More than 20 years have passed since Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment tried to add a WNBA team to its roster.
It was during the early years of MLSE, which was created from a merger of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors in 1998. Eager to increase MLSE’s enterprise value, then-president and chief executive Richard Peddie made a presentation to former National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern about bringing a professional women’s basketball team to Toronto.
But his pitch was rejected.
“It was because we were so green,” Mr. Peddie recounted in an interview. “The truth of it is, we weren’t an expert at running the business side of basketball yet. So, we were turned down and, you know, in hindsight, I think it was right. We weren’t ready.”
These days, however, there’s no doubt that Toronto’s got game. Not only did the Raptors win the 2019 NBA championship, but the city held Canada’s first-ever Women’s National Basketball Association game last month. That historic game between the Chicago Sky and the Minnesota Lynx was played before a sold-out crowd.
With basketball fever gripping the hearts (and wallets) of Toronto fans, and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert confirming the city is on a short list of potential expansion locations, now is the time for MLSE to take another shot.
MLSE spokesman Dave Haggith didn’t respond to a message seeking comment. No matter. The business case is obvious.
“If I was CEO of MLSE today, I would much rather have a WNBA team than an Argonaut team,” said Mr. Peddie. “The Argonauts cannot make money. It’s been proven since the days of [co-owner] Bruce McNall … With the WNBA, I do think they can make money.”
Sorry, Argo fans, he’s right.
In fact, three or four years after MLSE’s pitch was rejected, Mr. Stern (who is now deceased) approached Mr. Peddie “numerous times” to ask if the company was ready yet for a WNBA team.
“I kept saying ‘no,’” Mr. Peddie recalls, noting that MLSE was still integrating other assets.
Even so, each time they discussed it, the men extolled Toronto’s demographics, including its racial diversity and its LGBTQ community.
“You go to a basketball game and it looks like Toronto. You go to a Leafs game, that looks like old Toronto,” Mr. Peddie said.
As he also points out, women now occupy more senior roles in business and are increasingly making sponsorship decisions and buying season tickets.
The WNBA, now in its 27th season, also appeals to a broader audience. With only 12 teams and 144 players, including four Canadians, the league features exceptional athletes who play a technically sound game. (Yes, the Raptors’ Gary Trent Jr. is my imaginary boyfriend, but it is exhilarating to watch women own the hardwood.)
“What it boils down to is how much does the franchise cost?” Mr. Peddie said.
The Seattle Storm was recently valued at a record US$151-million, according to The Wall Street Journal.
It’s unlikely that an expansion team would fetch that much, so we’re talking pocket change for an $8-billion sports business like MLSE. Besides, a team’s value would appreciate over time. (The Raptors, once considered a US$125-million business, are now reportedly worth a whopping US$3.34-billion.)
“The model in both hockey and basketball is that the players get 50 per cent of the revenue generated,” Mr. Peddie said.
So, what are the potential stumbling blocks?
The league, which is hoping to add a couple of teams by 2025, could decide that American cities such as Nashville, Austin or Philadelphia are more attractive options. (But a Toronto team would attract fans from across the country.)
It’s also true that MLSE’s ownership issues aren’t completely sorted out with another shoe expected to drop over the coming years.
There’s also the issue of Rogers’s highly leveraged balance sheet (because of its acquisition of Shaw Communications) and Bell Media’s operating woes.
But all of these concerns can be ironed out. MLSE’s owners, which also include Larry Tanenbaum and the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System pension plan, need to take a long-term view.
Surely, MLSE, with its portfolio of arenas, could find a suitable venue that would allow a WNBA team to generate sufficient gate revenue, which is money generated from getting bums in seats.
U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen, who attended the historic game in Toronto, has discussed the issue of WNBA expansion with the league’s Ms. Engelbert.
“It’s going to require the private sector stepping up with interested investors,” Mr. Cohen said in a recent interview at the Canadian Club Toronto. “But I think when the window opens, my bet is that there will be … Canadian investors who are interested in bringing a WNBA team to Canada.”
Perhaps MLSE’s suits should heed the wise words of Minnesota Lynx forward Bridget Carleton, who hails from Chatham, Ont.
Prior to tipoff at the preseason game in Toronto, Ms. Carleton said: “I think it’s time we show them that Canada is not just a hockey country – that we’re passionate about basketball, too.”
Now that’s a slam dunk.