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With WNBA expansion into Toronto unlikely, Canadian women’s national team remains only game in town

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As professional women’s sports in Canada continue to grow — just look at the Professional Women’s Hockey League, or Project Eight’s incoming soccer league — basketball has hit a snag.

Despite some proof of concept with a sell-out crowd for a WNBA exhibition game in May in Toronto, the Toronto Star reported last month that MLSE pulled back on bidding for a franchise.

“Obviously disappointed,” Minnesota Lynx forward Bridget Carleton, the lone Canadian to play in the exhibition game, told CBC Sports on Wednesday from the MLSE Launchpad in Toronto, where the senior women’s national team marked its continued partnership with the Toronto Raptors by holding a girls basketball clinic.

“I would love to have a WNBA team in Toronto – wouldn’t everybody around here love that? Just wanted it to work out, but the league is still expanding, they’re moving in the right direction and I think the anticipation around women’s sports in Toronto and Canada is continuing to grow.”

The WNBA announced in October it is adding a 13th team in the Bay Area in 2025. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the hope is for one more franchise to join at the same time.

But with that second team now unlikely to come to Canada, there remains just one game in town — the women’s national team, which placed fourth at the World Cup a year ago and begins its Olympic qualifying journey with a tournament starting Thursday in Colombia.

The senior men’s team punched its ticket while also winning a bronze medal at the World Cup in September. If the women also get in, it would be the first time both teams are at the Olympics together since 2000.

“I think it would mean the world,” said Kia Nurse, a two-time Olympian and guard with the Seattle Storm. “That’s way more exposure for basketball in Canada because the Olympics, as crazy as it is, you train four years for two weeks and that is the most high-pressure situation that you can be in.”

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Opportunity to build chemistry

If Canada’s men’s and women’s 3×3 teams also qualify for Paris, it is conceivable there will be some form of Canadian basketball to watch every single day of the Games.

Canada’s women, ranked fifth, must finish top-two in a three-game round robin, also featuring No. 12 Puerto Rico, No. 30 Colombia and No. 42 Venezuela. Depending on whether they place first or second, Canada will then move on to the final stage of Olympic qualifying in February either in Hungary or China.

It would count as a major surprise if Canada did not make it through Colombia — which means these extra games together, for a team that does not see one another too often, could be a blessing in disguise.

“I do think anytime we get together is really good because the Olympics are in the middle of WNBA season. So it kind of shakes things up for us,” Nurse said.

Nurse and Carleton were two of just three Canadian WNBA players last season, alongside the Atlanta Dream’s Laeticia Amihere.

It is a near-lock that they will soon have more Canadian WNBA teammates, thanks to college stars like Aaliyah Edwards of UConn and Cassandre Prosper of Notre Dame — plus the addition of expansion teams.

Minnesota Lynx player handles the ball during a WNBA basketball game against the Dallas Wings, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Arlington, Texas.
Minnesota Lynx forward Bridget Carleton, pictured competing in a WNBA game in August, believes ‘women’s sports in Toronto and Canada is continuing to grow.’ (Tony Gutierrez/The Associated Press)

Domestic pro league could be next step

Nurse shared Carleton’s mixed disappointment for Toronto and excitement for the WNBA.

In the meantime, she said a domestic professional league would be “huge.” There is at least one group working behind the scenes to form a version of the Canadian Elite Basketball League for women.

“Imagine being able to say I had a Canadian female athlete as my role model that then was the person that got me to want to play professional sports, and I made it all the way here. Like, that’s such an incredible story that I think is still being told and still getting to that point where this next generation will come up and be able to say that,” she said.

“It’s one thing to see it on TV. It’s another thing to see all of your favourite athletes live and in person.”

For now, all eyes are on the national team, who’ve now been led by Spain’s Victor Lapeña for nearly two years.

Natalie Achonwa, who missed the WNBA season after giving birth to son Maverick, said the coach’s enthusiasm remains as high as ever.

“His energy is contagious. His love for the game, his X’s and O’s, everything about him is so passionate and it rubs off on you. So I’m just excited for us to get back together and to have that energy and going into this tournament here in Colombia.”

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