‘This is history.’ A Toronto women’s basketball league pays its players, and sells hope

A young girl sits on wooden bleachers as basketballs sail 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 a King can’t.”

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

The women in orange and grey HoopQueens jerseys are competing in what’s billed as Toronto’s first paid women’s basketball league.

“I know that this is history, but I think that it hasn’t sunk in yet,” HoopQueens founder Nakissa Koomalsingh told the Star. “It’s starting to, but it’s so much bigger than me.”

For the last two Sunday afternoons, 40 current and former Canadian professionals and university players have been hitting the court in front of paying fans at the downtown gym. What the 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 while playing the game they love in Toronto.

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

“This is something that will spark interest, and it should raise the attention and the eyebrows of people that Canada has female hoopers,” said Clough. “We can compete, and we definitely deserve a WNBA team.”

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

Canadian talent isn’t hard to find. The national team has been a fixture in the top 10 of the world rankings, and there was at least one Canadian on each team in this year’s NCAA Final Four.

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

“People have been waiting on something like this, and waiting on the team to come, because we deserve it. We are, like, the hot spot, the hotbed of basketball players.”

The HoopQueens league is made up of four teams of 10. Eight players on each team are paid; the other two are university athletes and ineligible to accept payment.

Most of the money comes from a $20,000 donation by the William Young Growth Fund. Young’s daughter Meghan said the funding is in honour of her late father, who coached the sport in the city and is believed to be the first to let a girl play on a boys’ team.

“My dad is just helping the beginning of something huge,” she said. “It’s only the kickoff and it will grow from there. It’s more about the league itself and the women that are getting this opportunity for the first time.”

The championship trophy is named after Young, while team names are a shout-out to successful players who got their start in and around Toronto: Tamara Tatham, Stephany Skrba, Kalisha Keane and Angie Knoebelreiter.

“Those are the women I looked up to, so I named it after them. Each team is representing their journey,” said Koomalsingh. “Everything that we do is intentional, and everything that we were trying to storytell, it’s always going to be about something and someone with a purpose.”

Players also work with The Give and Grow, which holds workshops for young women to discuss their career aspirations and specializes in creating distinctive basketball-shaped planter pots. The athletes share their basketball experiences and the barriers they have faced.

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

At halftime during the opening weekend, Koomalsingh told hundreds of paying fans in the Kerr Hall stands that attendance was the first step toward the league’s success. Now she’s eyeing long-term sponsorships.

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

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

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

Feature Photo Credit: OnPoint Basketball