International Women’s Day is Friday March 8th. To celebrate, we’re featuring one bad @$$ female athlete for each of the four newsletters leading up to the special day. Why? Because female athletes only receive 4% of sports media coverage which we think (and we’re sure you do too) is absolutely ridiculous. So, as a women-led sports company, we want to help change that stat.
On top of their respective interview features, each athlete will be taking over our Instagram story () on the day their interview is released. So be sure to toss us a follow to get behind the scenes footage of the day-to-day lives of these amazing athletes.
So far, we’ve featured , and Shelina Zadorsky. Last but not least? Canadian Rugby Sevens superstar, . In 2013, Bianca won a silver medal at the Rugby Sevens World Cup and in 2016, she won a bronze medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Amazing. Let’s get into it with Bianca.
Photo courtsey of Bianca’s Instagram @biancafarella
Ellen at The GIST (TG): In the same way a lot of people that think football is a “dangerous and physical game” people also think that rugby is too physical and especially think this for women. What do you say if/when people say that to you?
Bianca Farella (BF): Before getting into this question I should make the distinction between rugby sevens vs. traditional 15s rugby. Rugby sevens has grown so far away from the traditional 15s game, it’s almost like a different sport (ppsstt for more of an explanation click ).
When people say rugby is too physical of a sport for women to be playing is frustrating. The way I see it is that everyone has a body, and everyone has strengths that come with that body. And the way you choose to excel athletically is your choice or not (preach, baby!).
What I do best is playing rugby sevens because that’s how I like to control my body, and that’s my choice. I don’t think people should put boundaries on other people. I don’t see why people should be judging other people, it’s that person’s decision to use their body the way they want.
For me, I recognize there’s a timeline in playing such a physical sport. There are only so many years my body can handle playing the highest level of rugby. And that’s really what makes me tick. I want to live out my most athletic, prime years playing the sport I love.
Photo courtsey of Bianca’s Instagram @biancafarella
TG: You’re really young - only 26 and about to be 27 - how do handle the weight/pressure of representing your country?
BF: As much as I’m young, I’m already in my 7th season of playing rugby for Canada. My first tournament was back in 2012. Because I’ve been playing for Canada for a while now, I’ve learned what to expect at each tournament so my mental prep is pretty dialed in now.
The Olympics was the biggest mental and physical prep I’ve ever had to do because we didn’t know what to expect. Rio was the first time that rugby sevens was in the Olympics. It was a big deal! It was the hardest to prep for because it is really worth so much more. It’s the thing that our team is always training for. And on a more micro level it was a three-day tournament as opposed to the regular two-day so that changed our prep up a little bit up too.
Now that we’re on the road to Tokyo (they have to finish top four this season in the HSBC Rugby Sevens Series to gain a spot in the Olympics), it’s really helpful to have already gone through that Olympic experience, because the Olympics really do come with added pressure. As much as mental training should not change from tournament to tournament, sometimes it does.
I’m fortunate because I actually don’t feel pressure a lot of the time. As long as I can control what I can control, that’s enough for me. As long as I’ve done my physical and mental prep, that’s enough for me. I can’t control the fans or referees, I can’t control the other team, I can’t control the weather. That thought process alleviates a lot of pressure and mental stress for me.
TG: Speaking of the mental side of things, what is your mental prep before games?
BF: The night before a game I try to be as calm as possible. I’ll do things like watch a show, have some tea and get a good night’s rest. On game day, I listen to music. As a person, I generally run low. So music is a really great way for me to get pumped up. I generally listen to Top 40 or club music so that I can have that extra boost in order to get my energy up.
I really can’t afford to have a momentary lapse in physical or mental prep. The field is too big and the game is too short to make an error. In rugby sevens, there are only two seven minute halves with a two-minute break in between. You have to be completely dialed in the entire game. And what’s great is that I’m never nervous once the game starts.
Sevens is really a remarkable sport. It’s the same dimensions as a regular rugby field but has HALF the people on it. It’s crazy to see how much this sport has grown and how far the sport has come worldwide. It’s super cool to see how the sport is changing too. It’s such a different game now than it was when I first started and it’s going to just keep evolving.
