The WNBA awarded Toronto its first-ever franchise outside the US, linking up with a sports and real estate billionaire as the flourishing league pushes to build an audience in Canada and abroad. 

Kilmer Sports Ventures, a firm controlled by Canadian mogul Larry Tanenbaum, will invest US$115 million to bring the WNBA to Toronto, a figure that includes the $50 million league expansion fee, according to a person familiar with the matter. The new team will begin playing in the 2026 season as the league’s 14th franchise. 

The move into Canada marks another milestone for the leading women’s basketball league, which has finally started seeing the mainstream buzz its players and team owners have long hoped for. Games are getting more prominent television slots and stars like Caitlin Clark, an Indiana Fever rookie who broke scoring records at the University of Iowa, are drawing new fans. In Canada, average viewership during the 2023 WNBA season increased by 32 per cent year-over-year, according to the league. 

Tanenbaum’s private holding company owns Canadian real estate projects and is part-owner of a Coca-Cola’s bottling and distribution partner in Canada. But he’s best known as the quiet partner with a minority stake in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., one of North America’s most valuable sports companies and the owner of the Toronto Raptors basketball team, the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club and other franchises, including Toronto FC of Major League Soccer. 

Tanenbaum said he presented the idea to Maple Leaf Sports’ board of directors last year, but ownership “was not unanimous.” 

“I have no idea what they were thinking,” Tanenbaum said in an interview Thursday, referring to MLSE’s decision not to pursue a WNBA franchise. MLSE’s other owners are two large Canadian telecommunications and broadcasting outfits, BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc.   

The team will play most home games in Toronto’s smaller Coca-Cola Coliseum, but expects to play on occasion in the 19,800-seat Scotiabank Arena — home to the Raptors and Maple Leafs — and will also have games in Vancouver and Montreal. 

‘Canada’s Team’

“This team is not just Toronto’s team but Canada’s team,” Tanenbaum said at an unveiling ceremony that was attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the rapper Drake.

“I’m not sure MLSE would have had the same opportunity to taking a Canada-wide approach, because MLSE is more of a regional, Toronto-based company and we’re more open.”

Tanenbaum says he does not expect the team to generate a profit immediately, but was inspired by the growing popularity of women’s basketball in the U.S. The WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx and Chicago Sky sold out the Scotiabank Arena for an exhibition game last year.

“These teams initially do not make money — you’re investing in them. And you’re looking at the long term,” he said. “The accretion in value will happen over the years. It’s a good league, it’s well-run league, and it has all the right metrics to it.”

Last year, the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System agreed to pay $400 million for a 20 per cent stake in Tanenbaum’s Kilmer Sports Inc., a holding company that owns a 25 per cent stake in MLSE — giving an implied valuation of $8 billion on the latter company.