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Chicago Sky's Rebekah Gardner (right) drives at Minnesota Lynx's Rachel Banham during second half WNBA preseason basketball game in Toronto on Saturday May 13, 2023.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Scott Stinson is a writer based in suburban Toronto and author of the Unobstructed Views newsletter.

When news emerged last fall that Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment would not bid for an expansion franchise in the WNBA, it came as a surprise.

MLSE had hosted a sold-out crowd of more than 19,000 fans at Scotiabank Arena for a preseason WNBA game months earlier. Toronto had long been rumoured as an expansion site for a league that had operated mostly in NBA cities for more than 25 years. It’s a big market, and a Canadian franchise was a natural fit for a league that included Canadian athletes like Kia Nurse and Natalie Achonwa.

Reports suggested that holdouts at the MLSE board, specifically the Rogers wing of it, had killed the WNBA bid.

This month brought news that Larry Tanenbaum was preparing to pursue a WNBA bid on his own, having brought a senior executive over from MLSE’s Toronto Raptors to lead the project.

It suggests that Mr. Tanenbaum has a better reading on the potential growth opportunities in women’s professional sports than his MLSE partners. It also suggests he could end up making them look silly.

The WNBA is set to play its second preseason game in Canada in May, this time in Edmonton. It will do so amid unprecedented interest in the women’s league, thanks to the pending arrival of Caitlin Clark, the long-range-shooting superstar who is finishing her final college season in Iowa. Women’s NCAA basketball games have drawn U.S. television audiences measuring in the millions this season, in part because of Ms. Clark’s exploits. Women’s basketball has outdrawn an NBA game in the same window three times this season, including a weekend this month with a peak audience of more than four million U.S. viewers.

The WNBA says television viewership last season hit a two-decade high, and that Canadian ratings were up more than 30 per cent over 2022. Ms. Clark’s involvement is bound to push those numbers higher, and they could also be boosted by the recent performance of Sabrina Ionescu at the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, where she narrowly lost a three-point shooting contest to Stephen Curry, the best shooter in the NBA.

But basketball isn’t the only area in which women’s sports are having a moment. The Professional Women’s Hockey League finally launched in January. It took more than four years for the nascent league to come together, but now that it has it has burst out of the proverbial gates. Its three Canadian franchises are playing before sellout crowds, and it set women’s attendance records in games at NHL arenas in Minnesota and Toronto, drawing tens of thousands of fans. League games have been televised on Sportsnet, TSN and the CBC, highlights have been shown during the intermission of Hockey Night in Canada and none of it seems out of place.

So far it has proven the arguments put forth by the Olympic athletes who found themselves without a home when the CWHL, their former league, folded four years ago: that there was a market for professional women’s hockey if only someone would properly back it. Some of the early success is a result of a developing business offering cheaper tickets than those for NHL games in the same cities, but there has also been a consistent message from the match-going audience. Girls and young women are thrilled to see people like them playing in a proper professional league, which shouldn’t be a surprise when millions of girls play the sport recreationally every year.

Advocates for what became the PWHL could also point to the example of women’s soccer, which existed in something of a semi-professional shambles for years even as the women’s national teams in North America and Europe were popular.

A sea change came in 2019 when Barclays, the British banking giant, sponsored the Women’s Super League in that country, allowing it to become fully professional. It has grown rapidly since, with clubs sharing the names and jerseys of famous men’s clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United, and it’s not uncommon for certain high-profile matches to draw massive crowds of more than 50,000 at some of the sport’s cathedrals.

Barclays extended its sponsorship deal last summer of a league that is home to several Canadian players.

For a time, the arguments in favour of supporting women’s professional sports often came down to equality and visibility. But the growth stories of recent months show there is more to these leagues than just a diversity initiative. There’s a real business case to be made that women’s sports has room to grow, tapping into an underserved market numbering in the millions of fans, where men’s leagues have flattened.

It appears Larry Tanenbaum has figured it out. Too bad his MLSE partners didn’t.

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