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Politicians were in self-congratulatory mode as they basked in Toronto’s WNBA expansion news



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Left to right: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, Kilmer Group chairman and CEO Larry Tanenbaum, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow pose for a photo following a news conference to announce Toronto had been awarded a WNBA franchise, on May 23.Arlyn McAdorey/Reuters

The last time the Toronto Raptors booked the party room at Hotel X on Toronto’s lakeshore, the event had a holiday-concert feel.

A few dozen staff, media and hangers-on showed up. Masai Ujiri gave a speech and took questions. People pretended to feel hopeful about the season to come. Everybody left together.

Outside of a championship run, this is what big-time sports is like on an off day – process-oriented and professional.

On Thursday, the WNBA showed up for the first time in the same room and all hell broke loose. The league officially announced Toronto had landed a WNBA franchise.

Maybe it was all the CrossFit military types or maybe it was the sniffer dog wearing a tactical vest, but this was a different feel altogether. At first, you thought maybe you’d got lucky and some crank had called in a bomb threat, but oh no, the politicians were here.

There are three levels of pro sport now – leagues that tread water, leagues with unlimited growth and leagues that the powerful can leverage for publicity. Until they’re two years into their run and the numbers have levelled off, the new WNBA team in Toronto is the third kind.

Who was there to welcome the WNBA to town? Better question – who wasn’t? All the city’s great and good wedged together for a round of frenzied air kissing. Hundreds of people in a room fit for half their number. If the Raptors are the school band, the WNBA team is Olivia Rodrigo.

When the talent entered – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow – the room stilled. We used to have our places of worship. Now we’ve got wherever the money shows up.

Trudeau was doing that thing that works in a gala-dinner context, but comes off as weird in a sports context – picking people out of the audience, opening his mouth in shock and delight and finger gunning at them furiously like they are best friends and ought to hang out more.

Despite the ‘years in the making’ ad copy, Toronto is a blindingly obvious choice for the WNBA. For decades, the teams already here have proved that people in this city would pack a pool opening if you sold tickets for $400 and told them it was major league. Winning is optional, but appreciated. This town is every sports league’s fantasy locale.

But to hear the guests of honour tell it, getting the WNBA for this city is like Cape Canaveral getting NASA – a moment of international arrival.

What should have taken 10 minutes took more than half an hour as everyone, including the sole owner of this as-yet-unnamed franchise, Larry Tanenbaum, had their turn at being grandiose. The audience was so worked up that they forgot to boo Ford.

In his speech, Trudeau’s pandering rose to romancing-grandma-before-the-will-is-written levels: “As a Montrealer, it does pain me to say that Toronto is such an incredible sports city.”

Can these politicians do anything but lie?

Ford pumped up Tanenbaum, who pumped up Chow, who pumped up her own high school basketball career. The mayor was dressed in the current uniform of middle-aged people who’ve got the cool-kid newsletter a year late – suit jacket and Air Force 1s.

Tanenbaum, 79, has been a sports heavyweight in town for decades. Like a lot of champs, he doesn’t get many fights. The talking is left to his boldface employees. Here was the boss’s chance to bask a little. He made sure to roll around and get an all-over tan.

It is not often that Nelson Mandela is quoted at the launch of a nine-figure commercial enterprise, but Tanenbaum quoted him at great length. So long that after a while you weren’t sure which part was the guy who spent 27 years in prison and which part was the guy who owns his own plane.

The mood wasn’t celebratory, so much as self-congratulatory. These people hadn’t just struck PR gold. They have convinced themselves they are doing good.

This is in contrast to men’s sport, whose glamour has grown seedy. Too many controversies. Too many arrests. People will still envy you for scooping seats behind home plate, but they will not congratulate you for being the change you want to see in the world.

That’s what women’s sport offered to the people at Hotel X on Thursday morning – something pristine. There isn’t much money in it yet, but this business can launder reputations.

Women’s sport allows people in power to talk as though they are speaking truth to it. It lets billionaires straight-facedly bang on about “a more equitable world.”

It’s only the start of the franchise, but looking around the room you got a fin de siècle vibe. Eventually, the people on the bottom are going to want actual change, rather than a seventh major-league team, aren’t they?

Maybe not. Maybe this stuff works. The Trudeaus, Fords and Chows obviously think so.

At the end of the first round of addresses, the politicians ceded the stage. Trudeau wandered into the audience and embraced Raptors president Ujiri like a man who’d just been released from captivity. It was the sort of hug that can’t exist unless it is photographed from multiple angles.

One row behind them, MLSE CEO Keith Pelley popped up expectantly, but didn’t get so much as a single finger gun.

A panel of WNBA heavy hitters took the stage – the league’s commissioner, the Toronto team’s just-appointed president and two former Canadian players. This was the first chance to hear from people who really know what’s what about how this team will operate and what promises it’s willing to make.

Those who stood through the first set of remarks suddenly had plenty of good seats to choose from. Half the audience had filed out with the politicians.

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