On the streets of Schio, a manufacturing town on the Leogra River in northern Italy, Canadian basketball star Natalie Achonwa is arguably as famous as she is in any major city in her homeland.
The six-year WNBA veteran and fixture with the women’s national team is on a professional contract with Schio during the WNBA offseason, and fans can easily pick her out of a crowd.
“Anywhere I walk in the city … people know who I am,” said Achonwa, who grew up in Guelph, Ont., and is expected to play a leadership role with Canada at the Tokyo Olympics.
“You have a local buy-in, a local commitment from businesses, from the community,” she said. “It’s an overall family feel.”
Schio is in some ways a model franchise in professional women’s basketball, and a template some hope would be replicated in Canada.
The team is supported by the Famila supermarket chain and draws major talent from around the world, including WNBA players looking to supplement their salaries with often-lucrative overseas contracts.
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“Most of us go overseas to make a living,” said Achonwa, who signed with the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx this winter and has also played professionally in France, China and South Korea.
“But if you could do your job at a high level and get paid to do it at home, I couldn’t see a negative in that.”
Achonwa is one of several members of Canada’s basketball elite making the case for a women’s professional development league here, similar to the men’s Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL).
The CEBL is primarily made up of players from U Sports — the Canadian university league — as well as Canadians who played college basketball in the U.S. and professionally in the G League. A few former NBA players have also signed with CEBL teams.
U Sports players can sign offseason development contracts with the CEBL without sacrificing their college eligibility, and the league has been a magnet for former players wanting to play close to home.
Roles models important for women’s sports
“I think [a women’s pro league] would be very valuable and very impactful for the whole sport community,” said Glen Grunwald, president and CEO of Canada Basketball. “Although we’re well represented in the WNBA, if we had those role models, and that inspiration and that sort of reality that it can be done, it would be very important for the sport and for women’s sport in general.”
Women’s pro leagues in Europe and Australia are, in some cases, integral parts of their communities. Some play in packed arenas and many are able to pay big-name players significantly more than they make in the WNBA.
The average WNBA salary increased to $130,000 US under a new collective bargaining agreement signed last year, but WNBA players have been chronically underpaid for decades.
Under the previous agreement, salaries were so small that Diana Taurasi, arguably the greatest women’s player of all time, skipped the 2015 WNBA season to rest up for a season in Russia that reportedly paid her nearly $1.5 million.
In comparison, the average salary in the NBA is $7.9 million, and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors is the league’s highest-paid player at more than $43 million this season.
The WNBA has yet to find the massive audiences the NBA has enjoyed, but WNBA viewership grew by 68 per cent in 2020, and some observers see that as proof Canada could support a women’s league of its own.
“I think it can be done, but obviously there’ll be challenges,” Grunwald said. “If we get the right corporate partners behind it, it would be a tremendous benefit for our community and rewarding for all involved.”
Though massive audiences are always preferred, they might not be necessary to run a viable league. Denise Dignard, director of women’s high performance for Canada Basketball, pointed to several other business models that don’t rely as heavily on TV contracts and ticket sales.
In Japan, major corporations sponsor women’s teams and keep players on salary, she said. Some European municipalities offer access to training facilities and playing venues free of charge.
“It’s not just the audience and the fans, it’s the will of individuals,” said Dignard, a point guard at Bishop’s University in the 1970s and ’80s who also played professionally in France and Switzerland.
“Yes, there would be a challenge, but there’s certainly ways where you can get it kick started.”
Dignard pointed to Australia, where corporate and community support, along with broadcast arrangements, have built a successful pro league that also attracts WNBA stars.
“I really feel in Australia that sport matters,” Dignard said. “Despite the big geographic landscape that they do have, they’ve overcome that.”
The CEBL has been a bridge and a lifeline for several Canadian men’s players, but women who play at Canadian universities often see their careers end at graduation.
Some, like University of Saskatchewan standout Laura Dally, play overseas. But most transition to coaching or jobs outside of basketball. Dally, a former national champion who played one season in Germany, retired in 2017 and now runs a basketball training service in Saskatoon.
“For young girls, being able to go out on a weekend and watch professional women play in Canada will develop the game in our country so much more than it already is,” Dally said. “I think it’d be amazing.”
Hopes for Canadian WNBA franchise
Tasia McKenna, a three-time OUA all-star at Lakehead University, turned down a chance to play professionally in Germany and became a coach. She is also commissioner of the new Maritime Women’s Basketball Association (MWBA), an elite amateur league.
“There’s so many great players that selfishly, as spectators, we want to see them keep playing,” she said, noting many athletes don’t enter their prime until their mid-to-late 20s.
“When you see the fifth and final year [of university] wrap up, you’re like, ‘You know, that player was really just getting into her groove of being a great basketball player, and all of a sudden it stopped.’ “
As for Achonwa, the dream of playing professionally in Canada looms large, either in an independent women’s league or with a future WNBA franchise.
“We need something to happen in Canada,” she said. “I don’t know, man. That would be the stars aligning.”