Photo courtsey of Bianca’s Instagram @biancafarella
TG: I read somewhere that you’re one of the world’s best “finishers”. What does finishing mean in rugby and how are you the best?!
BF: People use the world finisher as a descriptor of someone who can finish off the play by scoring a (Editor’s Note: A try is kind of like a touchdown in football). And it’s called a finisher because a try isn’t something that I can score alone. You need help from teammates in the middle of the field to start the play to help me get free so that I can score the try.
What’s awesome is that our Canadian team is a very technical and skilled team. I’d say we’re one of the most skilled teams in the world right now. On any given day, a huge part of the game is who is making the least amount of errors and from that, who is able to capitalize on the other team’s errors to come out on top.
Right now, I think the top three teams in the world (including Canada) are about 1% away from each other. It’s really tight competition. Rugby isn’t black and white so it’s about who can adapt best to those grey areas.
Photo courtsey of Bianca’s Instagram @biancafarella
BF: Oh gosh, yes my most recent shoulder surgery was actually the second one for my shoulder. When you’re removed from sport when it’s not your choice it really gives you a different perspective on what you’re doing. The latest surgery and recovery really showed me how much I love rugby and inspired me to work really hard at recovery so that I could get back on the field to do what I love.
I’m also lucky because I enjoy training as much as I love playing the game. I really enjoy pushing my body to the limit. We often say in training that the girls in the rehab group are working harder than the girls in the regular group, because they just want to get back on the field so bad. Don’t get me wrong though, I still hate being injured.
Altogether, injuries really reaffirm your purpose of what you’re doing. As long as you work hard you know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Also, our medical and “return to play” staff are amazing. Now, although I’m wearing a brace, I feel like I’ve come back on the pitch feeling better than ever.
TG: Alright Bianca, to close things out we’re going to have some fun with some rapid fire questions. Here we go:
What’s something that you can’t live without?: Bread
What’s your go-to work out?: Rugby as conditioning, meaning literally just playing rugby. You’re really working under fatigue for the whole time.
What’s fave work out at the gym?: I love squatting, front squatting in particular
Who’s Your Favourite Rugby Player Ever? None actually. I guess it’s kind of weird, but I’ve never really had a favourite player that I looked up to. Maybe that’s because sevens is a relatively new form? I don’t know.
Oprah or Ellen?: Ellen
Peanut Butter or Jam? Jam
How many bones have you broken playing rugby? Three
Words/mantra you live by: Impress yourself
In August 2018, Aimee Deziel stepped into what many call ‘the hardest job in Ottawa’ as the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of the Ottawa Senators (although to be fair… we think the hardest job is probably held by Justin Trudeau).
Why is this job so difficult? Because after making it all the way to the Conference Finals in the 2016-17 season, the Sens had a disappointing 2017-18 season and 2018-19 hasn’t been much better. There have been issues with the Sens owner and management, drama amongst players and their wives, and some big trades. Most notably, this September they traded away the best defenceman that had ever graced their ice. Needless to say Sens fans have been feeling frustrated. And rightly so.
Although things haven’t been looking great on the ice this season (the Sens are currently last in the Eastern Conference… welp), things are looking up in the back office. Cue Aimee. Aimee as CMO is refreshing AF. First off, she’s a woman. Less than 5% of executives in pro sports are women, so this is a BFD. Next, she doesn’t have a classic hockey
bro background. She’s a fan just like you and me. So, she truly understands Sens fans and is 110% committed to turning the franchise around. Deziel is a fireball of energy, chutzpah, and will certainly not tolerate any BS.
Earlier this month, The GIST had the pleasure of sitting down with Aimee for an interview to help spotlight women in the Sens organization. We asked Aimee about everything from the influence of sports in her life growing up to how she handles marketing after scandals like the, um, Uber situation, to if she prefers Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes. Let’s get to know Aimee.
