WNBA will host its second preseason game in Canada as its expansion into the country gains momentum

By | March 7, 2024

The WNBA will host a preseason game in Canada for the second consecutive season as it continues its expansion mission that could bring 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 to be held outside the United States after Toronto; Manchester, England, in 2011; and Monterrey, Mexico, in 2004 on the WNBA’s path to globalization. Toronto is also on the shortlist for an expansion team.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league returned to Canada as interest in women’s basketball there continues to grow, including a 32% year-over-year increase in TV viewership for WNBA games. Regular season viewership increased 95% from 2020 to 2023.

“I think bringing the game to Canada will have a huge impact,” Engelbert said in a video call with reporters. “I think that was the case last year, based on what we 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 US.”

The league chose Edmonton because of its “incredible history” of supporting professional sports, its “rich ties” to women’s basketball – namely the highly successful early 20th century Edmonton Grads team – and its good luck of the 2022 NBA Canada Series game at Rogers Place between the Raptors and Utah Jazz, Engelbert said.

“We continue to look at other cities as well, but were certainly impressed with what 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 that billionaire Larry Tanenbaum is pursuing a team through his holding company, the Kilmer Group. Tanenbaum was part of a bid for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, owner of the NHL’s Maple Leafs and NBA’s Raptors, that collapsed in October. He is the minority owner and chairman of MLSE. If successful, it would be the first WNBA team outside the United States.

The group is expected to meet with WNBA leadership about the offer 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 significant time and have very productive conversations with various interested ownership groups in a number of cities and markets,” Engelbert said. “[We] I have no news to report at this time.”

The league awarded its 13th team, and 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 listed several candidates: Sacramento, Portland, Denver, Toronto and Philadelphia. The league aims to add two teams since May 2022.

The 2023 preseason game in Toronto was a proof of concept for fan support in expansion. Tickets nearly sold out within minutes and the crowd of 19,800 provided an enthusiastic atmosphere for the Chicago Sky’s victory over the Minnesota Lynx. Merchandise sold out at 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 root for a franchise as the Minnesota Lynx play the Chicago Sky in a preseason WNBA at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena.  May 13, 2023. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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

Regardless of location, an initial expansion team in Canada would attract fandom from across the country as “Canada’s team,” similar to the Raptors’ situation. The net of potential sponsorship opportunities would also apply nationwide, unlike the case for expansion opportunities in the US. Testing the waters in Edmonton will provide evidence of how big a fandom is for Canadian expansion.

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

Interest and participation in the sport has continued to grow in Canada over the past two decades, on both the women’s and men’s sides. The Canadian women’s national team, which consists of four WNBA players and is based in Edmonton, is ranked fifth in the world and has qualified for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

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

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

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

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