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espnW Canada conference aims to help women’s sports continue to grow in Canada

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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press







Published Friday, May 24, 2024 5:25PM EDT






Last Updated Friday, May 24, 2024 7:15PM EDT

The business of professional sports is, by its very nature, competitive. But collaboration and the sharing of ideas have been two pillars of success as women’s sports continue to rapidly grow in Canada.

Professional Women’s Hockey League senior vice-president Jayna Hefford, Project 8 co-founder and CEO Diana Matheson, and newly minted WNBA Toronto president Teresa Resch will be just some of the sports leaders at the espnW Canada conference on Tuesday in Toronto. The second annual event is designed to bring the worlds of business and women’s sports together.

Although the PWHL, Project 8, and the WNBA’s new Toronto franchise — just officially announced on Thursday — are still building, Hefford said the three organizations don’t see each other as competitors for market share or sponsorship dollars.

“It’s never been a part of our conversation. I think the one thing that’s really unique about women’s sports fans is they are that: women’s sports fans,” said Hefford on Friday. “Not necessarily just basketball, just hockey, just soccer.

“I think the research has shown that there’s actually a really great opportunity for us to collaborate together.”

Torque Strategies secured the rights to the espnW summit in Canada in 2019 but its launch was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first edition of the one-day conference was held last year, but the industry’s landscape has completely changed since then.

The PWHL was established in August, holding its first game Jan. 1 when Toronto hosted New York. Toronto was awarded its WNBA franchise — the league’s first team outside of the United States — on Thursday, with that team starting play in 2026. Project 8, a planned Division I professional women’s soccer league, was founded in December 2022 and is scheduled to start play in 2025.

“We’re going to have a lot of the same fans, I believe,” said Hefford. “So how do we collaborate? How do we be creative and how do we tie ourselves to each other, and provide, year-round entertainment for these fans?

“We happen to run in opposite seasons of the WNBA so I think there’s some really neat and interesting ideas that could happen there.”

Matheson agreed that espnW Canada provided a unique opportunity for professional women’s sports leagues to learn and grow together, even as they drive to be successful in their own right.

“Don’t get me wrong, all of us are extremely competitive. Never forget that for a second,” laughed Matheson who, like Hefford, represented Canada in international competitions for more than a decade. “But we know what this is. I think you’ll hear it from all of us: a rising tide raises all boats.

“This is a new industry, women’s sport is a new industry. It’s a growth industry, the bigger that we can make this entire market, it benefits all of us.

There’s significant data to back that up.

Canadian Women & Sport issued a report on April 22 titled “It’s Time: Unlocking the Power of Pro Women’s Sport Fans,” that found that two in three Canadians between the ages of 13 and 65 — approximately 17 million people — consider themselves to be fans of women’s sports.

It also found that two in five Canadians consider themselves “avid fans” and regularly watch women’s professional or elite sport. That includes tuning in for major events like the Olympic and Paralympic Games as well as the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Six in 10 fans responded that brands should do more to support women’s sport in Canada, with four in 10 more likely to support brands involved with women’s sport.

“When we did the research, it was before the launch of the PWHL, before anything had happened with Project 8, it was before yesterday’s announcement of a WNBA team coming to Toronto,” said Sarah Stovold, managing director of NextWave IMI, the firm that conducted the report’s research. “So the business case is there.

“We have now proof in the pudding, not just anecdotal evidence, of a significant opportunity for brands to benefit from investing in women’s sports.”

Bart Given, managing director of TTG Canada, which organizes espnW Canada, said that the conference is critical to the long-term success of professional women’s sport in Canada.

“This hasn’t been an overnight sensation, this has been a long time coming,” he said. “It feels very much like it’s been overnight but it’s been a long build and we’re here.

“I think (it’s time) now for us to focus on taking this business opportunity and make it sustainable.”

Hefford, Matheson and Stovold also mentioned the importance of building a sustainable industry.

“There’s this network (at the conference) that we want to continue to learn from and talk about and collaborate with,” said Hefford. “I’m really excited for the launch of Project 8 next year.

“What can they learn from our past year and the build that’s happened? And what can we share? And how can we help make it successful?”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2024.

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