Aimee grew up in Windsor, Ontario and like everyone in that area, was torn between supporting the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Detroit Red Wings. As much as Aimee loved playing sports as a kid, she never played team sports as she felt “too much responsibility for her teammates and that kind of stressed her out.” Still, she participated in individual sports as a competitive gymnast and an avid runner (she’s still super active and can be found snowboarding, at the gym, playing tennis and well, still running). And, her love of these sports has never faded. As a tennis fan, she used to have annual tickets to the US Open (the dream). Her faves to watch are Danish Caroline Wozniacki and Milos Raonic.
Aimee (right) after a gymnastics competition.
Moving to the Capital City
After growing up in Windsor, Aimee made her way to Ottawa to pursue an International Business degree at Carleton University. Having grown up in a bilingual household (English and French), languages came naturally to her, making International Business a natural fit. She took the gamut of business classes but what really clicked with her was marketing. It became abundantly clear that that’s what she was going to go into after school.
This is where things start to get exciting and where Aimee’s drive and get-sh!t-done attitude start to shine through. As soon as she graduated, she started hunting down marketing agencies that she wanted to work for.
“I literally walked into the offices of an up-and-coming agency called Acme Advertising and said: “You don't need to pay me - I'll literally empty garbages and run errands.’ But what I knew was that if I was in their face, and made an impression, I would get a job.”
That’s exactly what happened. Aimee not only got the job, but ended up being assigned one of the agency’s largest accounts - the National Gallery of Canada. Damn girl, get it. But that’s not all. While working at her next gig, Thornley Fallis Communications, Aimee noticed that there was an opportunity to capitalize on the internet and digital media, rather than rely on the traditional communication channels within the company. The company had a small creative team called 76design, which was struggling to establish itself. So, she approached her boss and said, “give me six months and let me see what I can do to grow this segment of the business.”
Five years later, Aimee was leaving the company after profitably growing the digital media division to over 25 people, surpassing the size of the traditional communications side!
Next Step in Her Career
From there, Aimee was ready for a new challenge. She went on to work for a consumer-facing, domain-holding company, based out of the Barbados (honestly could use a trip to the Barbados right now) called Rebel.com. She started as the company’s CMO. However, given her prior experience, she felt like she had marketing “pretty well-licked” so moved on to work in other areas of the business to get a more well-rounded business experience. With stops in the company’s finance department, business development, and human resources department, Aimee finally went on to become the Chief Operating Officer. With the breadth of learning from working in these different areas of the business, Aimee felt she had effectively given herself an MBA.
Aimee’s biggest piece of career advice is to work in fields that you are curious about. She learned enough to know when someone was “bullsh!tting” (again… no BS taken here) her and should be challenged, and honed her leadership experiences along the way.
What Brought Her to the Sens
That’s how it all ties back to the Sens organization. It was new COO Neic Ruszkowski, who Aimee first met while working at 76design who brought up the opportunity for the CMO gig with the Sens and she was really intrigued. When we started talking about the Sens during the interview, you could sense the energy and passion Aimee has for this team. She had a glimmer in her eye, started speaking faster, and had this infectious aura of excitement about her.
Aimee totally recognizes that “they’re not the most high-profile team and they’re not the best team in the league right now.” BUT she’s confident that will change. Despite growing up in Windsor, she considers Ottawa her hometown, and thinks that Ottawa - both the city and the team - has never fully received the credit it deserves. It’s squished between two Original Six teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, and is a “young” team in comparison (The Sens were just founded in 1992). However, the city is beautiful, is complete with amazing people and history, and full of avid and extremely passionate hockey fans.
One of our favourite things Aimee said was on the potential and likability of this young team:
“We deserve to have a little bit of swagger and we don’t have any right now in my opinion. And I think that’s changing, but this is a city that deserves it. Toronto just gets to lay claim to their history and their success, but because we’re new, we don’t get to do that? I don’t buy that.”
The Ottawa Senators aren’t owned by a massive corporation. The franchise was bootstrapped together. People wanted to bring the NHL experience to Ottawa, and Aimee believes it’s a privilege to be able to bring the beautiful game to the city of Ottawa. Day in and day out, the players go out there and play for their city and their fans, and they deserve to know that they have a loyal fanbase behind them. As Aimee put it “look, I love this team a whole lot, and Ottawa deserves to be proud of it.”
