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MLSE opts out of Toronto WNBA expansion

A sold-out preseason game between Chicago Sky vs. Minnesota Lynx at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on May 13, 2023. (Ria Sidhu)

By: Ria Sidhu

On Oct. 5, 2023, fans were left in doubt after MLSE announced they are “no longer pursuing” a bid for a WNBA team in Toronto.

This news comes after the WNBA announced their expansion to the Bay Area and will begin play in 2025.

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, also known as MLSE, is a professional sports and commercial company based in Toronto, Ontario. The organization, consisting of Bell, Rogers and other independent owners, owns multiple Toronto teams, highlighting those in the NHL, NBA, MLS, and CFL.

Doug Smith, sports reporter at the Toronto Star, reported something had happened between May and Sept. for MLSE board member Edward Rogers and Toronto Raptors vice-chairman Masai Ujiri to drop interest in the bid.

Infrastructure, marketing, and media relations dont seem to be the issue at hand. Smith reports the US$50-million price tag and Edward Rogers having more of a say on the board were the biggest deciding factors.

Another point raised was how much Scotiabank Arena, where the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs play, alongside several concerts and shows, is already highly utilized.

If the WNBA were to prospectively expand to Toronto, the team wouldn't necessarily have to play at Scotiabank Arena. There are alternative arenas a prospective team could make their home. Some options include the Pan Am Centre, which can hold over 6,000 guests, and the Coca-Cola Coliseum with a capacity of 7,779.

Libaan Osmaan, reporter at the Toronto Star, talked to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert who mentioned Toronto had been on the shortlist of about 10 cities the league had considered for expansion.

Interest in a WNBA team in Toronto has increased over the last couple of months through player advocacy and social media. This made fans question why MLSE would “pull out” of bidding.

Fans predicted MLSE would bring a team into the city soon, especially after the sold-out preseason game at Scotiabank Arena.

In May, the WNBA brought the Chicago Sky and the Minnesota Lynx to Toronto to play their first international game since 2011. The arena was sold out with over 19,000 fans in attendance. Las Vegas Aces guard A’ja Wilson called the enthusiasm of fans at that game “mind-blowing.”.

“I didn't think they were going to show out the way they did. That speaks volumes, so hopefully, we can get something going up there because obviously there’s a market there and I think we should capitalize on it,” Wilson said.

On the contrary, MLSE may be worried about the organization coming to Toronto, being hot for a while and then eventually dying down. While Torontonians have been talking about women's sports, especially basketball, for years, this could be a possible reason for the controversial decision.

With the WNBA’s last expansion happening in 2008 in Atlanta, a North American team would help the organization’s Canadian growth and overall popularity in women's sports.

Expanding to Toronto would also mean the league’s first Canadian team, which adds to the controversy.

While the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and other pro sports grow in popularity throughout the city, the conversation around a pro women's basketball team has become common as well.

The WNBA celebrates their 27th season this year with 12 playing teams.


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