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Business considerations for Toronto’s WNBA expansion franchise – BNN Bloomberg

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Written by: Dan Gladman

Follow: @dgontheroad

Toronto was gently rocked this month by the more-than-welcome news that a Women’s National Basketball Association expansion franchise would be granted to the city, under the stewardship and ownership of Larry Tanenbaum and Kilmer Sports. Tanenbaum, a 25% owner of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and its chairman, developed this business on his own, without his trusted sports partners Bell and Rogers.

This fact didn’t lead to as much intrigue as it might in an American market as the excitement of a local WNBA team outshined most of the particulars. But there are some captivating questions as to what will come next, at least after the team is officially announced on May 23, according to the original story written by Shireen Ahmed for CBC Sports, which exclusively broke the story in Canada, and the world.

Here are some hot takes about the upcoming business of WNBA Toronto.

1)How much did the team cost?

According to Sports Business Journal, when the Seattle Storm sold a minority stake in February of 2023, the team’s valuation was USD $151 million. Sportico reports that the Golden State Warriors paid a $50 million expansion fee for their new WNBA team which will debut in the 2025 season.

These numbers are good indicators of what Tanenbaum may have paid, but, they were before Caitlin Clark set records not only on the NCAA hardwood, but on television sets across North America. The WNBA is poised for exponential success, and the franchise values increase literally by the day.

A proper expansion valuation might now sit at $75M, and will push $100M in a year or two. Considering Tanenbaum’s entrenched relationship with the NBA, and the wonders he has done to grow basketball and the NBA in Canada, it’s likely he might not have had to pay the full current market value. The expansion fee is likely very close to the $50 million paid by Golden State.

2)How many times will Caitlin Clark play in Toronto?

The Caitlin Clark Effect is real and its impact on the WNBA is tangible. Unfortunately, the Toronto team will miss out on Clark’s first two seasons. It might have only been one season had MLSE pursued a team, as had been reported in the summer of 2023. Had an agreement been reached among the partners then, Toronto would have watched Clark’s rookie season unfold on TV and see her live in person in her sophomore season.

Assuming the league sticks with its 40-game season in 2026, in a 14-team league, there would be room for each team to play one another 3 times, plus a bonus 4th game against one opponent. This would likely rotate year by year. In the three games, the home and away advantage would flip each year. One year you play Indiana at home once, and one year you play them twice.

So in 2026 it’s likely that Caitlin Clark would come to town once, but twice in 2027. Even with 5-10% of your home games coming against Clark you will sell a high number of season tickets. You can imagine how Toronto Raptors season tickets were sold in 1996 when Michael Jordan returned to the NBA. It’s not hyperbole to suggest something similar is happening now.

3)Where will the games be televised?

WNBA games have been televised in Canada for years on NBA TV Canada. Starting in 2020 these games found a bit of a home on TSN and Sportsnet. 

Sources, including Sports Illustrated and The Toronto Star, reported last year that Ed Rogers voted against other MLSE board members in plans for a WNBA franchise. This makes it unlikely that Kilmer Sports would offer broadcasting rights to Sportsnet, at least not first. From the Rogers perspective, as owners of the Toronto Blue Jays, the baseball games will always come first.

The WNBA Toronto games will likely find a home on TSN, who’s summer schedule currently offers the CFL, MLS, CEBL and a variety of international events including tennis and golf. Room would easily be made for this new franchise.

Don’t be surprised to see the Indiana Fever-Caitlin Clark games land on the main CTV network. Depending on the days they are scheduled, it could be reminiscent of the early days of the NBA on CTV on Sunday afternoons. The potential audiences would make it worth it.

However, the current WNBA media rights deal expires with the NBA deal at the end of the 2025 season. The NBA is presently negotiating a massive new package that could triple its current annual take. This is because of the inclusion of streamers. Many reports suggest Amazon Prime is in line to snag a portion of the NBA rights and this could include WNBA. This would also alter how many games would be available on linear television in Canada.

4)What if there aren’t enough seats at Coca Cola Coliseum to meet the demand?

We have already seen Toronto’s team in the Professional Women’s Hockey League move numerous games from Mattamy Athletic Centre to Coca Cola Coliseum and even Scotiabank Arena. This is as good an indicator as any about the explosion in popularity of women’s sports.

It also belies a flexibility in sports owners that might not have existed in the past. While Scotiabank Arena has a summer schedule including concerts and other events, not to mention potential building upgrades, it will find a way to be available for key and extra popular summer WNBA games. Yet again, paging Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever.

5)How will Toronto get its players for the debut season?

Golden State is the next expansion team and will become the WNBA’s 13th team in the 2025 season. It’s fair to assume that Toronto’s roster foundation will be built through the same process. According to an October, 2023 story in espn.com though, that process is not yet known. But, in the last expansion, Atlanta Dream in 2008, the roster was built through an expansion draft. Each team was able to protect six players. This was held in February, three months before the season started, and before free agency.

The bigger question will be what pick the Toronto team is given in the entry draft. They would likely not be in the lottery and would probably be assigned a spot in the draft order, which will not be number 1. The Dream were assigned the 4th pick in 2008, as per espn.com.

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