The WNBA is on the path to announcing an expansion in the next few months. While it may take a year or two for the new team, or teams, (it’s likely that one or two new cities will be announced) to start play, the planning has already started. The league is in very capable hands and has been going through its due diligence.
It would seem very likely that Toronto will be among the recipients of a franchise should the league go to 13 or 14 teams. One potential downside that has been publicly suggested about including a Toronto expansion team is league travel restrictions (teams must fly commercial), which could be impacted by adding international travel. While the NHL, NBA, MLB and MLS all overcome the border-crossing issue, they have the capacity to fly charter.
There are at least three things that WNBA executives should assess when considering Toronto’s expansion. I’m pretty confident that each of these is well-understood, in addition to the standard demographic, psychographic, financing, and facilities considerations being considered by the WNBA.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to reiterate some strengths, in light of whatever the competing cities are emphasizing to get a leg up on their Canadian competition.
1) Canada’s Team
One thing is clear, the Canadian sports community brings a nationwide fan base.
Television viewers, radio audiences, team gear sales and all the other keys to sports marketing are exponential throughout Canada, in addition to the already formidable size of the immediate GTA market.
While it is not likely the team will sell season tickets in BC, it is true to say that super WNBA fans from across the country are likely to make the occasional trek to Toronto, if not for the sole purpose of catching a game, at least adding game-attendance to their itinerary when coming to the city, whether it’s to see the Jays play or a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame, or to attend the theatre or visit family.
Not to mention, an awful lot of people visit nearby Niagara Falls every year during the WNBA season.
Bringing a team to Toronto is bringing a team to Canada, and to that wide national fan base that none of the other five cities under consideration can bring.
2) Border Town, International Team
A few years back, I noticed on social media that there was some interest in bringing a WNBA team to Canada. In several conversations, there was discussion about how to incorporate the market in my native Western New York as part of the fan base.
Cross-border sports-related travel is high in this area. Whether it is Canadian fans coming to watch the Sabres or Bills, or Buffalo-area folk attending Jays, OHL or CFL games, horse racing or other sporting events in Canada, these habits already exist.
During the Raptors’ championship run, I saw television news stories, from stations on both sides of the border, referencing American fans who made the journey to support the team. This all despite minimal marketing of the Raps in Western New York.
Recent and continuing demographic shifts in Buffalo have only strengthened the area’s commitment to the hoops game.
While Western New Yorkers are unlikely to ever be a huge part of the fan base of Toronto teams, they don’t need to be. The professional basketball-starved Buffalo/Niagara U.S.A. region provides the possibility of making important marginal fan base increases for a WNBA expansion team in Toronto, especially if some targeted marketing and outreach are aimed at that Buffalo market.
3) Basketball haven.
Toronto is becoming a hub for hoops. The city’s demographic changes, its ability to not only attract fans for the NBA and development-league games, but to overflow gyms for high school and prep basketball is quite remarkable. I’ve attended prep basketball tournaments that have, over a weekend of games, had total fan attendance nearly rivalling that of some professional sports.
The schools of the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association attract players both domestically and internationally. While the OSBA reputation in the men’s game has continued to grow, the programs of its member institutions on the ladies’ side are also getting stronger.
Canada Basketball has become recognized globally as one of the most well-run and significant national sporting organizations. I would argue it is on par with any, worldwide.
Canadians have also proven their interest in supporting other professional basketball opportunities through the Canadian Elite Basketball League.
In short, whatever downsides are being presented by other cities that may be competing for a WNBA expansion team, the benefits of going to Toronto are virtually impossible to overstate.
I think Toronto is the natural “first city” that should be on the WNBA expansion list. I both hope, and believe, the league will include Canada in its upcoming expansion announcement.
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