Interest in women's basketball peaks ahead of first WNBA game in Canada
The first Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) game in Canada is coming to Toronto, and fans, experts and basketball hopefuls say it signals an optimistic start to a possible expansion into the country.
Chicago Sky faces the Minnesota Lynx at Scotiabank Arena Saturday evening for a pre-season game. Presale tickets sold out within a few hours according to the league, which confirmed the market's desire for the sport in Canada.
"I know there were folks in the market that were surprised, but we certainly were not. We expected the sellout," said Leah McNab, managing director of NBA Canada, noting merchandise sales and social media engagement have been trending upwards.
"We really thought this was a great opportunity for us to showcase these amazing players and teams, and have our fans really get to know the WNBA in a way that they may not have before."
To celebrate the occasion, WNBA Canada set up various activities for fans, including a 12-foot WNBA logo sculpture that fans can sign, a customization studio where people can make Nike and WNBA-branded apparel, meet and greets with the players, and more. The full itinerary can be found on the WNBA Canada website.
While a WNBA team in Canada is not yet on the books, McNab says Canadian cities could potentially support teams in the future. For now, she says it's about setting the stage for that to happen.
"I think it's a great chance for kids to see women play on a court, for boys and girls to be inspired and seeing that, you know, women can do the same things that men can do on the exact same stage that we see the Toronto Raptors play."
At a media conference on Friday, American Chicago Sky guard player Rebekah Gardner says it's exciting to be a part of expanding the WNBA across the border.
"I'm excited to see the atmosphere ... play in front of new faces and new people," said Gardner.
Minnesota Lynx's Bridget Carleton, a Canadian and Chatham-Kent native, says it's surreal to be part of this first game.
"Growing up, you never imagine WNBA associated with Canada at all, it's kind of two different things," said Carleton.
"I'm super excited to be part of it because it means a lot to have two of my worlds collided."
An inspiration for young players
Micaella Riche, director for youth organization Lay-Up Youth Basketball, says having access to more professional basketball opportunities for girls and women in Canada can not only help more people get interested in the sport, but help advance their careers at home as opposed to across borders, Riche says.
"In the States, you look at youth sports ... and having that representation at the higher level with their universities, with the WNBA locally, you see the how that translates at the grassroots level," said Riche.
A team at home, Riche says, could help that even more.
"I believe that with the right facilities, with the right investment, with the right owners, with the right economic support, that it can definitely happen."
As the first girl in her family to play basketball on a team, 13-year-old Angelina Matevski, a player with Lay-Up, says it's nice and refreshing to see the hype around women's basketball in the city.
And if a WNBA team were to be formed in Toronto, she says not only would she be interested in trying to play on it, she'd be its biggest fan.
"That would be my number one team. Like I'd get all the merch, I'll hype it, I'll go every game," she said.
The future of the sport in Canada
Ellen Hyslop, co-founder of The Gist, a women-led sports media brand, says despite the lack of a team and exposure in Toronto, the interest in women's basketball has only grown in the five years the brand has been operating.
"I think that it's always a little bit tougher for our Canadian market to chat about the W because we don't have a team," said Hyslop. "There are a lot of really strong Canadian athletes in the WNBA and of course a lot of superstars that we want to be talking about."
The City of Toronto proclaimed May 13 as "Welcome WNBA Day" to mark the occasion and celebrate women in sports.
"We look forward to a great game today and I know we all hope to welcome the WNBA back to our city again soon," said Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie in a statement.
David L. Cohen, the United States Ambassador to Canada, says he'll be attending the game Saturday to show support for the WNBA and for women's sports. As a government official, he said he supports and encourages the WNBA's expansion.
"Having the opportunity to play in a professional league gives you a reason to want to play basketball, to want to come out. And I think there's only one reason why these opportunities are not being made available to young women and the girls, and it's discrimination," Cohen said.