What She Does as a CMO
Aimee’s day-to-day is always different. There are two seasons for her: in-season, where the focus is on fan engagement, membership season where it’s time to thank their season seat members and secure their support for the next season, and off-season, which involves planning for the in-season. Most days, much of her time is spent on strategy and meetings. The strategy is, for the most part, divided into five areas: branding, fan experience (in and outside the arena), community engagement (things like getting the Sens players out into the community), traditional and digital marketing, as well as sales. At the same time, some days she finds herself on the ground, doing things like rolling player posters for an event. It’s all hands on deck, including Aimee’s, when something calls for it.
In 2019, Aimee’s major focus is on the Sens’ branding. Right now, she’s not convinced that there is one clear brand direction for the Sens… that if someone were to describe the Sens in three words, every single person would have a different descriptor. And, as a marketing guru (our words, not Aimee’s), she knows that needs to change. She’s working hard on answering the questions: “What is the brand identity and the brand personality of the Sens? And how does that transcend from the top of the organization to the day-to-day fan?”
Her Take on Women in the Hockey World
Aimee doesn’t have a hockey background and she often finds herself being one of the only women in the room. But, she doesn’t let this faze her. She “strongly believes that being a fan makes her incredibly qualified to deliver an experience to others.” Sound familiar, GISTers?
Unlike those that have grown their careers in the hockey world she has grown up a fan and totally gets all the emotion of the fan experience. She understands different fan profiles and what motivates them to go to a game. Her role is not in the management of a team or selecting players... her job is to help Ottawa fall in love with the team again.
To that end, Aimee thinks that sometimes we can get “caught up” in gender, or being the only woman in the room. Women working in sports isn’t a new or particularly novel phenomenon. At least on the business side, the industry is fairly progressive when it comes to hiring for knowledge and experience regardless of gender.
We should point out that of the eight directors that report to Aimee, four are women, and she’s hired three of those four since she’s been at the marketing helm. Outside of gender diversity, she thinks that all types of diversity - from race, to religion, to age or socioeconomic background - will lead to a stronger Sens organization (and any business). “Our organization should be reflective of the community we live in. Appealing to a diverse audience is the key to growing the fan base.”
Questions from our GISTers
We opened some interview questions up to our community of GISTfluencers (those that have three friends and more to our ) and they hit Aimee with some hard questions about the downtown arena, how you bounce back from trading a franchise player like Erik Karlsson and the Uber situation.
The Sens are one of only three teams in the NHL that don’t have an arena downtown and it’s been a serious point of contention for Sens fans. We’re happy to report some good news: the Sens are “committed and motivated to finding a solution to the downtown arena.” It’s a nuanced situation and there are a lot of factors at play, so it’s more of a five-year proposition.
In the meantime, Aimee says it’s her job to make the current arena experience the best thing possible for Sens fans AND to develop a team and brand personality that deserve a downtown arena. Aimee doesn’t think the Sens are quite there yet.
Uber Fiasco & Trading Karlsson
For Aimee, she explained that she has to focus on what she can control. Both trading Karlsson (which happened before Aimee started) and the Uber fiasco (click to see), were out of her control. However, she did say (and we totally agree) that the Uber thing was blown out of proportion. At the end of the day, it was a group of hockey players in a car talking about hockey. It’s great to see them engaged and talking about hockey. And yes, they smack-talked their coach, but to Aimee’s point, haven’t we all sh!t-talked our bosses at one time or another? Of course we have.
How to Engage New Fans
Instead of focusing on the stuff she can’t control or doing reconn, she’s focusing on the fans. The Sens have seen over 12% annual growth in seat sales for their casual fans, showing that she’s doing something right. She is determined to find a way to have people opt to go to a Sens game instead of going out to dinner, to a bar
Aimee and her team are also focusing on how they can engage all types of fans, including women and those new to Canada as well as younger fans. Her team is reevaluating how they leverage socials like Instagram and Snapchat and are looking into communicating with younger fans through messenger and SMS. For these new(er) fan groups, they’re finding ways for non-hockey players to grow into huge fans. As Aimee put it:
“I’ve never played a game of hockey in my entire life but I am a HUGE fan. We’re really trying to create that fandom and that tribe around hockey, which includes all types of fans.”
