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Toronto's WNBA expansion franchise touted as 'Canada's team' by owner Larry Tanenbaum

TORONTO — The WNBA isn't just coming to Toronto, it's coming to Canada.
Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, Larry Tanenbaum of Kilmer Sports Ventures and WNBA Toronto team president Teresa Resch pose for a photo during a press conference announcing the city's WNBA franchise, in Toronto on Thursday, May 23, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

TORONTO — The WNBA isn't just coming to Toronto, it's coming to Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow, rapper Drake, Raptors star Scottie Barnes and former Raptors great Kyle Lowry were all in attendance at a downtown hotel on Thursday morning as the WNBA made the new franchise official. Larry Tanenbaum's Kilmer Sports Ventures are the owners of the as-yet unnamed team, that he hopes will be adopted across the country.

"This franchise will be Canada's team," Tanenbaum said. "While our home base will be at Exhibition Place in Toronto, we will play games in Vancouver and Montreal throughout the season, uniting the country behind our franchise and inspiring pride and passion in fans from coast to coast."

Tanenbaum is the chairman and CEO of Kilmer Group and the chairman of the board for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the NBA's Raptors and the NHL's Maple Leafs and other sports properties in Toronto. Kilmer Group also has a 25 per cent ownership stake in MLSE.

Kilmer Sports Ventures paid US$115 million for the WNBA team. Tanenbaum was also responsible for bringing the NBA to Toronto, with the Raptors joining the league 30 years ago.

"This is an incredibly important occasion and a historic one," said Tanenbaum after being presented with a WNBA basketball by commissioner Cathy Engelbert. "I'm thrilled so many of you are here to celebrate this game-changing day for not only women's basketball, but for sports in Canada."

Trudeau, Ford, and Chow all praised Tanenbaum's efforts to bring the WNBA to Toronto. The three political leaders noted that bringing a professional women's basketball team to Toronto was good for gender equality, but that it was a savvy business opportunity.

"I don't think Toronto and indeed Canada can thank you enough for all your contributions to sport but this one, even a Montrealer can get way behind," said Trudeau to Tanenbaum on the dais at Hotel X. "As a Montrealer it does pain me to say that Toronto is such an incredible sports city.

"Through thick and thin, through heartbreak and triumph and heartbreak, Torontonians consistently demonstrate their passion, their commitment and their love for professional sports."

The WNBA team will play out of the 8,700-seat Coca-Cola Coliseum, an arena in downtown Toronto at Exhibition Place and will have the ability to move up to the 19,800-seat Scotiabank Arena on occasion. The 103-year-old arena is also home to the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies and hosted the first Professional Women's Hockey League's Toronto team during its first-ever playoff run.

Kilmer Sports said that upgrades to the arena will be made so it can be used by the WNBA team for training and practices as well.

Teresa Resch was named the WNBA team's first president during the announcement ceremony on Thursday. She had spent the last 10 years with the Raptors, helping to design and build the NBA team's practice facility the OVO Athletic Centre and launching the Raptors 905, Toronto’s NBA G-League affiliate based in Mississauga, Ont.

Resch said that she'll put her more than decade of experience as a sports executive to use building the franchise.

"We're gonna put all those things to use because we've made mistakes in the past and we won't have to make those in the WNBA because we know those things now," she said. "It's an untapped market.

"I think the reason that (Kyle Lowry) is here in the audience today is because of the impact that Toronto had on him and his experience, and I think a lot of his teammates would say the same thing and we look forward to doing that in the W."

Toronto's WNBA team will start playing in May 2026. It will be the WNBA’s 14th franchise, with the expansion Golden State Valkyries set to start play next year.

"We're excited to expand outside the United States and this is our first (team outside the U.S.) as we continue to work to bring in new audiences, new fans," said Engelbert. "It creates new opportunities for players.

"The depth of talent in this league is amazing and so to be able to offer a deeper pool of talent with a team here in Canada is great."

Canada has hosted sold-out WNBA pre-season games at Scotiabank Arena in 2023 and Edmonton's Rogers Place on May 4. Engelbert said that the success of those exhibitions helped sell Toronto as a landing spot for a new expansion team.

"I'll never forget last year at Scotiabank Arena when I attended our Toronto game and lots of people coming up to me and saying 'thank you for making my dreams come true,' by bringing a WNBA game here," said Engelbert. "That's when I knew this is the right place."

There are four Canadians in the WNBA this season — Aaliyah Edwards, of Kingston, Ont. (Washington Mystics), Bridget Carleton, of Chatham, Ont. (Minnesota Lynx), Laeticia Amihere, of Milton, Ont. (Atlanta Dream), and Hamilton's Kia Nurse (Los Angeles Sparks).

— With files from The Associated Press.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2024.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press