TORONTO — The WNBA is coming to Toronto, for one game at least.
The Minnesota Lynx, whose roster features Canadians Bridget Carleton and Natalie Achonwa, will play the Chicago Sky at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena in a pre-season matchup on May 13, the first WNBA game ever played in Canada.
But WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the game, which is being held in partnership with NBA Canada and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., is more about the globalization of the game than a test run for a franchise in Toronto.
"Obviously, we're working here in the off-season on expansion. It's one of the things I'm asked about the most by both the media and fans and I get DMs all the time from fans who want a team and their market, which I've said from the beginning, a league of our size and scale in a country of our size and scale, leading the women's sports momentum, we're going to expand at the right time," Engelbert said on a conference call.
Engelbert said about 100 cities are on the league's radar for expansion.
"I've talked about narrowing that, Toronto is certainly one of the names on the narrowed list, but we're having conversations with several potential owner groups and many markets at this point. And we're just excited to see the passion for the game in Canada."
Engelbert said the WNBA was just days from announcing a pre-season game in Canada in March of 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
The choice of teams was due to Minnesota's Canadian content. Canadian guard Kia Nurse of the Phoenix Mercury is an unrestricted free agent. There was also the proximity of Toronto to the two franchises.
"I think playing at Scotiabank Arena is a really important part of this, where the men play, etc., to get that equality message out there too that we can draw at an arena like that," she added of the Toronto Raptors' home court, which seats 19,800 fans.
Englebert said among the 207 countries and territories in which the league was broadcast last season, Canada was an obvious choice to host an exhibition game due to the growing popularity of the league — and both basketball and women's sports in general — here. She pointed to the success of the Toronto Raptors, and Canada's women's soccer and hockey teams at the Olympics.
"We've seen record WNBA viewership over the last two seasons in Canada, and I'm told we have over five million WNBA fans in the country," she said. "Globalizing the WNBA game has been a key pillar of how we're trying to grow the league … through our business transformation. Playing a game in Canada is a significant milestone for us."
The league would also love to host games in the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa), Engelbert added, plus South and Latin America, and eventually Asia.
The Lynx franchise won four WNBA championships from 2011 through '17 and made 11 consecutive playoff appearances beginning in 2011. Achonwa, who won't be available for the game in Toronto due to her pregnancy, and Carleton led Canada to the semifinals of the FIBA Women's World Cup this past fall. Carleton, a native of Chatham, Ont., led Canada in scoring (12.8 points per game), while Achonwa, from Guelph, Ont., was the team's second-leading rebounder (6.1 per game).
"We are looking forward to participating in this historic game for the WNBA," Cheryl Reeve, Lynx coach and president of basketball operations ,said in a release. "The league's global popularity has shown incredible growth, and I am pleased our team will be a part of continuing to pave the path for the WNBA by bringing our game to Canada."
The Sky won the WNBA championship in 2021, and reached the playoff semifinals this past season.
Toronto marks the third WNBA pre-season game to be played outside of the U.S. In 2004, the Detroit Shock and San Antonio Silver Stars met in Monterrey, Mexico and in 2011 the Atlanta Dream played Great Britain's team in Manchester, England.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press