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Toronto WNBA team arrives at 'critical moment in history' for women's sports: experts

TORONTO — The arrival of a professional women's basketball team to the Toronto sports landscape creates new opportunities to capitalize on long pent-up demand from local fans, say experts who study the business of sports.
Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and WNBA Toronto team president Teresa Resch pose for a photo during a press conference announcing the city's WNBA franchise, in Toronto on Thursday, May 23, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

TORONTO — The arrival of a professional women's basketball team to the Toronto sports landscape creates new opportunities to capitalize on long pent-up demand from local fans, say experts who study the business of sports.

The WNBA announced Thursday that Toronto's new team — the first in Canada — will tip off in 2026, playing its home games at the 8,700-seat Coca-Cola Coliseum at Exhibition Place.

The yet-to-be-named team is owned by Larry Tanenbaum's Kilmer Sports Ventures, which paid US$115 million for the expansion franchise.

Tandy Thomas, a marketing professor at Queen's University's Smith School of Business, said the team's establishment comes at a "critical moment in history" for the growth of women's sports.

She said Canadian audiences have proven they're interested in watching women's sports. The Professional Women's Hockey League broke attendance records six times in its inaugural season, including sold-out crowds for games held at the largest arenas in Toronto and Montreal.

Fans have also cheered on the Canadian women's soccer team in large numbers, with a TV audience of 4.4 million watching it win the gold medal game at the last Summer Olympics.

Combine that with the growing popularity of the WNBA south of the border, where the mania surrounding rookie Caitlyn Clark has helped fill arenas this year, and it could be a perfect recipe.

"We're really seeing that people want this. There is no longer this idea of 'Oh, people aren't interested in women's sports, we're not going to put the money into it.' That is absolutely not the case," said Thomas.

"We're really seeing these sports get the attention and the investment that they deserve."

A report released last month by Canadian Women & Sport found two in three Canadians between the ages of 13 and 65 — approximately 17 million people — consider themselves to be fans of women's sports.

Last year's version of that report said the Canadian professional women’s sport market is "significantly underdeveloped" compared with its potential, with an estimated value of $150 million to $200 million.

It also cited data showing a 90 per cent increase in average WNBA regular season viewership globally from 2020 to 2022.

"We know that there's fandom to support this marketplace," said Cheri Bradish, who leads Toronto Metropolitan University's Future of Sport Lab, and is co-director of a CWS research committee.

"There's this ripe appetite for women's sports. We know that. The valuation of these teams continues to increase."

The WNBA has already dipped its toes in Canadian waters. Toronto hosted a sold-out pre-season game at Scotiabank Arena in 2023 and Edmonton's Rogers Place followed suit earlier this month.

When it comes to building its fan base as an expansion franchise, Toronto's WNBA startup will have a "leg up" over the Raptors when they broke into the NBA in 1995, said Bradish.

"When the Raptors first came to Toronto ... there was such a concern, even just, 'Do Canadians and Torontonians know what basketball is?'' We're far beyond that," she said.

"So they're coming in at a different level, they're coming in at a mature marketplace. It's already very aware of the women's basketball market."

The team will have the ability to move to Scotiabank Arena on occasion and will also make stops in both Montreal and Vancouver for home games in an effort to boost its national appeal.

While Toronto boasts a somewhat crowded market of professional sports teams, Thomas said the WNBA will likely find its footing by offering more affordable ticket options than squads like the Raptors or Maple Leafs.

"Toronto has a lot of great sports teams and a lot of them are really hard to get tickets to," she said.

"For many families, it might be maybe once a year they can afford to go and see a game. This will not be the case with these women's teams that are moving into the market."

Thomas added the smaller stadium atmosphere of most home games will help create a more "intimate" and "accessible" experience.

"What's absolutely imperative is getting that connection to the local communities," she said.

"Those seats are going to be filled by parents bringing their young kids to see those games."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2024.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press