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Spotlight on women’s basketball a long time coming, experts say | CBC News



Is the sports industry finally taking women’s basketball seriously?

For those who follow the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), Friday’s big news that it’s expanding to Toronto, with the team to begin play in May 2026, is just the latest sign of the rise not just of women’s basketball, but women’s sports overall.

“This is just part of the tide that’s growing in Canada and around the world,” senior sports reporter Shireen Ahmed, who broke the news of the Toronto expansion in a CBC exclusive, told CBC News Network Friday morning.

She pointed to the success of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) — which has set multiple viewership and attendance records in its inaugural season and netted major sponsorship deals — and of the Canadian professional women’s soccer league set to kick off in 2025 as other examples of a bigger shift in women’s sports.

“Those who have been following women’s sports for along time already know this. But it’s really amazing that everyone else is now investing in this, with viewership records, attendance records, merchandise selling out completely. So, this is all part of that,” Ahmed said.

CBC Sports reported on Friday that Kilmer Sports Inc., headed by Toronto billionaire Larry Tanenbaum, was granted the expansion franchise. The WNBA did not confirm this, but an announcement is expected on May 23, according to four people with knowledge of the deal but who were not authorized to speak about it.

The news comes on the heels of an WNBA announcement that it’s finally in a financial position to provide full-time charter flight service, so its teams no longer have to fly commercially, something players have advocated for due to safety reasons for years.

WATCH | WNBA coming to Toronto: 

Toronto is getting a WNBA team. What it means for the city, players and fans

Women’s professional basketball is coming to Toronto in May 2026. CBC Sports has learned that Kilmer Sports Inc., headed by Toronto billionaire Larry Tanenbaum, has been granted an expansion franchise with the Women’s National Basketball Association.

Meanwhile, ESPN just announced that Disney+ will stream No. 1 draft pick Caitlin Clark’s debut game — reportedly the first time the streaming service will delve into airing live sports. 

It all certainly seems to be evidence of this moment we’re seeing in women’s sports, Michele Donnelly, an assistant professor in sport management at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., told CBC News. 

But she stressed that just because the WNBA is being recognized more doesn’t mean the talent hasn’t always been there.

“The WNBA and women’s college basketball has had a really hard-core fan base for a long time. People who knew that it was great basketball and were showing up and watching when broadcasts were available to them,” Donnelly said.

“What we’re seeing is a very business-centric recognition that this is a market. That there is money to be made here.”

A man in  a  suit holds a basketball jersey toward a tall woman
A’ja Wilson, of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, right, presents a jersey to U.S. President Joe Biden during an event to celebrate the 2023 WNBA championship team, in the East Room of the White House on Thursday in Washington. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Just the latest move

The WNBA has never been more popular thanks to rookies like Clark, the most prolific scorer in NCAA Division I history and the No. 1 draft pick by the Indiana Fever. She helped the NCAA reach its best viewership in history for women’s basketball, along with player Angel Reese, who joined the Chicago Sky.

WNBA teams also have been moving games against Clark and Indiana to bigger arenas because of increased demand. The defending champion Las Vegas Aces became the first WNBA team to sell out allotted season tickets back in March after leading the league in attendance in 2023.

A girl standing in sports bleachers  holds a sign that says 'when I grow up I wanna be like her.'
Pailynn Amos, centre, holds a sign for Indiana Fever guard Caitlyn Clark in front of her mother Rebecca Amos, prior to an WNBA game against the Dallas Wings in Arlington, Texas, on May 3. (Michael Ainsworth/The Associated Press)

ESPN‘s announcement that Disney+ will also air Clark’s debut game next Tuesday is another major development, even if it’s only available to subscribers in the U.S. It’s significant given that a 2023 report by Nielsen noted that fans want to watch women’s sports, but “coverage is hard to find.”

The report went on to explain that almost a fifth of U.S. fans said live airings of women’s sports aren’t easily accessible to them.

ESPN will utilize a “WNBA Finals-level production setup” for Indiana’s first game to document Clark’s debut, the sports channel said in a news release. “Comprehensive coverage will feature multiple camera angles, including Below and Above the Rim Cam viewing options, roving RF handheld cameras, and player mics.”

Then, there are the charter flights.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a meeting with sports editors Tuesday that the league will launch a charter program “as soon as we can get planes in places.” She said it’s projected to cost around $25 million US per year for the next two seasons.

Even though it’s all positive, some might argue the changes we’re seeing now should have always been in place, Donnelly said. Still, she said, “it’s nice to see.”

‘Movement,’ not just a moment

Earlier this week, Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said it’s time for the WNBA, franchises and women’s sports to be innovative.

“We’ve had moments in the league,” Reeve told the Associated Press, calling the current momentum a tsunami. “But this is clearly a movement. And if you think it’s not, you’re going to get left behind.”

The movement appears to be catching on in Canada, where research from the national non-profit Canadian Women & Sport released last month said two in three Canadians are fans of women’s sport, and there’s an appetite for more. The report also noted that fans of women’s sports are a desirable audience for investors — “diverse, educated, and affluent.”

“Women’s pro sport is no longer a hypothetical opportunity,” Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, CEO at Canadian Women & Sport, said in news release in April. “It’s time for more bold investment in professional women’s sport in Canada.” 

And, in that sense, the WNBA’s expansion into Toronto is something Donnelly says she’s viewing with “cautious optimism,” and she’s interested in how the logistics will unfold.

“We’re in a moment where we could see things change, but our history shows some real unevenness and there are no guarantees.”

WATCH | Fans react to news WNBA is coming to Toronto: 

How sports fans are reacting to Toronto’s WNBA expansion team

CBC Sports has learned that Kilmer Sports Inc., headed by Toronto billionaire Larry Tanenbaum, has been granted an expansion franchise with the WNBA. The official announcement is set for May 23 and the team is expected to begin playing in 2026. Ali Chiasson spoke to excited Torontonians outside Scotiabank Arena.

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