You heard it here first! A bid to bring a WNBA team to Toronto is finally happening.
In the wake of the Toronto Raptors winning their first NBA Championship in the organizations’ 24-year history, it’s safe to say that our hockey-crazed country has also become obsessed with basketball. I mean more people showed up for the Raptors championship parade than Barack Obama’s inauguration.
However, while the Raptors rep Canada in the NBA, there is no WNBA equivalent. All WNBA teams are based out of the U.S.A. leaving a massive gap (and opportunity) in the market.
Well, it looks like that gap is finally going to be filled. The WNBA Toronto Bid Leadership Committee is officially announcing it’s intent to make a bid to bring a WNBA team to Toronto. And, you’re hearing all about it from The GIST first. We had the exclusive opportunity to sit down with young entrepreneurs Max Abrahams and Daniel Escott -- the founding duo of the WNBA Toronto Bid Leadership Committee -- to talk details about the bid.
So, let’s get into the interview. We know you’re dying to know more.
Ellen at The GIST (TG): Tell us a little bit about why you want to bring a WNBA team to Canada and also tell us a little bit more about yourselves.
Max Abrahams (MA): One evening earlier this year I was messaging one of my best friends from high school, Sami Hill. Sami plays for the Canadian women’s national basketball team and plays professionally in Germany. We were talking about how two of her friends were recently drafted into the WNBA. I said to Sami “we should bring a WNBA team to Toronto.” Later that night I sent a frantic email to Daniel saying,
“If we don’t do this (bid for a WNBA Toronto team) now, we’re going to hear about it a year from now. So let’s do it.”
While we don’t have experience building a sports franchise, we do have experience in starting multiple businesses (between the two of them, they have started over 8 companies), in surrounding ourselves with great people and both Dan and I have been studying marketing, communications and sports marketing for quite some time. We’ve put together a really great advisory board complete with former Olympians, players and business leaders.
Daniel Escott (DE): Further, because of our entrepreneurial experience, you could say we’ve lost a sense of risk in these cases. We’ve gotten into a very good habit of taking advantage of every opportunity regardless of what it may be. I’d rather regret something I’ve done then something I haven’t.
Outside of this WNBA bid, we are Partners at New Media Group (NMG) which is one of the fastest growing advertising agencies in Canada. Previously I’ve worked in government running digital and social campaigns for Canada and back in Newfoundland (where Daniel is from, which was quite apparent in his Newfie accent) and in May 2018 I retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant.
TG: What sparked you wanting to bring a WNBA team here vs. an NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) team or a women’s hockey league (with the CWHL folding and players on strike until a better league exists)?
MA: My passion for basketball really comes from my past life experience at Eastern Commerce high school. It’s by far one of the best high school basketball programs in Canada and even North America. There, I was surrounded by male and female athletes on top of their game -- I saw Sami’s dedication to basketball, going to early morning practice and then late at night, while still doing really well in school. It’s just really important to me to bring a pro team here for women in Canada. It’s time to bring that pro level of sport for women in our country.
DE: It’s also the right time with the Raptors winning the NBA Championships. We actually started working on developing our bid early April. At that point we were just hoping the Raptors would win the Eastern Conference let alone win the championship. At that time, the Raptors winning a championship was a pipe dream and so was this WNBA bid. But, the stars have seemed to aligned here. We’ve made so much progress in the last couple of months. Frankly, I don’t think this progress could be done at any other point in time, in any other market, in any other way.
TG: Because of the momentum that we’re seeing with basketball in Canada at large, eh?
DE: Yes exactly. It’s a growing sport and people are really getting behind the Raptors and the sport even more now. Still, when we see talented Canadians having to go abroad to follow their professional ambitions, it doesn’t necessarily sit well with us.
And this really comes down to the lack of pro basketball opportunities for Canadians, and in particular, for Canadian women. It doesn’t make any sense that if we’re producing top talent that compete with the best of the best in the world, that they can’t compete in the country they grew up in.
TG: That being said, with the WNBA, there is really no guarantee that there would be any/many Canadians on the team, right?
MA: Only time will tell in terms of who will be on the team.
DE: It’s also not only about having Canadians on the roster. It’s about having young girls and women have a team that they can dream of being on and see that it’s attainable to achieve their goal of making it to the WNBA. They can see that it’s attainable. Nothing inspires youth like the ability to see what their future looks like.
TG: Do you watch the WNBA all the time? Is it something new to you? What’s your relationship?
MA: We’ve been fans of basketball for a really long time; however, because the WNBA is a U.S.-based league right now, there is a barrier to becoming/being fans in Canada because none of the games are actually aired on Canadian TV networks and there’s no mainstream vertical to consume it. What’s getting better though is being able to interact with teams and players through social media anyway… people like Canadian WNBA superstar Kia Nurse.
