March 7, 2024 

WNBA returns to Canada for exhibition game May 5. Will northern expansion follow?

Engelbert: 'Globalizing the game is an important part of our strategy'

The WNBA announced on Thursday that the second WNBA game ever played in Canada will take place on Sunday, May 5 at Rogers Place in Edmonton. The matchup will feature the Los Angeles Sparks taking on the Seattle Storm.

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“We couldn’t be more excited to bring the Sparks and Storm to Edmonton after last year’s historic game
in Toronto
, which showcased the incredible momentum around women’s basketball across Canada,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Wednesday afternoon. “Fans, partners and communities across the country embraced the WNBA, setting records for viewership, merchandise sales and attendance, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to once again showcase our league in a city with a rich sporting legacy and indelible ties to basketball through the Edmonton Grads and Canadian Women’s National Basketball Team.”

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The game will be played in Canada for the second consecutive year, this time in Edmonton. This is the fourth time the game has been held outside of the United States. The previous games that were held overseas took place in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2004, Manchester, England, in 2011, and Toronto, Ontario, in 2023.

But just as during last year’s game, the question hanging over the excursion is whether the league plans to make the trip to Canada a permanent one. Engelbert addressed this right at the top of an interview on Wednesday afternoon.

“Last year, we were thrilled with how Canada and Toronto specifically, but the country responded to having our first-ever game there,” Engelbert said. “Globalizing the game is an important part of our strategy, and given that Canada is our neighbor to the north here in the US, the success of that game was amazing. I can’t tell you just me having been there, walking into and seeing close to 20,000 people the night after the Maple Leafs played there, but to wake up the next day, have an early game and have that place packed and the fan merch lines and fans coming up to me who I was surprised even knew who I was and saying like you have made our dreams come true by having a web game you don’t another fan who doesn’t understand what impact this is going to have the next generation of young girls and boys who play or follow the game. So I get chills and am still thinking of that vibe.”

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Last May, the WNBA held its first-ever preseason game in Canada at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. The event broke records in attendance, broadcast viewership, and merchandise sales. Moreover, the viewership for the 2023 WNBA season increased by 21% in the United States and 32% in Canada, compared to the 2022 season.

The Chicago Sky defeated the Minnesota Lynx 82-74, in front of a sold-out crowd in Toronto. Guard Kahleah Copper, who is now a member of the Phoenix Mercury, had 18 points and nine rebounds. Additionally, this game gave Canadian fans high hopes of wanting a WNBA expansion franchise in Toronto sometime in the future.

In October, the WNBA awarded the Bay Area an expansion team, which will begin playing at Chase Center in 2025. On Monday, Shireen Ahmed of CBC Sports reported that Larry Tanenbaum’s Kilmer Group had proposed a bid to bring a WNBA team to Toronto. Engelbert stated during the press conference that there is “no specific timeline” for a team to play in 2026, but an ideal lead time would be 18 months from announcement to first game, placing a deadline for 2026 expansion in the fall of 2024. She also reiterated that adding a second team in 2025 is off the table, as previously reported by our own Tony East.

She also said that she does not view charter flights as a necessary prerequisite to overcoming the extra layers of travel logistics that come with a trip across an international border.

“Canada is directly north of where a lot of the cities we play in,” Engelbert said. “The western part of Canada isn’t unlike the western part of the US because we’re in Seattle, Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. I don’t think that’s factoring into decisions here. What factors contribute to the ability to provide a charter flight is the long-term economic model. We’re building media rights and corporate partnerships and really capitalizing on the momentum around our game right now. So that’s more what we’re working on on that issue. Not whether the Canadian team or not, Toronto is straightforward to get to for the East Coast teams as well as the central US; west-east is always challenging for everybody, including us, who travel a lot from west to east, and that would be the case if you did have Vancouver, Edmonton versus a Montreal, Toronto if you were looking at Canada, so it not a factor in my view.”

The Canada women’s basketball team will participate in the 2024 Paris Olympics in the summer and has some notable players who played in the WNBA such as Kia Nurse, Bridget Carleton, Natalie Achonwa and Laeticia Amihere.

