May 16, 2023 

Maple leaves, hopes and dreams: Inaugural Canada game highlights human side of WNBA expansion

'I kept telling myself, this is not going to be my last game'

TORONTO — With all the confusion and disappointment surrounding the WNBA’s expansion plans, it’s easy to forget what expansion actually means, both for the WNBA and the communities that open their doors to it. But on the hardwood floor of Scotiabank Arena, as the Sky and Lynx began their pregame rituals ahead of the first WNBA game to be played in Canada, the reality of expansion — the emotional, slightly awkward, unbridled joyfulness of it all — couldn’t have been clearer.

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Saturday’s festivities were months in the making: what began as a spark of an idea quickly snowballed into an impassioned rush for tickets — first, pre-sale tickets nearly sold out the lower bowl of Scotiabank in less than 10 minutes; then, on the first day of full-access sales, all but a handful of single seats were left. Then came the promotion, which multiple fans told The Next became commonplace on their social media feeds and TV screens in the months leading up to the game. According to a WNBA release, WNBA merchandise sales from the NBA Canada store increased by over 500% compared to the same time last year.

“I’m not surprised by how many people were here, but it’s still so nice to see,” Kaitlyn Lehbert, who traveled to the game from just outside Toronto, told The Next, “You think you’re prepared for it, but for me, I needed a few minutes just to look around and get settled in and realize, I’m actually at the game — it’s actually here.”

It’s clear Canada is reaching a tipping point in women’s basketball — with unprecedented success on the world stage in 3×3, and a top-five national team, combined with steady growth in the ranks of the WNBA and NCAA, more Canadian women and girls are stepping onto the court than ever before. But in Toronto, beneath a layer of excitement and enthusiasm lay much more precarious question: Is the WNBA ready to meet them there?

‘I kept telling myself, this is not going to be my last game’

If you were around the city of Toronto for any amount of time in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s game, you would’ve had to work to miss the hype. From the moment you step into the airport or on public transportation, you might hear announcements over the loudspeaker promoting the “inaugural WNBA game in Canada,” or, when you head into the city itself, see eager fans sporting orange hoodies and t-shirts. The closer you got to Scotiabank Arena, the more there was to see — and that’s all before you turn on a TV or look at your phone, where, multiple fans in attendance told The Next, ads for the WNBA were almost impossible to miss. It kickstarted an energy that became contagious throughout the city, and soon, orange WNBA sweatshirts and jerseys of every kind began to pop up around town.

It was even a coming-together moment for Canada’s top two sports networks, Sportsnet and TSN, who normally don’t carry the same games but made an exception for the watershed WNBA preseason game. “It made [the game] way more accessible for everybody,” Crina Mustafa, a WNBA reporter based in Toronto, explained. “That, to me, was very much work they were putting into advertising this game and making sure people knew where to find it if they weren’t going to the game itself.”

Kelly Votolato, who traveled from the Indiana to see the game with friends who live in Toronto, put it simply: “People from the U.S. on [WNBA] Twitter were saying, ‘I don’t see much buzz around this game, they’ve mentioned it a few times, but not much.’”

“Here, everybody is saying, ‘I can’t not see it, it’s everywhere!’”

But the city quickly embraced the league’s presence: “We Torontonians, we love basketball. No matter what form you give it to us, we will go crazy,” said Mustafa, as she described how people across Toronto and beyond felt pride in just being allowed to host the game. “Even though it wasn’t a team that was announced, it was still something that was special to Canada,” she said.

Fans who spoke with The Next before, during, and after the game expressed similar feelings: “There’s a huge excitement level in the stadium,” Morgan Flom, who attended the game with his daughter, told The Next at halftime. “It’s not just passively watching — obviously, the fans here have been wanting to watch this game for a while.”

For Lehbert, it was an event she’d been anticipating, and one she hoped wouldn’t have to end: “I’m almost sad now, even like halfway through the game, in my head I’m telling myself ‘Savor it, we have just half left,’” Lehbert said after the game. “It really made me want to just sit and not take pictures for a few minutes or, on the other hand, video the rest of it so I can have that and just be present.”

“The idea that there could be a team in Toronto, where they’re a 40 minute train ride away from me and accessible like that, it’s so special,” Lehbert added. “During the game, I kept telling myself, this is not going to be my last game. I really hope this won’t be the last game here in Canada that’s close to me and other fans.”

It was a sentiment Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve shared, going as far as to say she wished she could do it all again, but with someone else coaching the Lynx, “so I could really take it all in.”

“It felt like everybody was locked in on what the what the mission was, and that was to make this an incredible environment,” Reeve said. “They did that.”

As for the environment itself, it was like few others in recent WNBA memory. With fans packing Scotiabank Arena from floor to ceiling, a line for merchandise that seemed to wind on forever, Canada’s WNBA contingency of old and new fans alike was more than ready: “We came out into the tunnel and saw people all the way up as far as you can see,” Chicago Sky head coach James Wade told media after the game. “The seats were filled and they were cheering already, just with the players in the warm up lines.”

“It’s just nice to see how energetic of an environment [Toronto] is and so you say to yourself, ‘man, the WNBA deserves that too,’” Wade added.

Bridget Carleton, the lone Canadian who played in Saturday’s game, became Toronto’s rallying cry — every time the Lynx guard stepped foot on the court, she was accompanied by resounding cheers, and the roar that accompanied the basket she made could’ve popped the roof off of the building.

