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What to know about Toronto's WNBA expansion franchise

The WNBA is going global, expanding to Toronto in 2026. What will the expansion draft look like? Where might the league expand next?



What to know about Toronto's WNBA expansion franchise
What to know about Toronto's WNBA expansion franchise
The WNBA announced Thursday that Toronto will be home to the league's newest team, which will start play in 2026. The Canadian franchise will grow the WNBA to 14 teams. Another expansion franchise, the Golden State Valkyries, begins play in 2025.

The Toronto team will be the WNBA's first franchise outside the United States. Exhibition games in Canada the past two years proved popular, and women's basketball as a sport has grown tremendously in that nation over the past 20 years.

The WNBA expanded quickly after its launch in 1997, growing to 16 teams by 2000 -- but only stayed at that number through 2002. The Atlanta Dream in 2008 were the last expansion team in the WNBA, which has been at 12 teams since 2010.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said 16 teams is the goal she hopes to reach by 2028.

With the largest television audience ever for the WNBA draft this year, increased ratings for games and more appearances on national television, the league has never been more visible. Expansion will increase that visibility.

With roster sizes capped at 12, there has been a maximum of 144 jobs -- although some teams have carried fewer than 12. More teams means more jobs for players.

ESPN's Alexa Philippou, Kevin Pelton and Michael Voepel discuss why now is the time and Toronto is the place for the latest expansion.

Philippou: By expanding to Toronto, the WNBA is taking a step as a global brand as it attempts to follow the example set by the NBA. The particular model that this franchise is envisioning is also attractive, too: While it will be based in Toronto, the team will play in some games in Vancouver and Montreal. Team personnel emphasized during the announcement that this won't simply be Toronto's team, but Canada's team.

Engelbert mentioned that when she took over as commissioner, "the basketball was great, but the business was not." As the league announces its second expansion team in less than a year, the same week the WNBA has moved to full-time charters for the rest of the regular season, the Toronto news conference Thursday felt like a victory lap for all involved in the WNBA and women's basketball more broadly.

And the momentum from all those markers, including a now-international footprint, should lead to more investment from corporate and media partners, further spurring the league's business transformation.

Philippou: Sources confirmed to ESPN last month that the league is involved in talks to try to revive a Portland bid, as earlier plans for a team that would have launched for the 2025 season were deferred, and it now looks like a new ownership group could emerge. Engelbert has also mentioned markets such as Philadelphia, Denver, Nashville and South Florida as potential options for expansion teams.

Voepel: Portland had an expansion WNBA team from 2000 to '03, but that's a lifetime ago in the sports marketplace. The Portland Fire never had a chance to establish themselves with just three seasons of existence. Portland could make good on another chance.

Not knowing all the infrastructure details of other bids, Denver and Nashville stand out from a geography standpoint. The league currently has three teams in the Central time zone -- the Minnesota Lynx, Chicago Sky and Dallas Wings -- and Nashville would add to that. Plus, Tennessee is a state with a rich women's basketball tradition. Denver would give the league a foothold in an area of the country that has no WNBA team anywhere nearby. Overall, the good news is it seems like there are multiple viable options.

Voepel: The move to charter flights and expansion have been intertwined initiatives that Cathy Engelbert and the players' union have been working on in earnest since she took over in 2019. It wasn't necessarily impossible to expand to Toronto without charters, but it made it easier.

While a lot of positives are happening this year for the WNBA, it's important to recognize the efforts to get here go back many years. Expansion has been a thorny issue in the league because it was hard to get long-term commitment from investors. Think about the fact that the New York Liberty, a WNBA marquee franchise, were put up for sale in November 2017 and not bought until the Nets' Joe Tsai purchased the team in January 2019.

The difference in enthusiasm for the WNBA from 2017 to now is vast. There's no doubt young stars -- including the 2024 draft class -- have made a big impact. But the groundwork for WNBA advancements goes back a long way and has been painstaking.

Pelton: The league's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) states that expansion draft procedures "shall be within the sole discretion of the WNBA after consultation with the Players Association." When the league last expanded in 2008, existing teams were allowed to protect six players each, but WNBA executives have yet to be informed how expansion drafts will work for the Valkyries in 2025 and the Toronto team.

An expansion draft ahead of the 2026 season will be particularly challenging because that's also the first season of a possible new WNBA CBA and television deal, which could result in a dramatic increase to the salary cap and higher salaries. As a result, few veteran players have signed contracts through 2026. Per analysis of salary data, there are just two such players in the entire WNBA: Dallas Wings center Kalani Brown and Los Angeles Sparks guard Lexie Brown.

The CBA spells out that an expansion team can draft only one unrestricted free agent with the intent of designating them a core player, which means the number of protected players might have to drop for Toronto to be able to select anything resembling a full roster.

Pelton: Long before Canada was awarded a WNBA team, the country has served as a source of talent for the league. This year's WNBA rosters feature four players from Canada, including Washington Mystics rookie Aaliyah Edwards. Yet Canadian players have yet to make the same impact on the WNBA as they have on the NBA, where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander finished as runner-up in MVP voting this season and 24 players born in Canada appeared in a game.

Much of that success has been traced to the so-called "Carter effect", where basketball boomed in popularity after the Raptors, who brought the NBA to Canada alongside the short-lived Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995, saw current ESPN analyst Vince Carter develop into their first homegrown star.

Longtime WNBA star Sue Bird often discusses the power of the "see it, be it" moment in terms of representation. A WNBA star in Toronto could have the same impact on women's basketball in Canada.

Philippou: Los Angeles' Kia Nurse, Minnesota's Bridget Carleton and Atlanta's Laeticia Amihere are the other Canadians currently in the league. Natalie Achonwa, while not on a roster this season, was a standout at Notre Dame before suiting up for Minnesota and the Indiana Fever. All four have also represented Canada on the national stage.

Teresa Resch, who is a former executive with the NBA's Toronto Raptors and will lead the Toronto WNBA team, grew up in the United States before moving to Canada and ultimately becoming a citizen there two years ago. She thinks Toronto will be appealing to free agents.

"Toronto has a unique perspective, both within the makeup of the demographic and how we do business," she said. "I think it will be actually very attractive to a lot of WNBA players."

Voepel: Rutgers graduate Tammy Sutton-Brown, the Canadian who has had the longest and most successful WNBA career (2001-12, 2012 championship with Indiana), and Oklahoma grad Stacey Dales (2002-07) are Ontario natives who have done a lot to increase the sport's popularity in Canada.

Both played in the Final Four and were drafted into the WNBA: Sutton-Brown with the No. 18 pick in 2001 and Dales at No. 3 in 2002. Sutton-Brown, who now works for the Raptors 905 G League team, and Dales, a broadcaster who specializes in the NFL, got a chance to be part of Thursday's Toronto announcement, recognized for what they mean to the sport.