“This is really, I think, a pivotal moment in Canadian basketball history,” Keesa Koomalsingh, who heads up Toronto’s Hoop Queen’s summer league, told CP24.com this week. “Honestly, growing up as a young athlete I didn’t have any opportunities to access or even watch the WNBA. I didn’t get to attend games and I only knew about players because I had to search them online, literally. With this game, it is definitely going to inspire the next generation of young kids and help them visualize themselves at a high competitive level.”

Koomalsingh grew up in Scarborough and is a former college basketball player herself.

She started Hoop Queens because she believed there was a lack of opportunity for elite women’s basketball players to compete locally.

The league pays players $200 per game, making it the only paid basketball opportunity for women in Toronto. But Koomalsingh would be happy to cede that distinction.

“We’re kind of beyond proving the point that there’s value in women’s sport and now we’re just trying to actually put that proof of concept to work,” she told CP24.com of the work to grow the women’s game in Toronto. “We are having a moment and the moment is here to stay. It can’t just be for this one weekend. This is a milestone and we are going to have to build on top of it.”

Why some experts think Toronto is ready to support a WNBA team

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has previously cautioned that today’s pre-season contest has more to do with the globalization of the game than possible expansion.

But she has mentioned Toronto as a potential home for a 13th or 14th franchise in numerous media interview in recent months.

The 20,000 tickets sold for today’s game are also likely to get the attention of a league which had an average attendance of 5,646 in 2022.

The Seattle Storm led the WNBA in attendance last year with an average of 10,631 fans per game.

“I think that the WNBA coming to Toronto this weekend is an exclamation mark on an inflection point of this groundswell of support for women,” Cheri Bradish, a professor of sports marketing at Toronto Metropolitan University, told CP24.com this week. “I think it’s a really big case and moment in time. You look at the sellout and you look at all the numbers behind it and the number of activations and it sends such a strong signal that this market and key stakeholders are investing and interested in the women’s marketplace in this country.”

Bradish conceded that there are some challenges associated with operating a sports franchise that plays indoors in the summer, which would have to be overcome in Toronto.

But she said that the potential certainly exists for the WNBA to succeed in the city if the proper investments are made.

One sign of Toronto’s potential? There are 16 major marketing partners ranging from Nike to Mastercard who are involved with today’s game. Four of them have created custom WNBA-themed TV commercials which will air during the broadcast and in-arena.

“We know that what the traditional market segments are and there’s marginal room for growth. So the marketplace, partners and media partners are looking for new areas of growth,” Bradish said. “NBA Canada is a great case study. When the Raptors first came in we were still educating the public about what is professional basketball. That was 1995. So I think the data tells us that we should approach these professional women’s sports properties like a start-up and invest in them.”

Today’s game is being held in partnership with NBA Canada and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd.

Tip off is scheduled for 4 p.m.



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