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With Tanenbaum at the helm, Toronto’s new WNBA team will be in capable hands


TORONTO – Appropriately positioned at the centre of an esteemed panel and in front of a star-studded audience, Larry Tanenbaum held up a white and orange basketball, the colours of which matched his blazer and tie combination.

It was a fitting image on a morning in which history was made, along with a highly anticipated announcement. Printed on the ball’s composite leather surface were the date – May 23, 2024 – and the home of the latest team to join the Women’s National Basketball Association.

It’s official: the WNBA is coming to Canada. Toronto’s expansion club, which is set to debut in the spring of 2026, will become the league’s 14th franchise and first based outside of the United States, as first reported by Shireen Ahmed of CBC Sports earlier this month.

“For years, young girls in basketball have been inspired by some of the NBA greats: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jamal Murray, [Shai Gilgeous-Alexander]. But these young women [couldn't see] someone like themselves playing on the brightest stage, playing the sport they love,” Tanenbaum said at Thursday’s press conference, located just down the street from Exhibition Place’s Coca-Cola Coliseum, where the new team will host the bulk of its home games.

“Now, the WNBA has changed all that. And today, we're changing that in Canada. Our team will complete the pathway for women in this country.”

Tanenbaum shared the stage with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Among those in attendance: current Raptors star Scottie Barnes, former Raptors star Kyle Lowry, team president Masai Ujiri, as well as Canadian basketball royalty, including Tammy Sutton-Brown, Tamara Tatham, Kim Gaucher, Sylvia Sweeney and Stacey Dales. Drake dropped by as well.

It was a monumental day, not only for women’s basketball in the country, but also for the continued growth of the sport North of the Border, and it would be little more than a pipe dream if not for Tanenbaum’s vision, persistence and deep pockets.

The 79-year-old businessman has spent the past three decades building out the sporting landscape in his hometown. As a minority owner and chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – which owns the Maple Leafs, Raptors, TFC, Argos and Marlies, among other properties – he was a member of the group that brought an NBA team to Toronto 30 years ago.

“It was the right time and the right place, and I took a chance,” he said of the Raptors’ 1993 inception. “Since that time, I’ve spent a good part of my career helping to build championship-calibre sports franchises in Toronto. While some years are better than others, we've been lucky enough to celebrate league victories six times in the city, most memorably with the Raptors five years ago.”

But there was a hole in the marketplace, one that Tanenbaum recognized and has been working to fill – women’s professional sports.

Toronto’s Professional Women’s Hockey League team, which called Coca-Cola Coliseum home for the playoffs, just completed a successful inaugural season. The expected 2025 launch of Project 8, Canada’s first professional women’s soccer league, will also have a presence in the city. Still, with basketball growing at an exponential rate across Canada, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, and the popularity of the WNBA at an all-time high, a partnership seemed inevitable.

Tanenbaum has been chasing a team for years, but as multiple reports have detailed, his most recent proposal was rejected by the MLSE board. So, the billionaire sports mogul said: fine, I’ll do it myself.

Toronto’s WNBA team will be privately funded by Tanenbaum’s holding company, Kilmer Sports Ventures, and not by Canadian sports giant MLSE – which is jointly owned by BCE (parent company of TSN) and Rogers Communications. The franchise will reportedly require an investment north of $100 million, including the $50 million expansion fee. And while a group of limited partners are expected to be unveiled in the coming months, Tanenbaum will pick up most of the bill himself.

He has installed long-time Raptors executive Teresa Resch as team president. With more than a decade of experience serving as one of Ujiri’s top lieutenants and overseeing major projects – such as the opening of the organization’s state of the art practice facility in 2016 and the club’s forced relocation to Tampa for the 2020-21 season – she should be well suited for the job.

“This has been part of Larry’s vision since I’ve known him,” said Resch, formerly the Raptors’ vice president of basketball operations, who joined the organization in 2013 and left in March to pursue the WNBA team with Tanenbaum. “I’m working with him in a very different dialogue or way than I ever have before, so it’s been great to get to know him better and really understand the true entrepreneur that he is at heart.”

