WNBA to hold first-ever exhibition game in Canada on May 13

The WNBA is finally coming to Canada — for an exhibition game, at least.

The first-ever pre-season game north of the US border will take place on May 13 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, featuring a matchup between the Chicago Sky and Minnesota Lynx, the WNBA announced on Wednesday.

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While the news is a short-term win for fans of women’s basketball all over the country, it will also generate more excitement around the long-rumored possibility of Toronto being an expansion market for the WNBA.

As the league continues to grow, it has looked at over 100 cities for potential expansion, and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert reiterated that Toronto is certainly on that list.

“We’re excited to see how the market responds and certainly the fans in the country from a viewership perspective as well,” Engelbert said on a conference call while discussing the announcement of the exhibition game.

“I know that this market is hugely into women’s sports too, because that’s important. I think playing at Scotiabank Arena is a really important part of this, where the men play, to get that equality message out there that we can draw out in an arena like that.”

The league currently has 12 teams and has grown its operations and schedule in recent years, introducing a mid-season competition named the Commissioner’s Cup as an added incentive to win money, as well as expanding the playoff format to a best-of-three series from what used to be single elimination games in the first two rounds.

Recent data has shown that numbers on WNBA viewership, partnerships and sponsorships have skyrocketed, which has driven the need for expansion and visibility beyond the current markets.

The allure of Toronto as a potential market has partially stemmed from the growth and success of the Raptors franchise, culminating with an NBA championship in 2019. And the influence of the Canadian men’s and women’s national teams can’t be overlooked.

Being able to expand into a big market like Toronto is a goal for the league, so this exhibition game will help gauge interest and viewership. But the league isn’t just thinking about Canada when it comes to opportunities to grow the women’s game.

“The NBA just had a game in Mexico City, they were asking about Adam Silver about the WNBA there. The NBA will be in Paris later this week, I’m sure there’ll be questions, ‘Where’s the W? When are they coming in?’” Engelbert said.

“It was in Abu Dhabi. Obviously, the NBA’s done India, Japan. I think we have a lot of opportunity here, as these cities and countries around the world are growing the women’s game as well.”

Even within Canada, the WNBA recognizes there are fans far outside Toronto and has a long-term goal of giving spectators from coast to coast a chance to watch the league in person.

“As we looked at our 100 cities, we included multiple cities in Canada, including Toronto, Montreal, and others on the West Coast,” Engelbert said. “We’re looking at the demographics and psychographics, we’re looking at all of that information, where the fandom is, where are people buying our merch, where are they viewing from — all of that.

“We understand having just one game in one city in a country the size of Canada probably isn’t ideal for a lot of people to travel from the West Coast or other places. But we think May is a great time, what a great place to be in this spring and summer but Canada, so I think hopefully some people will travel for it and make it a nice weekend in May. But certainly something we’ll consider more broadly, because we know the fan bases across Canada, not just in Toronto.”

The game in Toronto will be just the third WNBA exhibition to be played outside the United States. In 2004, the Detroit Shock and San Antonio Silver Stars met in Monterrey, Mexico, and in 2011 the Atlanta Dream played the Standard Life Great Britain Women’s basketball team in Manchester, England.

Engelbert wanted the timing to be right to make an appearance for women’s basketball fans in Toronto after the global pandemic, something that halted the league’s plans of originally coming to Canada back in early 2020.

“We were about to announce having a game in Canada in March 2020, but we all know what happened in mid-March,” Engelbert said.

“We were probably a few days or a week from announcing a May of 2020 pre-season game in Canada, and obviously COVID changed everything at that point in time. That’s why I’m excited, we’re three years behind what my plan was, because then off of this, we were going to build a real global game strategy.

“Obviously, COVID put a stop on that, so I think we’re really excited to do this, to see what the support is.”

The teams chosen for the exhibition game this coming May — Chicago and Minnesota — are the same two teams that were penciled in to play in Toronto back in 2020, thanks to their Canadian connections.

Natalie Achonwa and Bridget Carleton, both members of the Canadian senior women’s national team, which competed in the FIBA ​​Basketball Women’s World Cup last fall, will be on the court as members of the Lynx.

“There were other teams, obviously, but we love to have a team that has Canadian players on it, which obviously Minnesota does, with Natalie and with Bridget,” Engelbert said.

Achonwa and Carleton are two of just three Canadians currently in the league, with Phoenix Mercury guard Kia Nurse rounding out the talent from north of the border in the WNBA.

Ticket information and the start time for the WNBA Canada Game will be announced in the near future, but the game will be broadcast live in Canada on Sportsnet.

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