May 14, 2023 

‘This would be Canada’s team’: Sights and sounds from the WNBA’s first game in Canada

U.S. ambassador of Canada: Having team in Toronto would be important for both the WNBA and Canada

TORONTO – When a group of members from the Chicago Sky organization sat down for their first dinner in Toronto, they expected the NHL playoffs to dominate the television screens. The Toronto Maple Leafs were slated to play in an elimination game the following day and in a country where hockey is a way of life, preseason basketball presumably would take a backseat.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

As the night went on, they were quickly introduced to the deep fervor Canada has for women’s basketball. Commercials promoting the first-ever WNBA game on Canadian soil kept creeping onto the screen, highlighting the league’s milestones over the years. It was apparent Toronto was ready to welcome the Sky and Minnesota Lynx as one of their own.

“You guys have something special here in Toronto,” Sky head coach/general manager James Wade said postgame. “You could sense it here when [the Toronto Raptors] made the 2019 Finals run where there was just as many people outside as there were inside. With us being here yesterday and seeing 100,000 people here in a mile-square radius in Maple Leafs shirts, it was nice to see how vibrant and energetic the city is.

“The WNBA deserves that too and when 20,000 of you come to an exhibition game, it says a lot about your city and sports culture.”

Even in the height of the NHL playoffs, the WNBA made its presence known in Toronto. Locals donned the league’s apparel throughout the weekend while some swapped coasts to witness history being made in women’s basketball.

“This is the epitome of the enthusiasm that’s being shown for women’s sports in general,” Lynx president of basketball operations/head coach Cheryl Reeve said before the game. “It was awesome to see Canada step up in that way (referring to ticket sales) and say, ‘yeah we feel it here too and we’re a great place for a WNBA team.’ I think this is really pivotal. We’re going to look back on this and say this was really meaningful.”

Here’s what you need to know about the WNBA’s first-ever game in Canada between the Sky and Lynx.

Why Toronto believes it is ready for a WNBA team

The Next interviewed 19 fans ahead of the first-ever WNBA game in Canada and asked each of them why they believe Toronto should be one of the cities to land an expansion team. The most common theme: this is bigger than one region of the country.

“It would be Canada’s team,” said Charlie Frost, who drove two hours with his wife, Courtney, to watch the game. “From Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, everybody would be rooting for (Toronto’s) team. It would be their team, so I don’t know why (the WNBA) wouldn’t bring a team here when you would have 40 million fans.”

As Wade alluded to, the city is also still coasting off the high from when the Toronto Raptors won the NBA Finals back in 2019. Canada’s fans insist their love for professional basketball was engrained in their culture before the Raptors won their first title, but its relationship with the sport has deepened since. The fans who spoke with The Next believe the momentum carried over from 2019 makes Toronto an obvious choice for expansion.

“Ever since the Raptors won, this has become one of the best basketball cities,” Emily Fisher, a Toronto native, told The Next. “We want this so badly. I’ve been a WNBA fan for the last 15-20 years and there’s a big fanbase here. We’re ready for a team and it’s time for there one to be here.”

As fans pointed out, Toronto has an advantage over other cities in the running for potentially landing an expansion team, given the WNBA’s ambition to grow outside of the United States. Both players and locals believe international travel wouldn’t be an issue and expanding up north would help the league actualize its goal of becoming a global phenomenon like the NBA.

“I think it would be important for Canada, but I also think it would be important for the WNBA too,” U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen told The Next. “The WNBA wants to become a global brand which requires more than to just be in the United States. If you look at the mission of the WNBA to advance girls’ sports and the opportunity for girls to see an entire career span, basketball is a Canadian sport. This is not just a hockey country.

“I think (bringing a team to Toronto) would advance the interest of the WNBA but also advance Canada’s visibility in this sport and cement its role in promoting girls’ and women’s sports.”

Get 24/7 soccer coverage with The Equalizer

The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribe to The Next now and receive 50% off your subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

Fan interest will not be the lone factor in getting Toronto a WNBA team. Cohen, who has a pre-existing relationship with Engelbert when she was Deloitte’s CEO and he was a senior executive at NBC Universal, brought up how there would need to be an ownership group to step up to purchase a team and run it. However, he noted there’s an interest from the league to add a team in Toronto and expanding to Canada.

“It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together,” Cohen said.

It is obvious Toronto locals want a team in their city, but some have experienced complications of actually being able to watch games now. One fan said there’s a degree of difficulty finding games on TV and, “you will never see a commercial” during the WNBA season. That could be because the league currently doesn’t have an organization beyond its borders, but it’s an area of improvement in the eyes of some fans in Canada.

“That is the biggest challenge for us as diehard basketball fans,” Matt Frost told The Next. “We never watch WNBA games because we have no idea when they are on. There’s probably less motivation to promote the league since we don’t have a team, but it would certainly help. The women’s basketball fanbase here is massive, so we hope this all comes together.”

The game

By the time the game was set to tipoff, 19,800 WNBA fans had funneled into Scotiabank Arena.

According to Across the Timeline’s attendance database, the exhibition in Canada was the ninth-most attended game in WNBA history and its largest audience for a single contest since the 2016 finals. The cacophony of cheers descending from the nosebleeds down to the court was so loud the players had a difficult time hearing each other.

Canadian native Bridget Carleton, whose status in Toronto felt comparable to the celebrity of The Beatles throughout the weekend, spoke to the crowd before the game and thanked them for coming out to watch the preseason battle. She told the media after the game she had never spoken to an audience of that size before but wanted to represent the WNBA while it was in her native country.

When the game started, the Lynx tried to get Carleton the first-ever WNBA points scored in Canada. Chicago recovered the tip but missed its first attempt. Carleton wound up in the right corner for the chance to nail a jumper in transition but was off the mark. Chicago’s Courtney Williams ended up converting a midrange jumper a minute later.

“We didn’t run the play (designed for her) until a couple possessions later, but I liked the matchup I had,” Carleton said laughing. “It didn’t go the way I wanted it to, but it’s all good. I just wanted to play. I wasn’t really worried about my stats and was just trying to play basketball.”

Both teams were neck and neck for most of the game until the Lynx built an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Sky’s reserves in Kayana Traylor and Robyn Parks, put on a shooting clinic in the final 10 minutes of the game, combining for 22 points and six 3-pointers. Chicago secured an 82-74 win over the Lynx and the first WNBA victory in Canada. Tiffany Mitchell led the Lynx with 19 points while adding five rebounds and six assists, while Kahleah Copper finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and two assists.

Wade joked after the game this was “his house” during the postgame press conference and said, “I’m Canadian now” in the days leading up to the contest.

“Every interview, I am going to say ‘eh’ afterwards,” Wade said at the Sky’s practice the day before.

The significance of the moment was not lost on either team. As the league continues to build its status outside of its own borders, future generations in attendance aspiring to make it in the WNBA one day had a chance to see how their dreams of making it in the league could be actualized. Current players did not have the same luxury when they were honing their skills on the court, not knowing if there would domestically be a place to showcase their talent once their collegiate careers ended.

Copper, who grew up in North Philadelphia, a city that still doesn’t have a major women’s professional sports team, understood what putting on a show for the younger audience means in the long run.

“When I say, ‘if they see it, they can be it,’ that’s real,” said Copper, who finished the contest with 18 points, nine rebounds and two assists. “As a kid, if you are here at this game, this has never happened before. They can also see players where they’re from make it in the WNBA. I think that was special too, because not only are they seeing us Americans, but they’re seeing Canadians that are doing it. They are definitely double inspired.”

Written by James Kay

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.