How much is WNBA Canada Game a legacy play for Cathy Engelbert?

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

The countdown is officially on to the tip-off of the 2023 WNBA season on May 19. 

Prior to tip-off of said season is the WNBA preseason – which has a very unique marquee game on its calendar unlike in previous campaigns.

That marquee game is, of course, the WNBA’s Canada Game slated to take place this Saturday – May 13 and it will feature the Minnesota Lynx and Chicago Sky. It is the lone preseason game that is being made available to watch via League Pass and will also be aired in Canada on both of the nation’s major English-language sports channels in TSN and SportsNet. 

The teams, of course, make sense – particularly from a standpoint of the Lynx given the number of Canadian players that have worn Minnesota’s uniform over the past few seasons. 

Once tickets were made available for the game at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, it immediately became the most sought-after ticket in town. Apparently, the WNBA is treating the game as if it is indeed the marquee event it is. 

The WNBA has unveiled, in partnership with sponsor Tangerine, a three-dimensional structure that greatly resembles its signature orange logo that can be found throughout the 6ix. 

On May 12, Nike is launching a customization studio at the Foot Locker in downtown Toronto for fans to create Nike-WNBA branded apparel. That same day, there will be player appearances by the Sky’s Rebekah Gardner and the Lynx’s Natalie Achonwa (also Canada’s very own). 

The day of the game, the W in conjunction with Canadian Tire, will have a fan photobooth near Scotiabank Arena at Toronto’s Union Station (the GTA’s equivalent of Grand Central or Penn). 

As all-out as the WNBA is going for this preseason game it makes one wonder how much of this game is a legacy play for commissioner Cathy Engelbert? 

We rarely think about the legacies of league presidents and commissioners because the history of WNBA league presidents and/or commissioners is that they serve in those positions for only a few years before moving on to their next jobs. 

Over the past few years, the WNBA has slowly but surely dipped its toes in Canadian waters. This has been shown by the W’s willingness to distribute games into Canada via outlets such as TSN, SportsNet and NBA TV Canada. This game is, without question, the WNBA’s most aggressive play for Canadian fans yet. The number of Canadian players that have gone through the W’s ranks is on the rise and includes Achonwa, Kia Nurse, Kayla Alexander, Bridget Carleton and recent Atlanta Dream draftee Laeticia Amihere. 

The WNBA Canada Game is not about “broadening the international appeal of the women’s game.” It already has international appeal. If women’s basketball did not have international appeal, why are the South Carolina Gamecocks and Notre Dame Fighting Irish opening the 2023-24 college season in Paris – the host city of next year’s Olympic Games. Not to mention the laundry list of WNBA players that play overseas during the offseason. 

It is about broadening the reach of the WNBA specifically. Toronto is being looked at as a possible candidate for expansion for a reason. It is Canada’s largest city, the country’s main hub for culture, finance, entertainment and media and has a massive Black population in juxtaposition to other Canadian metropolises. 

And if it is one thing that other American-based sports leagues have smartly identified with Toronto is when a team goes to Toronto, the entire nation rallies around that team. Look at the fanbases of the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Blue Jays. Those teams have fanbases that stretch from Newfoundland to Nunavut. From Mississauga to Medicine Hat. From Whistler to Windsor. 

One of North America’s signature women’s sports organizations – the Premier Hockey Federation – already has two teams in Canada in the Toronto Six and the Montreal Force. Hockey is, of course, Canada’s national game, so selling hockey to Canadians is like selling Abercrombie & Fitch to a teenager in the early to mid 2000s – a layup. 

Engelbert’s commissionership has been defined by how she steered the WNBA through the challenges of the pandemic and by how she has used her business savvy to pitch the W to prospective sponsors. The league has gradually gauged Canadian interests and if it all results in Toronto being one of the (likely) two teams that land one of the W’s new teams, it will be a massive feather (or should we say maple leaf?) in Engelbert’s cap.