'Our dreams': Raptors president Masai Ujiri references WNBA expansion in Toronto

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Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri dropped an unprompted reference about potentially bringing a WNBA expansion team to the city, but declined to speak further on it.

Expansion is top of mind for the WNBA, which tips off its 26th season Friday night, over the past few seasons and Toronto is a favorite destination. Ujiri mentioned it in his end-of-season news conference with reporters Tuesday morning after the Raptors lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round last week. He was asked how his first season as vice chairman went and if there were any conversations he wanted to be able to have.

"The game is going global and I am really interested in the BAL [Basketball African League] in Africa. The WNBA. There are many things that intrigue us here," Ujiri said. "I know that I think we will continue to talk about how do we get this franchise even bigger in how we think. Whether it's facilities or even just thinking of the game more global, which is where my mind is always at."

Ujiri did not discuss a WNBA expansion team further, quickly making a joke that harkened back to his remark that the Los Angeles Lakers can dream about hiring Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.

"I'm not going into that range," Ujiri said, quickly shooting down the follow-up mid-sentence.

"Our dreams. Just like the Lakers," he added quietly and amid laughter in a news conference mic-drop.

Many of the 12 WNBA teams are owned or have close working relationships with their NBA counterparts, including the Minnesota Lynx, Washington Mystics, Indiana Fever and New York Liberty. The marketing asset alone is a quality component of tying an NBA team with a WNBA one. The league is also at a point where millionaire team owners are buying teams with growth and dollar signs in mind. But they are ready and willing to improve the franchises quicker than the collective bargaining agreement and legacy franchise owners are ready to handle.

Natalie Achonwa of Canada
Canadian forward Natalie Achonwa at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The topic of an expansion franchise in Canada has returned. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Is WNBA working on expansion?

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert's most recent comments on expansion came in a pre-draft conference call with reporters last month. Engelbert acknowledged "we do need to be in more cities" but has cautioned since taking the job in 2019 that it must be done strategically. She said the league has done an exercise looking at analytics and 100 cities to see where would be best for an expansion franchise.

"Sports leagues have done that — they've expanded in the hopes that they get the economics right," Engelbert said on April 11. "We're not going to jeopardize the momentum we have and the economic model we're actually building right before our eyes right now positively in order to accelerate anything like that."

She told ESPN in October the league could be talking about the number of teams and where as early as this summer or fall.

The WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) noted the three most talked about cities for WNBA expansion in a tweet in January. After listing its 12 cities in answer to Delta Airlines' "name a city that changed your life" tweet, it followed with "You fly to Nashville, Toronto and the Bay Area too, right?"

There's a group of businesspeople in Oakland putting together a bid for a WNBA team and the Nashville Sports Authority is researching professional women's teams to bring to the area. A consultant told the city government's working group an NWSL or WNBA team would do well there.

The Toronto bid has arguably seen the most backing, largely because of its ties for Canadian players and superstar rapper Drake's call for a team. Los Angeles Sparks center Liz Cambage, who is friends with Drake, was even asked about it during Sparks media day last week.

Entrepreneurs Daniel Ascott and Max Abrahams put together an unsuccessful bid for a WNBA team in Toronto in 2019. There is still an active Twitter and Instagram account for a bid. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse and Phoenix Mercury star Kia Nurse (no relation), also a Canadian national team player, have supported calls for a WNBA team in the city.

WNBA ratings in Canada the opening weekend of the 2021 season were up 325% year-over-year, a rising viewership trend also seen in the U.S. for the league. According to NBA Canada, the Aces-Storm game set a regular season viewership record. Natalie Achonwa and Bridget Carleton, both in Minnesota Lynx training camp, are also Canadian stars.

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