Toronto Women’s Basketball League pays players and sells hope

A young girl sits on wooden bleachers as basketballs roll across the court a few feet away. She watches intently, with her mother to her left. A large orange banner hangs on the wall: “Invest in a queen. She makes moves that a king can’t.

Inside Toronto Metropolitan University’s Kerr Hall gymnasium, past the food vendors and selfie station, the excitement on the players’ faces is clear. Some are lucky enough to play close to home for the first time in years.

Women wearing orange and gray HoopQueens jerseys compete in what is billed as Toronto’s first paid women’s basketball league.

“I know it’s ancient history, but I think it hasn’t been understood yet,” HoopQueens founder Nakissa Koomalsingh told The Star. “It’s starting to do, but it’s so much bigger than me.”

Over the past two Sunday afternoons, 40 current and former Canadian professional and college players hit the field in front of paying fans at the downtown gymnasium. What players receive — $200 per game — doesn’t compare to the WNBA, but it’s a small step for women who dream of making a living playing the game they love in Toronto.

Emani Clough is one of them. She comes from the city and has just finished a season in Portugal.

“It’s something that’s going to spark interest, and it should draw attention and raise some eyebrows that Canada has women’s hoops,” Clough said. “We can compete and we definitely deserve a WNBA team.”

Earlier this month, Athletic reported that the 12-team WNBA – where the average salary is over $120,000 (US) – is looking to expand by a city or two this year, and Toronto has been mentioned. Basketball great Sue Bird said she heard whispers of Toronto’s interest. In November, rap star and Raptors ambassador Drake called a WNBA team to town.

Canadian talent is not hard to find. The national team has been in the top 10 in the world rankings and there was at least one Canadian on every team in the NCAA Final Four this year.

“I want to be able to prove there’s a market here for the WNBA,” said Koomalsingh, who was born in Scarborough and raised in Markham. “I want to be able to say, ‘Hey, there’s a fan base here in Toronto and we deserve a team.’

“People were waiting for something like this, and waiting for the team to come, because we deserve it. We are, like, the hotspot, the home of basketball players.

The HoopQueens league is made up of four teams of 10. Eight players from each team are paid; the other two are varsity athletes and cannot accept payment.

Most of the money came from a $20,000 donation from the William Young Growth Fund. Young’s daughter, Meghan, said the funding was in honor of her late father, who coached the sport in the city and would be the first to let a girl play on an all-boys team.

“My dad is just helping out at the start of something huge,” she said. “It’s just the kick-off and it’s going to grow from there. It’s more about the league itself and the women having this opportunity for the first time.

The championship trophy bears Young’s name, while the team names pay tribute to successful players who got their start in and around Toronto: Tamara Tatham, Stephany Skrba, Kalisha Keane and Angie Knoebelreiter.

“These are the women I looked up to, so I named her after them. Each team represents their journey,” Koomalsingh said. “Everything we do is intentional, and everything we try to tell, it will always be about something and someone with a purpose.”

Players also work with The Give and Grow, which runs workshops for young women to discuss their career aspirations and specializes in creating distinctive basketball-shaped flower pots. Athletes share their basketball experiences and the obstacles they faced.

HoopQueens games are shown live on BallerTV, a scouting opportunity for coaches and agents that players hope will lead to overseas contract offers.

At half-time opening weekend, Koomalsingh told hundreds of paying fans in the stands at Kerr Hall that attendance was the first step to league success. Now she is considering long-term sponsorships.

“We’re positioning ourselves so that we can do it bigger and better,” she said. “It’s about having an experience that we’ve never had before in terms of women’s basketball.

“It’s not like a tournament or just a normal game. It’s a thing for the community built by the community.

The season continues every Sunday through July 3, with tickets available from Eventbrite for $13.13 plus fees.


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