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Teresa Resch has exciting yet ambitious task with Toronto’s WNBA team

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TORONTO — Teresa Resch was in the middle of answering a reporter’s question on her first day as president of Toronto’s newly awarded WNBA franchise when a voice behind the scrum asked her to look at the camera.

She hesitated, smiled and stated the obvious — “This is different” — before continuing to deliver her message.

For the first time, after a decade as one of the Toronto Raptors’ most influential behind-the-scenes voices (and trusted confidant of team president Masai Ujiri), Resch found herself at the centre of attention in her new role, leading a new franchise in her own right, and the dawn of a new era for women’s sports in Toronto and Canada. 

The WNBA franchise is the first flag planted by owner Larry Tanenbaum’s newly-formed Kilmer Sports Ventures as he steps beyond Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, where he has been chairman and part owner for more than a quarter century. However, Resch will drive the new entity, the WNBA’s 14th franchise and first outside the United States.

“I get to call the shots,” she joked at one point.

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There is a lot to do. 

Resch, who will help decide the new franchise’s name and colours, which are to be determined, said there will be a crowd-sourcing element to the process. 

She will also oversee $40 million in private investment (this on top of what has been described as a landmark expansion fee, potentially surpassing the $50 million the WNBA got in its last expansion) that is required to upgrade the team’s new home court at Coca-Cola Coliseum and construct a dedicated practice facility.

Moreover, it will be Resch who hires the first general manager and the rest of the basketball and business staff, and she will implement a program that will ideally make Toronto’s WNBA franchise ‘Canada’s team,’ including scheduling regular season games in other markets, such as Vancouver and Montreal. 

It’s ambitious and it’s a lot, but it all fits.

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The scene, which took place at the very bougie Hotel X on Toronto’s lakeshore, was symbolic of the way professional women’s sports have become decidedly different over the past few decades: The change coming very slowly and then seemingly all at once. 

It wasn’t that long ago that even putting a professional basketball team in Canada seemed like a stretch. Was the land of ice, snow and hockey ready for the NBA? 

Almost, it turned out. The Raptors had some rough patches early on after starting operations 30 years ago this October. But they survived, then thrived, and are now a vital part of Toronto’s sports and cultural fabric.

The Vancouver Grizzlies? They had rough patches when they joined the NBA that same year, in 1995-96, as Toronto’s expansion cousin. They never got to the thriving stage and were moved to Memphis in 2001 — something late NBA commissioner David Stern called one of his longest-standing professional regrets. 

You could argue the difference between those two stories was ownership, which should give women’s basketball fans great confidence.

Tanenbaum was instrumental in the Raptors coming under the corporate umbrella of MLSE in 1998, giving the franchise the backing it needed to find its footing amidst growing pains. 

Then 25 years later, it was Tanenbaum who was determined to make the WNBA franchise in Canada a reality. This was after MLSE opted not to add a WNBA team alongside the Raptors, Maple Leafs and Toronto FC, among other holdings. 

“Many say women’s sports is having a moment. I disagree. Women’s sports has arrived. It’s a movement,” said Tanenbaum. “The world is finally taking notice of something that’s been there all along: Immense talent, passion and competition. And that’s why we’re here today at the right time, in the right time for our first WNBA team in Canada.”

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No one is arguing. The ratings for the women’s Final Four have set records in consecutive years, the WNBA’s viewership continues to climb, and newly minted stars like Caitlin Clark are lifting all boats. The rising level of Canadian basketball talent helps, too.

Tellingly, everyone from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Raptors icon Kyle Lowry, Drake, and a selection of Canadian women’s national team icons were on hand for the formal announcement. Stacey Dales, a first-round pick and five-year WNBA veteran, was the event’s master of ceremonies. Tammy Sutton-Brown, a two-time all-star and 12-year veteran, participated in a panel discussion. Sylvia Sweeney, Tamara Tatham and Kim Gaucher-Smith were all recognized for their contributions to women’s basketball in Canada.

The culminating moment came when WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said, “May 23, 2024, Toronto welcome to the W,” before handing Tanenbaum one of the league’s iconic orange and white balls, with Toronto emblazoned on one of the panels.

It was a long process — the WNBA began eying Toronto as a potential expansion market in 2020 — but one that seemed inevitable: Once Tanenbaum threw his hat in the ring, it seemed inconceivable he wouldn’t be successful. He is chairman of the NBA’s Board of Governors, after all, and the WNBA is owned by the NBA itself. 

But there was a process, and a competitive one. According to Engelbert, there were multiple cities interested in joining the league as it expands from 12 to 16 teams by 2028. Toronto will be the league’s 14th team, following the Golden State Valkyries, who will launch in 2025.

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But the combination of Toronto and Tanenbaum was too good to pass up, especially after sold-out exhibition games in Toronto in May 2023 and Edmonton earlier this month. Those games confirmed there is an appetite for WNBA basketball both in the city and nationwide.

“I talked to Larry about why would he want to do this? Women’s sports is hard, being an owner is hard, it takes long-term commitment,” said Engelbert. “He was just so gracious about the growth of the league, wanting to contribute to that, getting a new fanbase in. He had all the right narrative on why he would want to do this. Just because a city calls you, you don’t say, OK, the data looks good, let’s grant a franchise. You have to have a connection and partnership with the potential owner and you want them to be successful. And as I look at Larry’s business, his sports, his philanthropic presence in this country and the city, that actually was the ‘you had me at hello.’”

Now, it’s over to Resch to make it happen. The 42-year-old Minnesota native has been instrumental in many of the Raptors’ success stories over the past decade as Vice President of Basketball Operations and Player Development. This included overseeing the launch of the club’s G-League affiliate Raptors 905, the construction of the OVA Athletic Centre, and the Raptors’ relocation to Tampa for the 2020-21 season during the pandemic.

That said, getting a new franchise up and running in two years without being able to leverage MLSE’s considerable resources will be a challenge.

“This is entrepreneurial 101, it’s starting things from scratch,” said Resch. “I think with Larry, he’s done it multiple times so he just kept pushing and pushing and pushing. Nothing that’s ever worth it is ever easy and I think that this is a testament to that.”

“…Honestly, this is unprecedented. The WNBA has never had a team internationally and that comes along with a lot of very difficult details to work through that there is no precedent for. So it’s not easy but it’s worth it and I’m glad that we’re here today.”

The ultimate payoff should come in two years when Toronto’s new team hosts its first regular season game. The years of incremental growth and change will turn into something real.

Resch was asked what that might feel like.  

“That will be the best day of my life,” she said.

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