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“Western Conference had been in the western part of Canada since then,” Engelbert said. “Last year we had Minnesota and Chicago, so we want to spread the wealth a little bit. Also, Kia [Nurse], who wasn’t in Seattle when we first started talking about this and then went to LA but we had already selected Seattle and LA, and had she gone somewhere else. She wouldn’t be in the game that now. Last year having Bridget [Carleton] in the game was great because Canadians identify with one of their own. There’s a variety of different factors, including those two teams and their ownership stepping up and being willing to travel and play and get one of them to give up a home game as a result. It’s good to have both teams in it there with their rich traditions.”

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark announced on her social media pages that she has declared for the 2024 WNBA Draft on Feb. 29. She is presumed to be the first overall pick by the Indiana Fever, who hold the top pick. According to Engelbert, the Clark decision has already paid dividends in a variety of ways.

“The main strategy I’ve had since I came in, not having run a sports league before, were three things: household names, rivalries, games a consequence because that brings fans in to watch it makes interesting content, and with all the media disruption, content, short form, medium form, not just long-form games, let’s call it so this all again, I’ve been talking about it since Caitlin [Clark]’s announcement on our social media accounts,” Engelbert said. “It’s the confluence of many different things, but it’s all anchored in that strategy around a household name.”

The Los Angeles Sparks, one of the original eight franchises in the WNBA and a three-time champion, have a rich history in the league. In the recent offseason, they made a trade with the Seattle Storm, acquiring Kia Nurse, a member of the Canadian women’s national team and the no. 4 overall pick in the upcoming draft.

Los Angeles’ roster will include Layshia Clarendon, Dearica Hamby, and Azura Stevens. The Sparks hold the no. 2 and no. 4 overall picks in the 2024 WNBA Draft, scheduled for April 15, and Engelbert noted that means the Canada game will feature multiple top rookies as well.

The Seattle Storm made big moves in the offseason by acquiring Skylar Diggins-Smith, a six-time WNBA All-Star, and Ogwumike to pair with all-star teammates Jewell Loyd, who was the league’s scoring leader and All-Star MVP in 2023, and Ezi Magbegor. In franchise history, they also won four WNBA championships, the most recent one in 2020.

“We are thrilled for the opportunity to be a part of the WNBA Canada Game and showcase the incredible talent in the WNBA in Edmonton,” Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn said in press release. “I’ve been honored to work with the Canadian senior women’s national team and witness firsthand how Canada continues to be out front when it comes to advocating for women and investing in women’s sports. This game represents the growth of women’s basketball both in Canada and on a global stage.”

As she turned ahead to 2024, Engelbert highlighted the intense rivalry between the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces as one of the most significant storylines across the league. Both teams faced each other in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game and the WNBA Finals last year. Additionally, there were some notable player movements during the free agency period last month. The Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm made big and surprising moves, which caught the attention of the league’s fans.

“Part of my strategy was to sell names, rivalries, and games, the consequence and rivalries are super teams,” Engelbert said. “I call it rivalries. And you can build that rivalry and look what happened last year with the free agency moves and then Vegas versus New York and the Commissioner Cup battle and New York wins at Vegas. Vegas versus New York in the WNBA finals in Vegas wins and games for New York in front of a sold-out crowd at Barclays Center. So yeah, on balance, it was a great storyline. Those were two great teams with great players.

“You see Seattle and Phoenix are going to be a little sleeper rivalry this year as well. Dallas is a young up-and-coming that continues to be Minnesota and Washington is always in Connecticut’s always amazing. So there’s so many great stories — Atlanta — I mean, there’s so many great stories in the league right now and obviously we’ll see what happens with Aliyah [Boston] anchoring in Indiana and the number one pick, whoever that should be,” Engelbert said, smiling. “So lots of storylines to write this year about I’ll call it super players on a lot of our teams.”

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Tickets for the game in Edmonton will go on sale on March 20 and broadcast details for the 2024 WNBA Canada game will be announced sometime in the future.

Written by Aya Abdeen

Aya Abdeen is a student in sports journalism at Arizona State University and has been a contributing writer for The Next Hoops since December 2022. Her work has also appeared on AZPreps365.

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