It’s not an insignificant undertaking and it’s not without its risks, which is a good guess as to why MLSE would pass on the endeavour. Given the investment costs, it’ll be years before it turns a profit. But if you’ve got the vision – as well as the patience and bankroll to see it through – it’s not hard to imagine what it can become, and get excited about it.

The WNBA didn’t come out of nowhere. It has been around for nearly three decades – it’ll celebrate its 30th season in 2026, just as the Toronto team debuts – but there have never been more eyes on the league, and women’s hoops in general. You can call it the Caitlin Clark effect – and surely having a 22-year-old phenom representing the sport is a popularity boon – but it was already trending in this direction.

All 12 current WNBA teams are on pace to set franchise records in tickets sold, with the league’s 13th club – the San Francisco-based Golden State Valkyries – set to tip off its first season next year.

Locally, it’s pretty clear that Canadian basketball fans have been clamouring for more. A record number of Canadians watched Clark get selected first overall by the Indiana Fever in April’s draft. WNBA League Pass viewership in Canada increased by 55 per cent year over year in 2023. 2023 WNBA Finals viewership grew by 125 per cent.

Last year’s pre-season contest between the Chicago Sky and Minnesota Lynx at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto – the league’s first game on Canadian soil – sold out in 10 minutes, while setting records for attendance, viewership and merchandise sales. Soon, Canadian basketball fans will have the opportunity to watch professional women’s hoops up close.

“They can see that the sport they play as girls is just as important and worth investing in,” Tanenbaum said. “The more we all recognize the value and potential of women's sports, the closer we get to a more equitable future in the world of sports. So today we're here because, once again, we were in the right place at the right time.”

“Many say women's sports is having a moment. I disagree. Women's sports has arrived. It's a movement. The world is finally taking notice of something that's been there all along: immense talent, passion and competition.”

There was a record 27 Canadian players on NBA rosters going into the 2023-24 season – the 10th year in a row that the country has been the most represented in the league outside of the United States. Talk to most of those players and they’ll point to a seminal moment in their lives, something that inspired them to pick up a basketball or believe that they could make it at the highest level of the sport. Whether they mention Vince Carter’s iconic Dunk Contest performance in 2000 or the Lowry and DeMar DeRozan-led teams – or, eventually, the 2019 championship – it can all be traced back, directly or indirectly, to the Raptors’ expansion in the mid-90s.

It’s beyond exciting to think what this moment, the addition of this WNBA team, could mean for the women’s game. There are four Canadian players in the league – Kia Nurse (Los Angeles Sparks), Bridget Carleton (Minnesota Lynx), Laeticia Amihere (Atlanta Dream) and rookie Aaliyah Edwards (Washington Mystics). It’s not hard to envision that number rising and even skyrocketing in the years and decades to come, like it has on the men’s side.

Two years might feel like an eternity, but as Resch pointed out on Thursday, there are plenty of women who have been waiting a lot longer than that. And besides, there’s still plenty of work to get done ahead of opening night in May of 2026.

The most obvious piece of business: the team is going to need a name. It’s a process that could take up to a year, but Resch insists that they’re open-minded and intend on crowd sourcing ideas from fans. The prerequisites, per Resch, are as follows. The name needs to represent Canada, it needs to represent women strongly, and it needs to be “really, really cool.”

To start, they are expected to practice at the University of Toronto, but Tanenbaum has committed $40 million to construct the team its own training facility, though the details of where and when it’ll be built are still up in the air.

There are plans to renovate Coca-Cola Coliseum, which has been around for more than 100 years and is primarily a hockey venue. The 8,700-seat arena will serve as their primary home, but as “Canada’s team,” they intend to host select regular season games in Vancouver and Montreal. 

That’s not to mention the many other challenges that come with starting a team from scratch in a market that’s unfamiliar to the league.

“This is entrepreneurial 101,” Resch said. “Larry’s done it multiple times so he just kept pushing and pushing and pushing… The WNBA has never had a team internationally and that comes with a lot of very difficult details to work through that there is no precedent for. So, it’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”

It hasn’t exactly been a clear path to get to this point, and the road to opening night won’t be either. But the demand has been there and, now, thanks to Tanenbaum and Resch, so is the infrastructure for success. A WNBA team is officially coming to Toronto, and it’s in good and very capable hands.