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WNBA commissioner, Canadian celebrities welcome expansion Toronto franchise to the league


WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks to the media during a press conference announcing the expansion of the WNBA into Canada, in Toronto on May 23. ARLYN MCADOREY/REUTERS

On a historic day in Toronto that demonstrated the ascendancy of women’s sports, the WNBA commissioner celebrated the moment by wearing her custom high heels featuring the logos of every team in her league.

Cathy Engelbert officially welcomed an expansion Toronto franchise to the league by presenting a ceremonial basketball to new owner Larry Tanenbaum, who wore a white blazer with an orange necktie – the colours of the league he just bought into.

Though reports of the expansion have been circulating for months, the league officially added its first team from outside the United States in a news conference at Toronto’s Hotel X. That’s steps away from the 8,700-seat arena that the team will call home when it joins the WNBA in May, 2026.

The announcement generated widespread intrigue from the city and drew an enormous crowd including celebrities, basketball stars, sports businesspeople, media and politicians such as Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Raptors executives and players, past and present, attended, including Masai Ujiri, Scottie Barnes and Kyle Lowry. Rapper and basketball fan Drake was there, too.

“This franchise will be Canada’s team,” Mr. Tanenbaum said. “While our home base will be Coca-Cola Coliseum at Exhibition Place in Toronto, we will play games in Vancouver and Montreal throughout the season, uniting the country behind our franchise and inspiring pride and passion in fans from coast to coast.”

Mr. Tanenbaum heads the ownership through Kilmer Sports Ventures. Mr. Tanenbaum is also chairman and a minority owner of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the sports giant that owns several Toronto teams, including the Raptors and Maple Leafs.

Kilmer Sports Ventures paid US$115-million for the WNBA franchise.

The company has committed to building a practice facility for its new team, but until that’s ready, the team will practise at the University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre.

Toronto is joining the WNBA at a time when it is experiencing huge growth. The league has recently set records for television viewership and season-ticket sales, and has several interested cities asking for expansion clubs. The star-studded 2024 rookie class – including Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Cameron Brink – led to the WNBA’s highest TV viewership in the history of the league’s draft.

Women’s sports in Canada have also been flourishing, with the fledgling Professional Women’s Hockey League setting attendance records for women’s hockey in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal this past winter. And a Canadian women’s pro soccer league is preparing to launch next year, too.

Ms. Engelbert spoke about the process of evaluating Toronto, including negotiations and visits with Mr. Tanenbaum. They even attended a Maple Leafs game together. There were countless details to work out, but Ms. Engelbert had been keen on the city for a long time.

Toronto basketball fans first caught her attention in 2019, when she attended an NBA Finals game, with the Raptors playing at Golden State. She was struck by how many Raptors fans had travelled to California for the game, then hung around to celebrate.

She said the WNBA planned to hold a preseason game in Toronto in 2020, but the pandemic disrupted that.

Instead, that game in Toronto came in May, 2023 – the WNBA’s first exhibition game in Canada, drawing a sellout crowd at Scotiabank Arena. It further endeared her to the city. The WNBA’s market research backed up what the league had experienced in Toronto, too.

“I saw the excitement and the vibrancy of the city around women’s sports and women’s basketball, and obviously Canada basketball and having Canadian players in our league playing at the highest level all factored into it,” Ms. Engelbert said. “But when Larry and I met, it was kind of like that Jerry Maguire [movie moment]: ‘You had me at hello.’”

Toronto’s team will be the WNBA’s 14th franchise, with the expansion Golden State Valkyries set to start play next year. The commissioner expects the league to reach 16 teams by 2028.

“Now I need new shoes,” Ms. Engelbert said. “Because I have two more franchises to put on here. But I’ll wait for your brand.”

The Toronto ownership will take its time and solicit public input before naming the team.

“We want something that really represents Canada. We also want to make sure that it represents women strongly,” said newly appointed team president Teresa Resch, an executive for the Raptors over the past decade. “And we want to make sure it’s really cool.”

Several Canadian women who have played basketball professionally or internationally also attended Thursday’s news conference.

“I always hoped for this day,” said Markham’s Tammy Sutton-Brown, who played in the WNBA, in Europe and for Canada at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “I always wished I could play on Canadian soil, but Canadians in the W right now, and future Canadians, will have that opportunity.”

Mr. Tanenbaum said women’s sports is in full flight. “Many say women’s sport is having a moment, but I disagree,” Mr. Tanenbaum said. “The world is finally taking notice of something that’s been there all along.”