WNBA will host 2nd preseason game in Canada as expansion to country gains steam

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The WNBA will host a preseason game in Canada for the second consecutive season while it continues its expansion quest that could lead it back to the country full time.

The Los Angeles Sparks and Seattle Storm will play at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, on May 5 ahead of the WNBA’s 28th season, the league announced Thursday. It will be the fourth preseason game held outside the United States after Toronto; Manchester, England, in 2011; and Monterrey, Mexico, in 2004 in the WNBA’s road toward globalization. Toronto is also on the short list for an expansion team.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league returned to Canada because interest in women’s basketball continues to increase there, including a 32% year-over-year TV viewership jump for WNBA games. Regular season viewership was up 95% from 2020-23.

“Bringing the game to Canada, I think, will have an enormous impact,” Engelbert said in a video call with reporters. “I think it did last year, based on what we’ve heard and what our NBA Canada team continues to hear. And that’s why we’re coming again because we want to impact this game globally, not just here in the U.S.”

The league chose Edmonton for its “incredible history” supporting professional sports, its “rich ties” to women’s basketball — namely the highly successful Edmonton Grads team of the early 1900s — and the success of the 2022 NBA Canada Series game at Rogers Place between the Raptors and Utah Jazz, Engelbert said.

“We’ll continue to look at other cities as well but certainly was impressed with what everything Edmonton has to offer,” she said.

The announcement comes the same week as new reports of a bid for the WNBA to expand to Toronto. CBC Sports reported Monday billionaire Larry Tanenbaum is pursuing a team through his holding company, the Kilmer Group. Tanenbaum was part of a bid with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the NHL’s Maple Leafs and NBA’s Raptors, that fell apart in October. He is the minority owner and chairman of MLSE. If successful, it would be the first WNBA team outside of the United States.

The group is expected to meet with WNBA leadership about the bid and an announcement could come as soon as May, CBC Sports reported. Engelbert told reporters that future expansion teams would not begin play until 2026 or beyond.

“We continue to spend a lot of time and engage in very productive conversations with several interested ownership groups in a number of cities and markets,” Engelbert said. “[We] have no news to report at this time.”

The league awarded its 13th team, and the first expansion team since 2008, to Golden State Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber in October. The Bay Area team will begin play in 2025. At the time of that announcement, Engelbert said she expected to add a 14th team by 2025 and mentioned several candidates: Sacramento, Portland, Denver, Toronto and Philadelphia. The league has targeted adding two teams since May 2022.

The 2023 preseason game in Toronto was proof of concept for fan support of expansion. Tickets nearly sold out within minutes and the crowd of 19,800 delivered an enthusiastic environment for the Chicago Sky’s win over the Minnesota Lynx. Merchandise sold out by halftime and fans waved signs urging the league to bring a team to their city. It set records for TV viewership, attendance and merchandise sales in Canada, the league said. One T-shirt for sale read, “Women’s basketball belongs in the North.”

Fans advocate for a franchise at the WNBA’s first preseason game in Canada at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto in May 2023. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

No matter the location, an initial expansion team in Canada would draw fandom from across the country as “Canada’s team,” similar to the Raptors’ situation. The net of potential sponsorship opportunities would also be country-wide, unlike the case for expansion opportunities in the U.S. Testing the waters in Edmonton will provide evidence of how wide fandom is for Canadian expansion.

“I look at a lot of data about the market and kind of our typical WNBA fan, but how can we grow that fan base and other fan segments?” Engelbert said. “And certainly Toronto did great on that last year.”

Interest and participation in the sport continues to grow in Canada on both the women’s and men’s side over the past two decades. The Canadian women’s national team, which features four WNBA players and is based in Edmonton, is ranked No. 5 in the world and qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“The league coming here to Canada again is a sign of the importance we see in continuing to globalize our game, bringing the WNBA to a worldwide global platform [and] possibly to other countries in the future,” Engelbert said.

Kia Nurse, one of the nation’s most recognizable basketball stars, will play in the Edmonton preseason game after joining the Sparks from the Storm in free agency. Aaliyah Edwards, a 6-foot-3 senior forward at UConn, could join her in the game as well. The Canadian national pool player is a projected lottery pick if she chooses to enter April’s draft. The Sparks have the No. 2 and No. 4 picks.

The rest of WNBA’s active Canadian team players are Bridget Carleton (Lynx), Natalie Achonwa (free agent, formerly Lynx) and Laeticia Amihere (Atlanta Dream). Engelbert said approximately 20% of WNBA players rostered last season were international.

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