On Saturday afternoon, the WNBA will play its first-ever game in Canada in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 20,000 fans in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, home of the NBA’s Raptors. The preseason clash between the Minnesota Lynx and Chicago Sky will serve as both preparation for the teams before the start of the W’s 27th campaign and as something of a test for Toronto’s viability as a potential expansion market for the 12-team league.
The game, which will air live in Canada on Sportsnet and TSN (and domestically on League Pass) marks just the third time the WNBA has ever played outside of the U.S. and the first in more than a decade. The Detroit Shock and San Antonio Silver Stars played in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2004, and the Atlanta Dream traveled to the U.K. to play Great Britain’s national team in 2011. However there has been nothing since, despite the dozens of WNBA players who play overseas during the W’s offseason and the NBA’s global push.
Toronto is a likely landing spot for the WNBA’s first expansion franchise since 2008 with backers including New Media Group and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment—which owns the city’s NBA, NHL, MLS, AHL and CFL teams, along with venues including Scotiabank Arena. The ownership group has sufficient capital and was given the infrastructure stamp of approval from the WNBA, and the city can tout an audience of about 5 to 6 million WNBA fans nationally (or about a quarter of the 22 million total NBA/WNBA fans in the country), according to NBA Canada.
The television numbers follow. Average regular-season Canadian viewership of the W’s games has increased by more than 95% over the past three years, the league says. There are also several players in the league from the Great White North, including the Minnesota Lynx’s Natalie Achonwa.
But despite two years of fielding interest and doing its due diligence on interested bidders, actual expansion plans remain elusive. The WNBA initially intended to announce to two new teams by the end of 2022 to begin play as early as 2024, but the league’s logistics have changed several times. What was two expansion teams has now become one; what the league says started as a list of 100 potential cities for new teams was narrowed to a dozen, then to 10, and now is back up to 20. The timeline has changed, too. Earlier this year, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said expansion remains two to four years away.
All the while, Toronto has remained a strong contender, and this weekend’s preseason showdown could be the proving ground the city needs to seal its bid for a franchise.
Toronto, Canada’s biggest city, aced the first test of fan interest. The upcoming game sold out 19,800 tickets within minutes, the league says. It also quickly passed the second: the ability to find substantial sponsor support. With the help of the NBA Canada staff, the WNBA landed 15 marketing partners for the preseason clash.
Headlined by presenting sponsor Tangerine Bank, which signed on as the first foundational partner of the WNBA north of the border, the contest’s backers also include a quartet of big-time Canadian brands—Air Canada, Canada Goose, Canadian Tire and telecommunications giant Bell—as well as Hennessy, YouTube, Michelob Ultra, Mastercard, Canadian financial services company Sun Life and RE/MAX. Many have invested heavily in promoting the game through ad spots, community activations and merchandise underwriting. Clinics and player appearances were put together by the WNBA as well, which is par for the course.
“The fact that we can be in this new market with amazing partners like Tangerine Bank and Air Canada, Bell, Canada Goose—that’s really exciting to see,” Colie Edison, the league’s chief growth officer, said in a phone interview. “And then the fan reaction. This game sold out 10 minutes after we put it live.”
NBA and WNBA partners DoorDash and Nike are also among the game’s sponsors. Edison, who declined to disclose specifics, says the league surpassed every goal it set for revenue for the game.
The NBA Canada office had been steadily seeding many of this weekend’s partner relationships as demand for the WNBA has grown in the country. NBA Canada says its partners increasingly began to inquire about the women’s league. Edison says the league has built much of its globalization strategy around partnering with regional NBA offices to forge localized partnerships.
“We’ve realized our fans are very interested in the WNBA, but they don’t necessarily have a deep knowledge of the players or teams,” NBA Canada managing director Leah MacNab said.
For now, the game is a one-time event. But MacNab is hopeful a WNBA version of the NBA’s Canada Series, which has consistently brought preseason games to different markets throughout the country since its inception in 2012, could follow.
“There’s nothing like a live product to really ignite that interest, so if we can make the business case—and this weekend is a great a test case—that would make a lot of sense. Canada has an avid fan base for basketball and a burgeoning women’s basketball interest that we think we can foster. It would be a wonderful product to release on a regular basis.”