Basketball

Exposure key to building women's basketball in Canada

After 10-plus years playing for Canada's national team and various pro-leagues overseas, as well having made history as the first Canadian woman on the coaching staff of a men's North American pro team, exposure is still the No. 1 hurdle Tamara Tatham sees for the nation's female basketball players, and the key to building a more lucrative future.

'If no one gets to see us play, no one's going to actually know who we are,' retired player Tamara Tatham

Tamara Tatham is the first Canadian woman on the coaching staff of a men's North American pro team. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

Do you watch women's basketball? What about Canadian women's basketball?

If you do, how do you access it? Is it easy? Affordable?

After 10-plus years playing for Canada's national team and various pro-leagues overseas, as well having made history as the first Canadian woman on the coaching staff of a men's North American pro team, exposure is still the No. 1 hurdle Tamara Tatham sees for the nation's female basketball players, and the key to building a more lucrative future.

"If no one gets to see us play, no one's going to actually know who we are as a national team," the retired national team player told CBC Sports ahead of her first season as a mentor coach with the Raptors 905. "So it would be awesome if we can get the [Canadian] senior team on TV as much as possible. Or some WNBA games… we've got some Canadians in the WNBA,"

"If there's ever a time to put it on Canadian TV, it's now."

Watch Tamara Tatham on what it's like to be a female basketball player in Canada:

Part 2 of 3 from CBC Sports' conversation with Tamara Tatham. Tatham played on Canada's national team for 10 years and is on the coaching staff for both the Raptors 905 and University of Toronto women's team. From her unique perspective, she weighs in on the state of women's basketball in Canada. 3:51

Tatham has a point.

Sold out crowds at the 2015 Pan Am Games and a 2017 NCAA matchup featuring Hamilton, Ont.'s, Kia Nurse, both held at the Mattamy Centre in Toronto, prove people will show up to games. And multiple Canadian players who have thrived on the national team have made it onto WNBA: Nurse, Natalie Achonwa and Kayla Alexander, to name a few.

The WNBA is one of few options Canadian women have in terms of making basketball a career, in addition to travelling overseas to European leagues. Canada is one of the only countries which does not have a domestic pro league, for men or women. 

"That was the only option at one point," Tatham said of leaving home to play in European leagues. "Of course, the WNBA is an option but the WNBA is only during the summer, which is also during the national team season. So it's tough."

WNBA opts out of player's agreement

But the ongoing discussion surrounding the lack of opportunity and exposure of Canadian female basketball players coincides with American athletes fighting for their own prosperity as well.

The Women's National Basketball Player's Association recently opted out of the WNBA's current collecting bargaining agreement following the 2019 season, in hopes to better the league and its players by fighting for higher salaries and better working conditions.

This comes among stark discrepancies between the player experience of a WNBA player versus a NBA player. WNBA athletes see 22 per cent of league revenue as opposed to the NBA players receiving 50 per cent. And according to Forbes, the average salary in the WNBA is just under $72,000 US. The minimum salary of a NBA player starts at $582,180.

Not that the WNBPA is looking to match salaries with NBA players; Tatham also appreciates that audiences typically prefer the men's game.

"I know a lot of people would love to watch men's ball. I mean its been that way since… I don't even know how long. Forever," she said. "The NBA has been around way longer than the WNBA. So it's almost like they have to figure out a way to not catch up, or… find their niche, kind of."

Watch Tamara Tatham on why a WNBA expansion team could work in Canada:

Part 3 of 3 from CBC Sports' conversation with Raptors 905 mentor coach Tamara Tatham. Tatham has seen how women's basketball in Canada has changed throughout her career. Now that she's retired and a coach, she talks about the realistic changes she'd like to see happen for the next generation of Canadian women's players. 2:43

Key to supporting Canadian talent

While women's basketball across all nations will always face comparisons with men's leagues, and the ensuing fight for their own piece of the pie, Tatham still insists getting Canada's national team in front of more eyeballs is the key to a strong foundation. She doesn't see a Canadian domestic pro-league in the cards anytime soon, but thinks a WNBA expansion team in the country could be successful, if Canadians already know what women's basketball has to offer.

"It would be pretty awesome," said Tatham of Canada's senior women's team getting on TV more regularly than just a world championships here, an Olympics there. "That would be awesome to see, if we're at a big tournament, so that the country can kind of get that feeling that we have when we're playing for the team,"

"I think that's a huge challenge and I'm hoping in the future that's going to start to change."

And Canada's national women's team has earned the air time: since 2015, the team has has made multiple podium appearances, including defeating a dominant Team USA for gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games, and following up with another gold at the 2015 FIBA Americas women's championship. The team appeared in both the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics, and currently are ranked No. 5 in the world.

With all their success, Tatham knows Canada has incredible role models in the women's game, and in addition to how much the women's game is developing, she knows there's plenty of possibility.

Watch Tamara Tatham describe her experience coaching male players:

Part 1 of 3 from CBC Sports' conversation with Raptors 905 mentor coach Tamara Tatham, the first Canadian woman on the coaching staff of a pro, North American basketball team. 4:49

"Dynamic," Tatham said, lighting up when asked about the style of play in 2018. "It's nice to see the speed, the athleticism, the smart play, it's really cool to watch women's basketball now. Women are dunking now! That was unheard of when I was growing up,"

"So I think that's something that's going to attract more viewers. I think it takes time. Everything in life takes time."