Buzzing. When you stroll through the streets of Toronto on the day of a big, larger-than-life, “welcome to a moment in history” sports event, the city feels like it’s buzzing. There’s an extra chunk of traffic. It’s harder to find parking. Union Station is pulsing with the movement of people in a more amplified way than usual. The crowd is barrelling through the stacks of doors that connect the city’s central station and Scotiabank Arena. A crowd that tends to be wearing Raptors, Leafs, or Jays jerseys begins permeating their excitement as they line up to enter the arena. But not yesterday. On Saturday, May 13th, that usually sports-enthralled city wasn’t buzzing for any of its beloved sports teams. But for a sport itself.
It’s uncommon, if not rare, to have a city become so completely captivated and motivated to attend a sports event without developing any sort of prior relationship. And yet, yesterday felt as seismically impactful as nearly any sports moment in recent history for the city.
“It was amazing here. It definitely had Finals feels,” said 2021 Finals MVP, Chicago Sky guard Kahleah Copper when she was asked to compare the sold-out crowd in Toronto (22,000 deep) to others she’s played in front of. “A major shoutout to Canada. The supporters that came out. The little girls who are able to see it so they could really be it.”
See it, so they could really be it.
That right there was the main reason the WNBA decided to venture out and host its 3rd ever-international game, and 1st on Canadian soil in the heartbeat of Southern Ontario in Toronto — as a way to inspire. And while the long-term results of that inspiration are TBD, I can tell you from witnessing how other culture-shifting moments have helped develop a deep-seated love for basketball in this city — yesterday was one of them.
It’s honestly because that crowd had a common goal in mind: make them hear you.
The them in question here is the WNBA – which as of just a few seasons ago has started to entertain the idea of expanding its 12-team league to 14, potentially adding two more cities to the roster, while also citing Toronto as one of its short-list candidates.
Make no mistake, as much as this game was a way for the WNBA to grow its global brand and help inspire a generation of little girls to pick up a basketball, it was also a way to gauge just how popular a potential expansion franchise could be and in that regard, the city passed with flying colors.
The league had set up merchandising booths packed with gear and memorabilia for the game — they all sold out before half-time. The pre-purchase for the event that went on sale in March — sold out in 10 minutes. I haven’t heard an arena so loud in a while. And it wasn’t because of the incredibly high stakes between the Sky and the Minnesota Lynx in their final pre-season game. It was because basketball fans in the city want the league to give them a team. They wanted their shrieks and screams and cheers to convince the WNBA to give them a professional women’s basketball team.
“Obviously I’ve told you Toronto scored very high on the list, so Toronto is definitely on the list,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in her pre-game press conference an hour before tip-off smiling from ear to ear. “But we’ll continue to work on that through this season and hopefully have something to announce later.”
It’s no doubt that this weekend was a smashing success for the ever-growing pro sports league. They held events scattered throughout the city, meet-n-greets, pop-up shops, a 12-foot sculpture of a woman laying up a basketball that made its way through the city and the Deputy-Mayor declared May 13th, “Welcome WNBA Day”.
It felt good. Great vibes in the city. And while Engelbert spent the bulk of her press conference keeping the league’s options open and advocating for patience from fans pushing for expansion — it’s undeniable just how important good vibes are.
“It does matter a lot,” Engelbert said when asked how important it is for them to experience this weekend. “It’s really important to be sure that it wouldn’t be a one-and-done in a city, that you think over the long-term they are really going to support the WNBA team in their market.”
That even-keeled approach is why Engelbert is at the helm of the fastest-growing professional women’s sports league in the world — she understands what kind of an undertaking and risk it would be to expand to a new city or two.
But still, Toronto, Canada provides a lucrative opportunity while also proving to have tangible evidence to support its case.
After all, a 2020 Nielsen Sports study reported that interest in the WNBA increased by 31.0 percent year over a year amongst Canadian sports fans and 50.0 percent amongst the general population, with basketball now the country’s most popular sport.
The average audience for nationally broadcast games in Canada saw an increase of 325 percent in viewership for the league’s opening weekend games compared to 2020.
Over the last three years, average regular-season WNBA viewership in Canada has increased by 95%.
And as I mentioned before the first ever WNBA game in Canada sold out. 22,000 purchased tickets. About 19,000 were in their seats.
To put that into perspective, the Seattle Storm led the WNBA in attendance in 2022 averaging just over 10,000 fans per game.
Now, it’s unlikely that 22,000 fans show up every night but if Toronto can bring in half? Even a third of that? They’d be near the top of the league in attendance already.
Demand for WNBA basketball in Canada is there.
And it only makes sense for Toronto to be its destination because of the existing infrastructure: multiple options for stadiums to play in and pre-existing NBA and G-League affiliate teams to show support.
Even from a business standpoint, this weekend in Canada showed the potential for considerable investment from some of the country’s biggest brand names. There were 16 different marketing sponsors for the game including Air Canada, Tangerine Bank, Canadian Tire, Bell, Gatorade, Nike, Mastercard, etc.
At this point, all that’s left for the Toronto sales pitch to be complete is a team name and a group of very rich people to say “Yeah, we’ll do it.”
It’s unclear exactly when that’ll happen, or exactly when the WNBA will pull the trigger on announcing the expansion, but after this weekend — there’s no question that Toronto has positioned itself incredibly well to be first in line.
Even outside the overwhelming data that support the idea, or above the unbelievable reception of the WNBA over this weekend and at the game — the one major argument for this city to be deserving of another professional sports team is the undeniable buzz you feel when you walk around on a day like yesterday. It’s a sensation that I imagine Engelbert herself couldn’t help but feel as well.
Because that’s how indisputable it was.
Maybe that could be a cool name for the future team? Nah, I’ll leave that to the experts.