The Fun Stuff
To finish, we did a set of rapid fire questions with Aimee where she only had 10 seconds to answer each question. Here we go:
Ottawa O, classic “centurion” or something new?
Something new (potentially foreshadowing something to come, Sens fans!)
We know that you run a charity that improves access to essential vet care for pets of economically disadvantaged owners…and that the Sens are also training Rookie the guide dog... so this might be a hard hitting question: Cats or dogs?
You used to work in baseball… so do you think the Blue Jays will make the playoffs this year?
Yes (wishful thinking that we appreciate, but editor’s note: this is v unlikely)
Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes?
Shania Twain or Alessia Cara?
Do you think Ottawa will ever get a CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) team?
Who wins the Stanley Cup this year?
Tampa Bay Lightning
Aimee had nothing but great things to say, not only about the Tampa team, but also the organization. She gave kudos to the entire team and even admitted she’s got a career crush.
So Sens fans, as much as things might be bleak right now, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There are some fresh faces (including Aimee’s) that are committed to challenging the status quo and getting the organization back on its feet. Yes, there’s going to be a rebuild, but as the saying goes, patience grasshopper.
For those of you that aren’t Sens fans but are looking to get more into the sports or hockey industry, we think Aimee is a great inspiration. She’s taking something a lot of people would find a disadvantage - little experience in the sports world - and turning it into a massive positive. She’s embraced how being a true fan of the game actually helps her fully understand fans and provide the fans with what they’re looking for. That perspective in this “old man’s club” sports world is incredibly refreshing.
After news broke that the Toronto Raptors Training Centre was renamed to the OVO Athletic Centre on Thursday, The GIST had the opportunity to interview Raptors President, Masai Ujiri.
To give you some background, Ujiri’s been the Raps’ fearless and progressive leader since May 2013. Ujiri was born in Africa and moved to the U.S. to play college basketball. While Ujiri only played a couple years of pro in Europe, he’s excelled on the business side of sport. While he spent some time with the Denver Nuggets, the majority of Ujiri’s career has been in Toronto, first as assistant general manager, then general manager and now president. And, he’s the real deal. In 2013, he was named NBA Executive of the Year - the first non-American to receive the honour.
More importantly, he’s an activist. He founded Giants of Africa, a non-profit organization with a mission to use basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of the youth of Africa. On top of that he’s also been the director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa program which promotes basketball throughout the continent. And, he’s a big supporter of diversity, including the hiring and promoting of women within the Raptors organization.
So, let’s get into our conversation with Masai.
Ellen at The GIST (TG): Congratulations on everything today, some big and exciting news for you guys!
Masai Ujiri (MU): Thank you. Thank you.
TG: We know you’re a busy guy, especially today, so we wanted to ask you some questions about the new deal as well as jump into some other questions that we think our readers would be interested in.
MU: With these things, you talk about them for a long time. You know, you grind at them and you see where it takes you. With Drake, he’s always been a partner of the Raptors. What he does and who he is as person is something we feel tied to and the connection we have is everything.
I’m not too sure exactly how long it took us, but we [Drake, OVO and the Raptors] are always on the same page in terms of where we wanted to get and how we wanted to do this. It was really a natural fit.
Drake is big part of the Raptors family; he is our global ambassador and business partner. He’s a dynamic person that checks every box, which is what’s really cool and unique about Drake as a person.
TG: I’m not too sure how familiar you are with The GIST, but we’re a startup that is part of . We create sports content and experiences that are by women and for women as well as casual sports fans to fill the gap in the current sports media space. And basketball is really big with our audience. This is partly because basketball transcends beyond the court and into our culture through celebrity, politics, you name it. Creating a distinct and diverse culture is something the Raptors have done really well. What do you think has been the secret sauce that has created this culture?
