She the North? Athletes, coaches make case for a Toronto WNBA team

Should a WNBA team come to Toronto? It’s a commonly asked question in the wake of the Raptors’ historic playoff run as fans showcase the city’s passion for basketball. Athletes and coaches make their case, although the women's league says it has no plans to expand at this time.

Women's basketball league says it has no plans to expand at this time

Hamilton's Kia Nurse, right, is now in her second season with the WNBA's New York Liberty. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Playing in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) has always been a dream for Shay Colley of Brampton, Ont.

She travels the world as a guard on Canada's national team, and also plays for the Michigan State Spartans.

All the WNBA's teams are based in the U.S., inspiring Colley and her teammates to think: "Wouldn't it be amazing if Toronto had a WNBA team?"

It's a commonly asked question in the wake of the Raptors' historic NBA playoff run as fans showcase the city's passion for basketball. 

The timing seems right, with the WNBA experiencing growth in attendance, social media views and merchandise spending, according to a 2017 news release from the association.

Iowa State guard Bridget Carleton, centre, from Chatham, Ont., was chosen 21st overall by the Connecticut Sun in the 2019 WNBA draft. (Matthew Putney/Associated Press)

Although the league has spoken about expansion in the past, WNBA chief operating officer Christy Hedgpeth told CBC Toronto, "We have no plans to expand at this time. We are focused on the overall health and competitiveness of our existing 12 franchises."

Still, some involved in the industry, like WNBA and NBA player agent Leisa Washington, are making their own arguments.

"A WNBA franchise in Toronto would be monumental. A legacy in the making," she said.

"It's time."

CBC Toronto asked a number of basketball insiders about their thoughts on a possible expansion, and whether this city would be a good fit.

Does Toronto have what it takes?

It's no secret the Greater Toronto Area has produced multiple WNBA players, including New York Liberty guard Kia Nurse.

She began her second season with the league last month, and in an email, said she wants to see it grow north.

"It's a complicated system," she said. "But I would absolutely love it and I think it would be great for growing the grassroots program of basketball within Canada."

Nurse says she would love to see a WNBA team in Toronto. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Carly Clarke, assistant coach for Canada's national team and head coach of the Ryerson Rams, said the huge basketball fan base in Toronto is one reason a WNBA team would succeed.

"We've proven we can develop a great following and a successful basketball program that engages the community."

As for whether a women's team will draw as much attention as the Raptors, Clarke said there's still work to do, but just look at the women's basketball finals at Toronto's Pan Am Games in 2015.

"The building was sold out," she said, as the Canadian women took home the gold.

Clarke said a proper venue is crucial, such as Ryerson University's Mattamy Centre — where the Pan Am women's basketball final was held — the Paramount Fine Foods Centre or the Goldring Centre.

The team would also need a financial backer.

"We need the dollars to go behind our product to get it to continue to grow and get it off the ground just like a lot of the other men's leagues have had when they originated," she said.

Carly Clarke is an assistant coach with the Canadian women's national team, and head coach of the Ryerson Rams women's team. (CBC)

Although former WNBA player Tammy Sutton-Brown also wants to see a team in Toronto, she's unsure if the league will go for it. 

"They're being more cautious because they did expand ... and then they kind of had to scale back a little bit," the Markham native said, referring to a late 1990s growth spurt.

But with the league's recent growth, and the city's excitement, she said the WNBA should at least consider it.

"It wouldn't just be Toronto's [team]. I think like you see with the Raptors, it would be Canada's team."

Tammy Sutton-Brown is the second Canadian woman to ever play in the WNBA, drafted in 2001. (REUTERS)

She the North

From the sidelines of the Raptors-Golden State Warriors series, which is tied at 1-1, CBC Toronto also asked a few NBA players about the idea.

Jerome Williams, a retired former Raptor, said a women's team would bring a whole new level of play to the city.

"Their skill level is fun to watch ... They do everything correct, perfect pick and rolls, you know, perfect shots. I think that the game would be great for Toronto," he said.

Mississauga, Ont.'s Nick Stauskas, who plays for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, believes this city would support a WNBA team.

"These fans show up," he said. "I think more and more people are starting to realize how loyal these fans are in this city, and so I think the WNBA would be lucky to have a team here in Toronto."

Toronto's Natalie Achonwa, pictured at the Rio Olympics in 2016, plays for WNBA team the Indiana Fever. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Washington said the talent of these women is unquestionable, and putting a team in Toronto would give players more opportunities and bring new role models to a growing fan base.

"We need to have women there. We need to have a WNBA Toronto team that's going to exemplify and amplify women on a leadership scale at the highest level of sport," she said.

As homegrown talent, Colley said she would love the chance to play at the professional level in front of her friends and family.

"It would mean the world to me."


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