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Reports: WNBA franchise awarded to Toronto’s Kilmer Group for 2026 season

Canada has hosted 2 sold-out WNBA pre-season games in the past 2 years
Several media reports say the WNBA is officially coming to Toronto. The Chicago Sky take on the Minnesota Lynx in WNBA pre-season basketball action in Toronto on Saturday May 13, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The WNBA’s widely reported arrival in Toronto isn’t just a good thing for women’s basketball in Canada, but for women’s sports in general, says one expert.

Several media outlets reported on Friday that the women’s professional basketball league had awarded a franchise to the Kilmer Group, which has a 25 per cent stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the owner of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, among other sports properties. The deal, first reported by the CBC, would have Toronto’s WNBA team start playing in May 2026.

Canadian Women and Sport CEO Allison Sandmeyer-Graves said that the arrival of a WNBA franchise in Toronto, the ongoing success of the Professional Women’s Hockey League and the development of Project 8 — a planned Division I professional women’s soccer league — could have implications for society beyond the world of sports.

“We see the continued growth and development of women’s professional sport in this country as not only the potential for great commercial benefits for those who invest in it, but also for tremendous social impact in this country,” said Sandmeyer-Graves. “Having the WNBA form a team here in Canada would be a very significant positive step toward unlocking all of that potential.”

Canadian Women and Sport is a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the presence of girls and women at all levels and in all areas of sport.The organization issued a report on April 22 that found that two in three Canadians between the ages of 13 and 65 consider themselves to be fans of women’s sports.

Sandmeyer-Graves expects that by the time a Toronto WNBA team starts playing in 2026, the socio-economic realities of women’s sport will have evolved.

“When we did this research back in October we found that there were already 17 million Canadians who describe themselves as fans of women’s sport. I expect that that number will continue to grow,” she said. “The number of avid fans among them will continue to grow as they’re given more and more opportunities to engage.

“That and more Canadians will join the fandom, so I think that it’s tough to exactly predict what it will look like.”

The WNBA did not confirm the media reports of a pending expansion into Canada but said in a statement it is continuing to explore adding teams.

“We continue to engage in productive conversations with interested ownership groups in a number of markets and the granting of any expansion teams requires a vote of the WNBA and NBA Board of Governors,” the league said.

Larry Tanenbaum is the chairman and CEO of Kilmer Group and the chairman of the board for MLSE. He is a part owner of MLSE through Kilmer’s holdings.

A spokeswoman for Kilmer Group told The Canadian Press that they have no updates at this time.

Mayor Olivia Chow said in a television interview on Friday that she was aware there was movement on Toronto getting a women’s basketball team.

“Wait for it. Hopefully, there will be something later on,” said Chow in an interview with local news channel CP24. “Basketball, it’s just great and having role models, it’s time.

“Hopefully, there will be good news soon and I can’t wait for that to happen.”

Although media reports in early March maintained that Toronto would have a team for the 2025 season, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that expansion for that year had ended with a San Francisco-area team.

Engelbert said on March 7 that she was reluctant to give specific details on a potential Toronto franchise until it was locked in.

“No specific timeline, because as soon as I give a timeline and things obviously change, it becomes kind of yesterday’s news,” said Engelbert. “I’ve always said I think about 18 months out is when you need to essentially finalize things because you have to start working on a brand, Nike has to start to produce uniforms, things like that.”

Canada has hosted two sold-out WNBA pre-season games in the past two years. Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena was at capacity to see the Chicago Sky defeat the Minnesota Lynx 82-74 in 2023. Edmonton’s Rogers Place was also filled as the Los Angeles Sparks beat the Seattle Storm 84-79 on Saturday.

Sandmeyer-Graves said that NBA Canada managing director Leah MacNab deserved recognition for breathing life into the idea of a Toronto WNBA franchise.

“She really sold this possibility and this potential by hosting wildly successful back-to-back WNBA exhibition games over the last two years,” said Sandmeyer-Graves. “I really don’t think we’d be having the same conversation if it weren’t for Leah and her team, really going for it and demonstrating the possibility here in Canada.”

Canadian women’s hockey star Sarah Nurse said the arrival of WNBA to Toronto is “huge.”

“We’ve spoken about it a lot — when they were here in Toronto, they were just in Edmonton, sold out that huge arena,” said Nurse.

“Obviously I have a vested interest in my cousin (Los Angeles Sparks guard Kia Nurse), she has done amazing things for Canada Basketball and to have a professional women’s basketball team here in Toronto is gonna be incredible for the next generation of basketball players in general.

“Obviously we have the Raptors and you see what that’s done for basketball in Canada on the men’s side and I think this is gonna be just groundbreaking. And so, I’m very excited to have the women of the WNBA join us as professional women’s sports here in Toronto.”

The WNBA announced on Thursday that it would have charter flights starting this season, a move that would also help in expanding to Canada.

The Canadian Press