The message was clear: No one wanted this to be the last time the WNBA was in Canada.

But, without a clear timeline for expansion and an even foggier idea of which cities were being considered, the thought was on their minds. For as effective as league’s promotion of the game was, it also opened the proverbial floodgates: now that fans and local media alike had seen what was possible for their city, and country, “What’s to be done about Toronto?” became the natural next question.

Inside Scotiabank arena during the WNBA Canada game; fans in practically every seat, including the upper and lower bowls of the arena. Large jumbo-tron at center court.
The WNBA’s inaugural game in Canada drew 19,923 fans to Scotiabank Arena in downtown Toronto, Ontario. (Photo credit: Isabel Rodrigues/The Next)

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A test drive or a joy ride: The Canada Game in perspective

When WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert stepped up to the podium at the Scotiabank Arena media center, a humble, stuffy room packed with reporters, the space was buzzing with anticipation around expansion — would the WNBA finally announce a timeline for the new additions it’s been prophesying for years? How does Toronto fit into the picture, and would Toronto’s strong showing finally be enough for the WNBA to make the international leap?

All weekend, WNBA players and coaches had explained how they saw Saturday’s game as a “trial run” for a potential expansion team in Canada — a test Wade says the city passed with flying colors. But long before tip-off, there was hardly any doubt among the WNBA’s Canadian players, fans, and media members that Toronto would ace any test the WNBA threw at it.

“I obviously think Toronto would be a great market — I think we’re proving that with this weekend,” Carleton said. “There’s a culture around [basketball] that people want to be a part of, it’s not just about putting the ball in the hoop.”

Carleton’s teammate, Lynx guard Kayla McBride, emphasized the value of finally being able to have the WNBA on Canadian soil: “Being able to put a WNBA product down on the floor and seeing how everybody responds is huge,” McBride said. “I think it’s just about both parties really buying in to it, I think that’s what gets it off the ground.”

But as Engelbert began to address the media, it seemed the league had taken a different approach to their touchdown in Toronto. Expansion was not mentioned in the Commissioner’s opening comments, as she instead zeroed in on the value of the game as an exhibition:

“All around the world there’s a huge demand for WNBA content, and we see this as a first step, a major step in hosting more global events like this in the future,” Engelbert said. “Once we announced having this game we got a lot of interest from cities in the U.S. who don’t have WNBA teams to do preseason games, and cities around the world.” 

Inevitably, the Commissioner would volley question after question about expansion, but the mood in the room seemed to steadily deflate with every answer. First came the data — Engelbert rattled off half-a-dozen metrics the league had evaluated potential expansion cities against, but beyond her assurance that Toronto “scored very high on the list,” gave no indication of how the city had shown their work. Then came the tour of potential cities the Commissioner planned to visit this summer, “to make sure that we’re comfortable that they’ll support a long-term team.”

“The last thing you want to do is bring owners in and not set them up for success,” Engelbert explained. “That’s why we’ve been doing so much of the economic and financial transformation in the league so not only our current owners, but new owners can come in and thrive.”

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The eager willingness of Toronto’s WNBA fans to travel and rally around their city began to fade into the background. Suddenly, what once felt like a final test to prove Toronto’s commitment unfolded into a much longer, rockier, road ahead: “There are so many cities interested in a WNBA team, including here in Toronto,” Engelbert said. “We just continue to have a due diligence on all of that, and I think there are a few here in the Canada — I’ll call it Canada, not just Toronto — that have showed some interest.”

Not one of the 10 alleged ownership groups Engelbert says have interest in owning a new WNBA team were mentioned by name. No “obstacles or barriers for any one city” were identified (“I think it’s the same issues that we face with our current teams,” Engelbert noted.)

Perhaps the sheer quantity of corporate sponsorship — 14 different companies, according to a league release — was the biggest push Toronto mustered. “A new WNBA team is a startup,” Engelbert said. “Just like if you started up a tech company, you’re starting up in another industry, those are all the things you have to think about.”

“Do you have access to capital, raise capital if you want to build a new practice facility or something like that? Interest rates up, inflation is up — look at this arena and running all the back of house here to put on this game today.”

But as waves of fans descended upon Scotiabank Arena, for a moment, the heartbeat of the city seemed to rest at center court. The things startups often struggle with — the culture around the product, the trust in its representatives — were knitted into the fabric of Toronto’s success. Fans who spoke to The Next described not just a sense of community with others at the game, but excitement around how many younger kids had been in attendance, and bringing in the next generation of Canadian WNBA fans and future players. But beyond all this, the most striking detail of the WNBA’s visit to Toronto was just how seamlessly the game was incorporated into the city’s existing ecosystem of sports teams and events.

“This game is already part of this weekend of Toronto sports,” Votolato said, referring to the game’s presence among multiple other major sports events taking place that weekend, including the NHL playoffs. “What more do you want to see?”

There’s little question that the doors to possibility in Canada have been flung open. Toronto, from its media enterprise to its avid basketball fan base, shattered every expectation. What the success of the league’s first international appearance will mean going forward is ultimately up to the WNBA to decide. In the meantime, Toronto will daydream for their next glory day, hoping they won’t be left empty-handed.

Written by Isabel Rodrigues

Isabel Rodrigues (she/her) is a contributing editor for The Next from upstate New York. She occasionally covers 3x3 and labor in women's basketball.

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