DE: There’s a huge issue with accessibility. Throughout this entire process, we’ve put accessibility to the players, team and league at the forefront of our bid. We’re not just bringing a team to Canada, we’re bringing the WNBA to Canada. So it’s important to us to provide as many accessible ways as possible for people from coast to coast to coast to consume the WNBA.
TG: We’re really interested in learning about the process of bringing a team here. What have you had to do? What are the details? What’s the timeline?
MA: The timeline we’re pushing for is spring 2020. Before that happens we’ll be attending the NBA summer leagues, looking at creating owner groups and finishing raising our fund. We’re actively seeking investments from angels, VC funds, family offices, past athletes, etc. to help make the bid happen.
DE: On top of that, we’ve also had to consider a venue. We’re in talks with a number of places in Toronto and the GTA. With the WNBA being a summer league it really doesn’t conflict with any other major sports league. Sometimes venues are just sitting as dead assets over the summer. So we want to help and take advantage of resources that are already there.
TG: As you know, the CWHL recently folded due to business operations that couldn’t support the league. A lot of people were upset and also nervous as to whether Toronto and Canada can support a women’s pro league at all. What can we do better with this hopefully new WNBA team so that we don’t see a folding of a team here in Toronto again?
MA: The number one thing that will make this team successful is community engagement. To be honest, a lot of people didn’t even know about the CWHL. It wasn’t in the public eye very often.
Compared to the CWHL, many WNBA players have a large social media following that you can scale to reach more people and to actually touch people’s hearts. Once we have a real foundation of a digital community set up, we’ll also be looking to throw events during the season and the offseason so that we can build a brand, have a fun fan experience and actually build a community across the country.
DE: Unfortunately, there’s also been a lot of concern about the future of women’s sport in general and the potential of it, or question of it, as a sustainable business option. But what we’ve seen of the business model for other women’s leagues and teams, is that a lot of it is riding the prestige of professional sport. People need to look at it and check their ego at the door and not think that throwing money at a franchise will automatically make them money. You can’t assume that with any sports team, men or women. It’s a long-term, strategic process just like any business.
TG: What can fans do to support this bid? What can the media do to help?
MA: The best way to start is by engaging and supporting first through digital. People can start following us through:
WNBAToronto - Twitter
WNBAToronto - Facebook
WNBATO - Instagram
WNBATORONTO.com - Website
Once we get those socials rocking and rolling, we’ll be sending updates through these channels. The more retweets, shares, comments, likes, etc. that we can get to prove that Canada really does want a WNBA team, the better.. In terms of media, conducting interviews like this is great. We want to make sure we’re able to do this at scale across the country.
DE: Look, no one is going to be coming out of this deal as a millionaire overnight. It’s about passion and where our passion lies with bringing a WNBA team to Canada.
As far as media rights go (which media companies are able to air the games because they paid for the rights), we want to bring in new and interesting ways to engage with the franchise but also the WNBA. Whether that be through online community channels or outside community engagement. There are many new and modern ways beyond television that people can engage with sports. We intend to leverage as many emerging technologies as we can so that we’re ahead of the curve.
TG: Why is it so important for women to see pro female athletes in Canada and as role models in general? As you probably know, right now female athletes receive < 4% of sports media coverage.
MA: When you’re passionate about something, you want to have a role model. We want to provide young women with an opportunity to have a WNBA player be their role model right in their backyard. They’ll be able to watch her play every week, follow her on socials, DM her, meet her at events. All of those sorts of things come full circle so that when young women see these players as role models, their dreams start to become attainable. It’s not only going to impact countless young women, but also young men.
DE: The reality is that representation matters. When people look at professional sports and all they see are men, there’s a question from women and others -- where do I fit in this? Where can I see myself in sports? And men’s only pro-sports are not representative of our nation’s population and mosaic.
TG: What’s the most important part of having this bid be successful?
DE: This bid, and this movement, and this idea is something that we need the country to get behind. The reality is that right now we’re two guys with a passion that want to bring something (basketball) that people love to a country people love.
We need everyone who likes this idea and who supports this idea, to be loud and proud about it. Don’t belittle this idea. Just because we’re talking about a WNBA bid vs. an NBA team, doesn’t mean that the WNBA shouldn’t be talked about just as much. This bid should be what everyone is talking about from now until the bid goes through. Because unless the entire country is on board, we’re not going to get a team.
We need to convince the WNBA, Canada and Toronto that a women’s pro basketball team is something that we all want.
So, there you have it. The process has officially begun to bring a WNBA franchise to Canada. And it’s about time someone took the step to at least get the conversation moving. We, of course, are incredibly excited about this bid and will continue to keep you up-to-date through our twice-weekly newsletter as things unfold. What an exciting time to be a Canadian sports fan!
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