There’s been quite a bit of discourse resurfacing over the past few months surrounding equitable pay for WNBA athletes compared to their male NBA counterparts. Of course, the conversation of pay in women’s sports is one that oftentimes exposes more about gender bias than sparking an actual debate about the profitability of the respective leagues. And while by now it should be clear that contract restructuring in the WNBA is long overdue, trying to negotiate with the millionaire and billionaire franchise owners in the WNBA and NBA is a process that can quickly become mired in bureaucracy.
After all, there’s been a general consensus for years amongst fans, media, and athletes alike that women’s professional sports require increased support to create a more equitable future. But one former university athlete has decided not to wait idly while league executives debate over the merit of women’s sports. Instead, Nakissa Koomalsingh – also known as Keesa K. – is drawing her own playbook for the future of professional women’s basketball in Canada by launching Toronto-based HOOPQUEENS, the first paid women’s basketball league in the country.
As the founder of Toronto-based HOOPQUEENS, the first paid women’s basketball league in the country, Koomalsingh’s mission is simple: to change the narrative of women’s sports by creating her own league centred around inclusion and the development of young girls and women.
“Everyone needs this outlet. There’s no really safe space for girls to compete and play competitively with other girls,” says Koomalsingh.
Last year, our winter cover star, NHL analyst Meghan Chayka explained to me that she’d been approached by several teams to help guide their front-office decisions. She turned them down. Instead, Chayka built her own analytics company that now has teams returning for her insights, except this time, it’s on her own terms. The tagline for the story revealed itself just moments into the shoot.
“Meghan Chakya isn’t interested in running a franchise. She wants to own one.”
That was one of the first comments she made during our interview. Nakissa Koomalsingh shared that same unwavering belief when we spoke about HOOPQUEENS.
“What’s the saying? Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness,” she says. “That was my [rationale] behind the league. I didn’t want to wait for anyone else to build it. I looked around and there was such a gap in women’s athletics, not only in Canada but around the world. […] I didn’t want to wait for someone to give me permission. I knew that if we were going to do this and have a fair, equitable foundation, I needed to build it myself.”
A former collegiate player herself, Koomalsingh married her love of basketball with a business and finance degree from Nipissing University to conceive the league now known as HOOPQUEENS.
After an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury forced her to end her playing career prematurely, Koomalsingh took a step back to evaluate what she wanted to do post-graduation. Around that time, she started coaching with Canada Elite – a basketball league for girls aged 13 and 14 – and fell in love with the mentoring aspect.
“I didn’t see any young females, especially Black females, coaching, right? So, I thought, ‘Okay, when I’m older, and when I have kids, I’ll start coaching.’ But when I graduated, someone asked me to coach and I said, ‘No, […] it’s not a thing for young Black girls to coach,’” Koomalsingh explains. “But then they asked me again, and I was like, ‘Okay, fine, I’ll do it.’ And I loved it.”
Fast forward to 2023 and HOOPQUEENS has boomed into a lively summer league with four teams of seasoned players, as well as year-round programming for younger amateur players.
The league functions as a non-profit and receives funding from various organizations and donors, brands such as Canada Goose and Red Bull, as well as people within Koomalsingh’s network.
One of the most prominent sponsors of the league this year has been the family of the late William Young, a former beloved basketball coach.
After Young passed away in 2021, his daughter, Meghan Yuri Young, found a meaningful way for his legacy to live on: by donating his estate, a $20,000 fund called the William Young Growth Fund, to support the present and future of HOOPQUEENS.
It was an act of giving that continued to move Koomalsingh to this day.
“Meghan’s generosity changed not only my life and the potential for HOOPQUEENS, but is touching the lives of so many young women athletes. I can’t even imagine how proud her father would be,” says Koomalsingh. “The league has so much potential and our partnerships have been so promising, but we also rely on community support and people like Meghan to give us the stability to cement a proper foundation. Without her family, HOOPQUEENS wouldn’t be where it is today.”
While many of Canada’s top female athletes get recruited to play in the U.S., including 138 of the country’s female basketball players competing in the NCAA for the 2021-22 season, HOOPQUEENS is making it its mission to turn Canada into more of a women’s basketball hub.
As for the future of HOOPQUEENS, Koomalsingh hopes one day to have the funding and resources for a facility to have a physical space for her athletes, as well as take the league further than just Ontario and bring it across the nation.
“Our purpose is to change the landscape of basketball in Canada. You don’t have to go overseas, or you don’t have to go to America to get recognition or get exposure,” Koomalsingh said. “You know, our biggest thing is if we really want to have that recognition throughout the world. Canada has elite players here, and we want to be able to keep our homegrown athletes here. You know, honour [our] soil.”