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Toronto awarded WNBA’s first franchise outside US, with expansion team to begin play in 2026

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By DOUG FEINBERG

Toronto has been awarded the WNBA’s first franchise outside the United States, with the expansion team set to begin play in 2026.

Larry Tanenbaum-led Kilmer Sports Ventures is paying $115 million for the team. Tanenbaum also is the chairman and a minority owner of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the Toronto sports giant that also owns the NHL’s Maple Leafs and NBA’s Raptors, along with Toronto’s MLS and Canadian Football League franchises.

“Growing internationally, I’ve been trying to think through next steps on a global platform,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The Associated Press ahead of the official announcement May 23. “It helps us reach new audiences and bring in new partners. The thing I love about going to another country is that the young girls and boys get to see professional basketball for women is important, too.”

Toronto will be the WNBA’s 14th franchise, with the expansion Golden State Valkyries to start play next year.

“Our Toronto sports franchises are thriving but, we have been missing one critical piece — women’s professional sports,” Tanenbaum told the AP. “The world is finally taking notice of something that’s been there all along — the immense talent, passion and competition in women’s sports. So, once again, I saw an opportunity and knew we were in the right place at the right time to bring Canada’s first WNBA team to Toronto. And now we have, making sports history.”

Toronto will play in the 8,700-seat Coca-Cola Coliseum at Exhibition Place, home of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, and occasionally move to Scotiabank Arena, which seats nearly 20,000. Tanenbaum said the team will play some games in Vancouver and Montreal.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the press conference in Toronto, along with Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow.

“This landmark deal will give opportunities to our remarkable athletes across the country, and on the biggest stage,” Trudeau said. “I can’t wait to see our Canadian women win on the court.”

Kilmer Sports Ventures, created as a stand-alone company to operate the team, has committed to building a practice facility. But until that is ready, it will train at University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport. Tanenbaum said they’ll solicit public input for the name of the team.

“Women’s sports is good business,” Tanenbaum said. “Just look around — it’s not a moment, but a movement and it’s just the beginning. The investment that we’ll put into the franchise will also be no different than the other franchises.”

Engelbert said WNBA exhibition games in Canada the last two seasons showed the passion of the fans in the country for women’s basketball.

“When I was up for the preseason game, Kia (Nurse) and I did a youth clinic. The reaction from young girls to Kia and what she stands for, they so admire her,” Engelbert said.

Nurse is one of a handful of Canadian players playing in the WNBA, with more on the way.

“No doubt it’s helpful to have household names,” Engelbert said.

The commissioner expects the league to reach 16 teams by 2028.

“We’ve already had a lot of interest, and it got more tangible and serious from a fair amount of cities after the draft,” Engelbert said. “We are in a good position to get to 16 by certainly ’27-28.”

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