The WNBA has finally made it official that the league will be expanding its ranks from 12 teams to 13. The yet-unnamed Bay Area-based team, owned by Golden State Warriors executives Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, is set to compete in the 2025 season.
Not only will Californians be able to celebrate an exciting new addition to the Western Conference, but WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert confirmed last week that the league is aiming to announce a 14th team to start in 2025 as well.
While speculation continues about which city will be chosen for this honor, we can be close to certain about which city will not play host to the WNBA’s newest expansion team: Toronto, Canada.
Reporting from the Toronto Star confirmed that Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), the behemoth Toronto-based ownership group behind the city’s NHL, NBA, MLS and CFL teams, had pulled back from its bid to add the WNBA to its roster of professional franchises.
The news comes in spite of an upswell of popularity for women’s basketball in Toronto, with the WNBA’s first-ever Canadian exhibition game between the Minnesota Lynx and Chicago Sky in May of this year drawing a sellout crowd of nearly 20,000 to the Raptors’ home court, Scotiabank Arena.
Among the reasons the bid fell through, ESPN’s Sarah Spain reported on X that MLSE, which owns the venue, is betting on seeing greater returns continuing to host concerts rather than WNBA games, at least for the time being.
Toronto would be an amazing home to a @wnba team & the preseason game there made it clear the league & city want it to happen. The issue, I'm told, lies in the venue. League wants promise games will be @ Scotiabank, MLSE is hesitant to give up all those nights of concerts, etc.— Sarah Spain (@SarahSpain) October 5, 2023
While the rapidly growing base of women’s basketball fans in Canada will have to contend with putting their WNBA dreams on hold, this moment also affords us the time to consider what we want out of an expansion team: what is good for the league, good for the players, good for the city, and good for the wider development of women’s sports in Canada.
By these metrics, it’s actually a good thing Toronto isn’t getting a team — at least for now. As a born and raised Torontonian (derogatory), it is my prerogative and indeed my burden to present the city’s aspiring women’s basketball fans with a reality check.
Now without hopes for a WNBA team for a while longer, Toronto has mercifully been given more time to develop a sense of identity independent of the cheap, cloying Canadiana used to brand and market the Raptors. To this day, the city’s 2019 NBA championship title is something that lends itself to embarrassing sloganeering like #WeTheNorth — and even more egregiously when it comes to hype around the WNBA bid, #SheTheNorth!
The Toronto sports scene must also see itself as bigger than the one-man Drake industrial complex in order to be worthy of a women’s basketball team. The reverence has long devolved into cringe, but it is something that the blossoming basketball fandom in the GTA has the capacity to outgrow.
The failed bid is also a blessing in disguise for fans who care about a team modeling the values of the community to which it belongs. It’s not set in stone that Toronto’s WNBA team must be owned by the faceless billion-dollar corporation in MLSE or a coterie of tech bro entrepreneurs. We can still afford to dream a little bigger, and there are alternatives that could offer a more democratic, representative system of ownership.
Take for example the women’s soccer team Minnesota Aurora FC, which is entirely fan-owned, allowing the local community to have a stake in the team’s success and a voice in how it is managed. From a financial standpoint, this could both ensure a built-in fan base upon which to develop the team’s presence in the area, and also provide a communal sense of ownership that would hopefully assuage the WNBA’s anxieties around a franchise folding.
Meanwhile, women’s sports continues to develop in Canada with a new women’s hockey league, as well as a professional soccer league in the works. How they will contend with these issues is yet to be seen, but both leagues have been developed with active involvement and feedback from the players themselves in response to the labor-unfriendly environments in which women athletes in this country have had to resist in the past.
At the end of the day, no team can exist without the players first and foremost. And whether claims to the next WNBA franchise fall to Portland to Philadelphia, it’s crucial that safeguarding players’ rights as workers is one of the most important foundations in our imagining of new sporting landscapes going forward.