'Toronto wants WNBA': First-ever game in Canada shows viability of expansion to Toronto

Chatham, Ont., native Bridget Carleton of the Minnesota Lynx drives past Dana Evans of the Chicago Sky during the first half of a WNBA pre-season game at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Saturday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Chatham, Ont., native Bridget Carleton of the Minnesota Lynx drives past Dana Evans of the Chicago Sky during the first half of a WNBA pre-season game at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Saturday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)

At this point, the questions surrounding WNBA expansion focus more on where than when.

On Saturday at Scotiabank Arena, in an exhibition game between the Minnesota Lynx and Chicago Sky, Toronto took a Jurassic step toward answering the former.

"It felt really coordinated," Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said. "Someone holds up a sign that says 'Toronto wants WNBA,' people go crazy. It just felt like everyone was locked in on what the mission was: it was to make this an incredible environment. And they did that."

The appetite for professional women's basketball in the city was evident in the joyous, diverse crowd that lit up, especially in the second half, over a game whose main significance was its location — the league's first international game since 2011, and first ever in Canada.

The result — the Sky beat the Lynx 82-74 — was secondary.

"I think we're going to look back on this and say this was really meaningful," Reeve said. "And hopefully then Toronto comes in at some point and hopefully it's a model for other cities that want to do the same thing."

WATCH | Sky defeat Lynx in 1st WNBA game in Canada:

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Toronto is on a shortlist of 10 cities the league is looking at for expansion, and that the time to add teams is "getting closer."

It is the only one now with some proof of concept. Tickets for the 19,800-seat arena sold out the day they were made available in March. The Seattle Storm led the WNBA in attendance with an average of 10,631 fans per game last year.

"It does matter when you feel the support because women's sports and women's basketball is a fanbase that you want to make sure, our cities it's rabid and avid I call it," Engelbert said.

"And these partners show up, these fans show up and it's really important to make sure it wouldn't be a one-and-done in a city that you think in the long term could one day support a WNBA team in the market."

The rabidity and avidity were both evident in the leadup to Saturday's game, with Engelbert, players and coaches all saying they've been stopped on the street by fans. League merchandise in the arena was sold out by halftime.

'I felt the love'

Bridget Carleton, a Lynx forward from Chatham, Ont., addressed the crowd before the game and said it was a "great" environment.

"The support was amazing. Obviously for the WNBA in general, but for me I felt the love from all the fans so that was cool to see. It's not often I get to play in Canada, so that was a cool experience for me," she said.

Her attempt at forcing history was thwarted when she hoisted a shot to become the first player to ever score a WNBA bucket in Canada, only to come up with air.

"I just wanted to play how I play. Just be solid. I'm not really worried about my stats," Carleton said, whose first points came on a free throw toward the end of the first half.

WATCH | Carleton talks with CBC Sports' Anastasia Bucsis ahead of the game:

That honour instead went to Sky guard Courtney Williams, a Folkston, Ga., native who, when asked whether she tried a Beaver Tail in Canada, said she doesn't "dabble" in that stuff. She likely had no idea what a Beaver Tail was.

Sky coach James Wade said it was "humbling" being picked to play in Canada.

"It's my house," Wade joked. "I'm the first coach, and only coach, that has won a game in this city at the highest level. I was the first. This is my house, so call it what you will. Now I'm going to be speaking in a Canadian accent for a week, so I'm telling you, eh?"

One woman in the crowd held a sign that read "Hey MLSE, hire Becky," a reference to reported conversations with the reigning WNBA champion and coach of the year Becky Hammon to take over behind the Raptors' bench.

Among the loudest ovations of the evening was when former Raptor Serge Ibaka was shown on the big screen.

From a leaguewide perspective, expansion is almost necessary with the amount of talent coming through the ranks — look no further than the recent NCAA Women's March Madness for proof of that.

Reeve credited the WNBA, entering its 27th season, for that booming depth.

"We're directly responsible for the growth of the women's game. Players are playing at a younger age and dreaming about being professionals, so that's raised the level. So talent-wise, I think we're there," she said.

Currently, there's a maximum of 144 roster spots available across 12 teams. It is not hard to envision both of those numbers growing rapidly.

"There's a whole lot more talent out there that deserves to play in the best league in the world," Carleton said.

For the first time in Canada on Saturday, young girls got to watch a game at home and envision themselves on that same hardwood, dribbling that iconic orange-and-white basketball.

It may only be a matter of time before that becomes a regular occurrence.