Toronto shows it belongs ‘on the list’ for WNBA expansion
In his eyes, Scotiabank Arena is Chicago Sky head coach James Wade’s house now.
While the scoresheet said Wade and the Sky were the winners in their preseason tilt against Minnesota Lynx 82-74 at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday, it was the city of Toronto that emerged victorious.
In the first-ever WNBA game played on Canadian soil, one that sold out in under 30 minutes when tickets went on sale back in March, a capacity crowd of 19,800 filled the stands, cheering from opening tipoff to the final buzzer. Many were wearing the league’s iconic orange hoodie and brought homemade signs asking for the WNBA to make Toronto the home of its next expansion team.
Wade said the atmosphere was amazing.
"It's my house," Wade joked. "I'm the first coach, and only coach, that has won a game in this city at the highest level. I was the first. This is my house, so call it what you will.
“When we came out into the tunnel and saw people all the way up as far as you can see, [the] seats were filled and they were cheering already, just with the players in the warmups.”
Minnesota Lynx guard Bridget Carleton, who hails from Chatham, Ont., had the distinction of being the first Canadian to play in a WNBA game in Canada. In the past 48 hours, she threw out the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game and addressed the crowd at Scotiabank before tip-off.
“I think just the support was amazing,” said Carleton. “Obviously for the WNBA in general, but for me, I felt all the love from the fans, so that was really cool to see. It’s not often I get to play in Canada, so that was a cool experience for me individually.”
For the American players, the historical moment of playing in a country seeing the WNBA live for the first time was something to cherish.
Chicago Sky star Kahleah Copper said the feeling in the arena was similar to when the franchise won its first-ever championship in 2021 on home court at Wintrust Arena.
“Major shout out to Canada and all the supporters that came out,” said Copper. “The little girls were able to see it, so they can really be it. [There’s] nothing like having that real WNBA experience and having direct access to these players.”
This is just the third time in league history that a WNBA contest has been played outside of the United States. The first happened in 2004 in Monterrey, Mexico, with the second in 2011 in Manchester, England.
Expansion remains one of the hot topics for the league as it continues to grow in popularity, but it hasn’t added a new franchise since the Atlanta Dream in 2008.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said during a pregame press conference that the Toronto game represents a major step in hosting more global events in the future, adding that several cities in the United States that don’t have WNBA teams have expressed interest in hosting preseason games, as well as cities in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
Engelbert noted the league has a list of approximately 10 cities it is doing its due diligence on in the expansion process, with no clear deadline of when the next team(s) will be added.
“We did a big data analysis about 18 months ago with 100 cities,” said Engelbert. “We narrowed that based on psychographics, demographics, arena, corporate partners that we know would step up and help. Then we narrowed that to 20 based on the data analysis and discussions with potential ownership groups, long term committed ownership groups and all the things they are looking for, the success we’re looking for.
“Toronto is definitely on the list.”
As the WNBA now looks towards the regular season, Carleton and Copper both understand how important accessibility and visibility is for the game.
Growing up in Canada, Carleton was inspired by her mother Carrie, who played Division II basketball, but did not have direct access to WNBA or NCAA games.
All the WNBA merchandise available at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday was sold out before halftime and for Carleton’s family, buying merchandise online from the United States has proven to be difficult.
“My parents try to buy stuff all the time and it’s a process to get [it] into Canada, so they ship it to me in Minnesota and grab it when they come,” said Carleton. “That’s a simple thing we can do to help grow the game – especially in Canada and internationally.
“It’s proven there’s fans here that want that merchandise and that’s only going to help grow the game, so I don’t see why not, and we need to make those moves.”
Copper grew up in Philadelphia, a city that has never had a WNBA franchise. She watched college basketball but never saw the game at the professional level. Copper would eventually go to Rutgers before kicking off a WNBA career that has included winning a championship and being named finals MVP.
She said that the kids who attended Saturday’s game should be inspired by seeing WNBA players up close.
“As a kid, I wasn't like, I could be a WNBA player,” said Copper. “It wasn't until I really took visits to colleges, and I saw that Rutgers breeds pros and I saw Cappie Pondexter, Essence Carson, Epiphanny Prince.
“…So, I think that when I say, ‘You can see can be it,’ that's real. As a kid, if you here at this game, this has never happened before. So, they can also see players that are from where they're from make it in the WNBA. I think that that was special too because not only are they seeing us Americans, they're seeing Canadians also that are doing it. So, they're definitely double inspired.”