Sky’s historic game against Lynx in Canada shows WNBA is primed for expansion

The Atlanta Dream, who joined the league in 2008, were the last successful expansion team.

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The Sky faced the Minnesota Lynx in a preseason game in Toronto. It was the WNBA’s first game in Canada.

The Sky faced the Minnesota Lynx in a preseason game in Toronto. It was the WNBA’s first game in Canada.

Chris Young/AP

Scotiabank Arena took on a radical new look Saturday.

Yes, the home of the Raptors and Maple Leafs has welcomed sellout crowds before. Sure, it has hosted premier sporting events and concerts. But never had it accommodated 19,800 fans to watch the WNBA.

While the day was historic because it was the WNBA’s first game in Canada and because of the number of fans in attendance, the story stretches beyond that. The event was like a distress signal lighting the sky with the message: WNBA Expansion Needed Now.

That is the clear takeaway as the WNBA prepares to tip off its 27th season this week.

‘‘There’s no question that we’re ready,’’ Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said Saturday. ‘‘When commissioner [Cathy] Engelbert thinks it’s the right business decision, obviously, we’re all going to feel really ready for that decision.’’

Engelbert’s thoughts on the timing of expansion and the cities being considered have fluctuated in the last two years. At one point, the list of 100 potential cities was whittled to 10; now, it is back at 20.

As for timing, Engelbert previously stated a desire to name expansion sites by the end of 2022. But after that deadline passed, she backtracked and said she wanted to ‘‘bring in two teams over the next few years.’’

Roster expansion is the only aspect she has been clear about, stressing before the draft last month that rosters are the right size. Still, the next round of collective bargaining will include talks about roster expansion.

But the WNBA’s current labor agreement runs through the 2027 season, and players are becoming more vocal about the topic.

‘‘Expansion is more than needed,’’ Sky guard Feyonda Fitzgerald said. ‘‘There are too many girls out here who are good and too many players who deserve a spot on a roster but can’t [get one] because there are only 12 spots.’’

Fitzgerald is one of the six players Sky coach/general manager James Wade signed to a training-camp contract. Originally selected by the Indiana Fever in the second round of the 2017 draft, Fitzgerald is an all-too-common example of a player who juggles training-camp opportunities in the hope that one of them sticks.

While support for expansion from established WNBA veterans is important, players such as Fitzgerald offer a unique perspective as the individuals most negatively affected by the league’s stance.

‘‘As a female athlete, we’re already in a male-dominated arena in basketball,’’ Sky forward Anneli Maley said. ‘‘To be able to have more opportunities from more teams would just mean we don’t have to fight to be seen. We’re already sitting here asking people to see us. It would be nice [if there were] more teams, more opportunities. Then we could keep taking those steps toward actual equality.’’

Engelbert insists she won’t add an expansion team just to see it fail, as has happened in the past. The Miami Sol and the Portland Fire joined the WNBA in 2000 and folded in 2002. The Atlanta Dream, who joined the league in 2008, were the last successful expansion team.

The problem isn’t with Engelbert’s most common explanation that she wants to establish a thriving business model for the WNBA before expanding; it’s with the lack of clarity in where the league stands in those efforts.

Tickets for the Sky’s 82-74 victory against the Lynx in Toronto sold out in less than 20 minutes. For players who witnessed firsthand what appears to be a market primed for a WNBA team, the waiting makes little sense when the support is so clear.

‘‘[This game selling out] shows if you give these women a platform and an opportunity, there are people that want to see it,’’ Sky star Kahleah Copper told TSN. ‘‘The WNBA coming to Canada and the game selling out in 18 minutes goes to show Toronto’s ready for expansion.’’

Patience is wearing thin for fans of the WNBA and the athletes who have established it as the premier league for women’s basketball.

As history continues to be made, be it with record-breaking viewership numbers or attendance, Engelbert’s vague explanations for postponing expansion no longer will stand.

She soon must make the historic announcement everyone is expecting.

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