Eight cities had a WNBA franchise when the league staged its debut season in 1997, and after watching a game at Madison Square Garden, Richard Peddie had one immediate thought: “I want one.”
He was president of the Raptors, en route to building a Canadian sports empire with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Peddie saw the WNBA as a way of extending the basketball season — still a nascent concept in Toronto at the time — through the summer months. The Canadian company made a pitch. It was refused.
WNBA president Val Ackerman had hinted at that refusal in an interview with the National Post in 1999, telling the paper she was not aware of Toronto “being a women’s basketball hotbed like some of the cities in the States.”
“Truth be known, we went through some pretty dark times there with coaching changes and we weren’t great on the court with the men’s team,” Peddie said. “To be pitching a women’s team when the men’s team hadn’t caught hold yet … the WNBA made the right decision saying no.”
Over the intervening two decades, the landscape has shifted.
The Raptors eventually moved to the (newly renamed) Scotiabank Arena and into regular contention in the Eastern Conference. They acquired Kawhi Leonard in an audacious July trade that has pushed expectations higher this year. And Canadian-born players are continuing to become stars in their own right, with R.J. Barrett at Duke and Kia Nurse finishing among the top five in WNBA rookie scoring this summer.
And yet, as the Seattle Storm and the Washington Mystics battle for the league title this week, Toronto — now the fourth-largest market in North America — still does not have a WNBA team.
Peddie retired from MLSE seven years ago, and a company spokesperson did not repeat the executive’s exuberance when asked about plans to pursue a franchise. In a statement to The Athletic, the company said it would “evaluate all opportunities within women’s professional sports, including the WNBA, to determine whether there could be a franchise in Toronto one day.”
During the WNBA’s all-star weekend in July, league president Lisa Borders told reporters there were “always discussions about expansion,” but that “you want to make sure that the teams you have are on solid footing operationally and financially.”
Concrete numbers for the WNBA’s finances are scarce, but in 2016 The New York Times reported that only half of the league’s 12 teams made money.
Positive signs have been cropping up. Last season ESPN reportedly increased what it pays to broadcast games to $25 million per season, up from $12 million. The league has also seen a spike in sponsorship revenue, after the 2009 decision to allow sponsors to place advertisements on team jerseys.
Last year, three teams had double-digit growth in attendance, and the league posted its largest average attendance since 2011.
In fact, the WNBA at 22 years of age is better off than the NBA was at the same point in its tenure. Last season, the average attendance for the WNBA was 7,716 fans per game. By comparison, the NBA at 21 years of age in 1966 averaged 6,631 fans per game.
Stacey Dales was raised in Brockville, Ont., and went on to appear in 150 regular season games spread over five seasons with the Chicago Sky and the Mystics. She said it would still be a challenge to turn a Toronto franchise into a business success.
“Would it be great? Would it be awesome? Yes,” she said. “Would it help young ladies and girls strive for something in the Canadian realm? Yes. I just think it would be really hard.
“It’s even challenging in the U.S. to hit the right market and really start digging into a fan base and have people come and watch in multitudes.”
Dales, who now works with the NFL Network, said a franchise needs quality leadership and a “great marketing team.”
“When I played for the Mystics, we led the league in attendance,” she said. “A game in D.C. was an event.”
Toronto is a crowded sports market, and so is the MLSE stable, with the company owning the Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC, the Marlies and the Argonauts. Nathalie Cook, a Toronto-based sports marketer, said a WNBA team could still find success.
“Basketball is the sport at the moment and you can’t deny the sort of appetite and uptick that’s happening right now,” she said. “I do believe there is enough general interest in the sport and fandom around particularly the rise of Canadian stars in this sport that’s really driving interest.”
Cook, who represents athletes such as Nurse, said MLSE would be the most natural fit as an owner in the city.
“I think a quicker route to success would be that route, they’ve just got the leverage,” she said. “But, bringing on a new team is a lot for everybody so I don’t want to say it’s easy if they do it because that’s not the case, but I do think they would be the best positioned to be successful.”
One of the keys, she said, would be the choice of venue.
“What you don’t want is a team playing at Scotiabank Arena playing to a half-sold building,” she said, listing arenas in Hamilton or Mississauga as potential home court options.
Many WNBA teams are moving to smaller venues to help cut operating costs and create a better atmosphere. Cook said a team should be set up like the Marlies; smaller arena, cheap tickets and family-friendly.
“It has to be family focused because for most families going to a Leafs or Raptors game is just out of their purview,” she said. “Making it family-friendly … will be pretty key to the early days of a franchise here and to build their fan base.”
Finally, she said marketing the team to everyone will play a major role.
“I think we have a tendency with female leagues to market exclusively to women or very focused on women,” said Cook. “And I’m not sure why we do that.
“The game is an entertaining game for everybody so of course you want to have women come and support it, but I feel like my tendency would be not to be quite so narrow focused.”
Carly Clarke is coach of the women’s basketball team at Ryerson University and an assistant coach for Canada’s senior women’s national team. She said Toronto is suited for a WNBA franchise, and that a Canadian entry would help grow the game.
“Obviously for young women to see first-hand regularly what it takes and what it looks like at the highest women’s basketball professional level would be great for exposure and growth of professional women’s basketball in Canada,” she said.
“Ideally a Toronto WNBA team would not only grow the game in Toronto but throughout Canada with increased media and television coverage.”
That kind of exposure is what was missing for Dales growing up in Eastern Ontario.
“As a kid, I never thought it would be possible and then when it became possible it kind of blew me away,” she said.
“I think it’s more realistic now for young Canadian female basketball players to think about playing professional basketball because [they see] several of us have done it.”
She said the lack of exposure also affected who she looked up to.
“My role models from a basketball standpoint were men,” she said.
“If I was a youngster right now I would look at players like Elena Delle Donne [a WNBA all-star who plays for the Mystics] and she would be my favourite. There is just such a great pool of talent in terms of women’s basketball.”
For Peddie, the appeal for MLSE to bring a team to Toronto is more for “the greater good” and growing women’s basketball “than a financial thing.”
“I don’t know if [MLSE] would make money on a WNBA team, because they aren’t very profitable, but they for sure would not lose anything like they are losing with the Toronto Argonauts,” he said.
“They’ve already got five teams, they’re already doing really well financially. It won’t move the dial from a financial point of view, so the appeal to bring a team in is to help.”