MU: I’m not sure if there is a distinct secret sauce. It’s just the way life works for us. We treat every individual the same in terms of respect and we’re sensitive to everything that people go through. We’re blessed to be doing what what we’re doing. Sports is a blessing and sports bring people together. Altogether that’s what our culture is about. That’s how we see life. What the game has given to us, and what we can give to other people through the game.
Once you have those basic fundamentals, as a team, we’ll outsmart people, we’ll be innovative and creative thinkers, and really do all the things that are necessary to succeed and win.
We want to win on and off the court. This is just us trying to play a game that is beautiful to us.
TG: I’m sure you know this, but by the age of 14 girls drop out of organized sport at over twice the rate of boys. There’s a number of reasons causing this, but, what can the sport of basketball do and what are the Raptors doing to help change this so that women stay in sports?
MU: The first thing we’ve done is hired women. We’re in the forefront of putting women in great positions to be successful. We treat everyone the same and create parity in that regard. Young girls will see those women as role models and will hopefully participate in basketball as a sport as they grow up. As Raptors fans, as people that love the game, and as leaders, we need to create a platform for not only women but girls to strive and to achieve too.
TG: Why do you, yourself personally, think it’s important to have women in those roles both on the business side as well as player side of sports whether it’s coaching, player development and managing?
MU: Well, I think women are talented and women are good at what they do. Women are more caring, more thoughtful and more patient at everything. We’ve seen the positive effect of all the great women we’ve hired and how they continue to contribute to the success of our team.
TG: Alright Masai, we know you’re a busy guy so we have two fun questions to wrap things up: first, do you ever see a WNBA team coming to Toronto?
MU: That’s a tough question to answer. You know, sports is a business, and you dream of those kind of things so hopefully one day we see it happen. [Editor’s Note: He didn’t say no!]
TG: And lastly, what’s your favourite Drake song or lyric?
TG: We love both of those songs too. So, that wraps up everything. Thanks so much for your time today Masai and good luck with the playoffs! We hope we’ll be speaking to you sometime soon.
MU: Thank you too, appreciate it. This was fun!
🏀WNBA Toronto Bid - Courting Herstory
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.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!
⚽In the words of The Ashleys, “Scandalous!”
The GIST: In the ongoing saga of the US women’s national soccer team (USWNT) trying to prove their worth, the US Soccer Federation (USSF) is now saying they don’t have the same skills as the men. *insert eye-roll emoji here*
I’m sorry, what?!: Our thoughts exactly. As you may remember, the USWNT filed a lawsuit against the USSF last year, on the grounds of gender discrimination. The lawsuit argues that the women are paid significantly less while generating more revenue than the men. But now the USSF is arguing that women don’t deserve equal pay because their jobs don’t demand as much skill and they don’t have the same responsibilities as the men.
- We’re sorry, but are they trying to say that playing soccer is “less” of a job as a woman? And they’re right, the women don’t have the same responsibilities, they have more — the responsibility to win. Do we have to remind them that the women have won four FIFA World Cups and the men have won zero?
So what happens now?: The lawsuit will now go to a jury trial, where it will be decided whether or not the USSF violated the Equal Pay Act, and if so, whether the USWNT will receive back pay of up to $67 million. In the meantime, the team will continue to play.
- Just last night, the USWNT won the SheBelieves Cup, with a 3–1 win over Japan. Before the match, the women took a team picture with their jerseys turned inside out to hide the US Soccer logo. Spicy.
Any other scandals I should know about?: You mean, besides whatever TF happened on The Bachelor season finale? Yes. On Monday, 27 people were charged in a doping scheme that involved administering performance-enhancing drugs to racehorses. Horrible.
- Those charged include trainers and veterinarians. And get this: one of the affected horses is Maximum Security, who almost won last year’s Kentucky Derby and just won $10 million in the Saudi Cup. As if the world isn’t already enough of a dumpster fire, now we’re drugging horses?! If we could facepalm, we would (but we can’t, because, no face-touching!).