WNBA basketball logo [1296x729] - Copy 20240514
WNBA basketball logo [1296x729] - Copy 20240514 (Credit: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Lauren Down back on NZC s central-contracts list

Toronto has been awarded the WNBA's first franchise outside the United States, with the expansion team set to begin play in 2026.

Larry Tanenbaum-led Kilmer Sports Ventures is paying $115 million for the team. Tanenbaum also is the chairman and a minority owner of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the Toronto sports giant that owns the NHL's Maple Leafs and NBA's Raptors along with Toronto's MLS and Canadian Football League franchises.

"I've really admired what the NBA has done over a long period of time to globalize their game," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said "... Now other sports leagues are copying off of them, doing their global games equivalent. That's why this is so important to us to be outside the United States, here in Toronto and in Canada, to start to build that global brand because we know when we bring the product to fans outside the U.S., they love it."

To approve the new WNBA franchise in Toronto, the WNBA board of governors voted 13-0 and the NBA board of governors voted 29-1, sources told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Only the New York Knicks, who are suing the Raptors over alleged theft of proprietary information, voted against the expansion, sources said.

Toronto will be the WNBA's 14th franchise, with the expansion Golden State Valkyries set to start play next year. Teresa Resch, a former Raptors executive, was named president of the WNBA team.

The team will play at the 8,700-seat Coca-Cola Coliseum at Exhibition Place and will have the ability to move up to the Scotiabank Arena on occasion. Opened in 1921, the Coca-Cola Coliseum also is the home of the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies, and Resch said they plan to invest in back-of-house player spaces at the arena.

"Women's sports is good business," Tanenbaum told The Associated Press. "Just look around -- it's not a moment, but a movement, and it's just the beginning. The investment that we'll put into the franchise will also be no different than the other franchises."

Tanenbaum and Resch both said the team will play some games in Vancouver and Montreal.

"This isn't just Toronto's team. This is Canada's team," Resch said. "... We're gonna play across Canada in different markets. We look forward to doing that in a way that no other professional sports team in Canada has ever done."

As far as the name of the team, Tanenbaum said they would take their time and seek public input.

Kilmer Sports Ventures, created as a standalone company to operate the team, has committed to building a practice facility, but until that is ready, the team will train at University of Toronto's Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport.

Engelbert said WNBA exhibition games in Canada the past two seasons showed the passion of the fans in the country for women's basketball.

"When I was up for the preseason game, Kia [Nurse] and I did a youth clinic. The reaction from young girls to Kia and what she stands for, they so admire her," Engelbert told the AP.

Nurse is one of a handful of Canadian players playing in the WNBA with more on the way.

"No doubt it's helpful to have household names," Engelbert said.

The commissioner expects the league to get to 16 teams by 2028. Sources confirmed to ESPN this month that groups are in talks to revive a bid for a new team in Portland, which would bring the WNBA to 15 teams.

"We've already had a lot of interest, and it got more tangible and serious from a fair amount of cities after the draft," Engelbert said. "We are in a good position to get to 16 by certainly '27-'28."

Other cities previously mentioned by Engelbert for possible expansion were Philadelphia, Denver and Nashville as well as the South Florida region.

ESPN's Alexa Philippou contributed to this report.