By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
Amid a sea of red jerseys, Astou Ndour pulled down a missed shot and flipped the ball to Courtney Vandersloot. The crowd came to their feet and roared as Vandersloot looked to dribble out the clock, but Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault shouted for his team to foul, and Elena Delle Donne grabbed Vandersloot with six seconds remaining to stop the clock.
As the Chicago Sky point guard walked to the free throw line, she turned to the buzzing stands and waved her arms up and down, up and down, up and down, imploring the Wintrust Arena crowd to stand up. They obliged, serenading Vandersloot with chants of “MVP! MVP!”
The fact that Washington was atop the WNBA standings sweetened things, as did defeating former Sky superstar Elena Delle Donne for the first time since she was traded to the Mystics. Still, the emotion Vandersloot displayed in those final seconds wasn’t solely driven by ending Chicago’s nine-game losing streak against Washington, as evidenced by her quip of “What losing streak?” in the postgame press conference. It wasn’t elation over clinching the team’s first playoff berth since 2016, either.
No, the moment was a clear gesture to the Sky’s dedicated fan base. Vandersloot has known no other team in her nine years in the WNBA, and it was hard not to feel the catharsis from player and fan base alike in that moment.
An Approaching Crossroads
Minnesota Lynx coach and GM Cheryl Reeve pulled off an absolute magic act in getting her team back to the playoffs, despite Maya Moore’s sabbatical, Lindsay Whalen’s retirement and the absence of Seimone Augustus for most of the season. Ordinarily, that would be enough to garner Reeve Coach of the Year honors, but rookie head coach James Wade took essentially the same Chicago Sky team that finished 13-21 in 2018 and led them to their first winning record and postseason appearance in three years. Vandersloot herself has been the center of an erstwhile MVP campaign in recent weeks.
The WNBA also announced a “brand relaunch” designed to engender the league to fans, and the returns have been pretty positive so far. The redesign included a new logo, social media expansion and more merchandise, a particular point of emphasis for fans. The league also signed a partnership with CBS Sports to broadcast 40 regular-season games in addition to their current TV deal with ESPN/ABC. This meant that 54 of 204 games were available nationally, with the remainder shown on local television stations, NBA TV, and some games that were aired live via Twitter.
After former Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert officially stepped into her role as league commissioner in July, she announced fan engagement, player experience and economics as her main focal points. At her introductory press conference, she said “if we work on those from a league perspective, and in working with the owners of the teams and the players, I think a lot of the other things that people complain about will be solved.” To that end, Engelbert embarked on a tour to all 12 home arenas in the league, stopping in Chicago last week. In a podcast interview with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Annie Costabile and Madeline Kenney, Engelbert reiterated her commitment to reaching fans and how the brand relaunch and increased social media output have worked toward that goal.
“We need more people exposed to our game year round, and one of the ways to do that is in digital type of media, and use social media,” she said. “Part of the brand reset that happened right before I started was exactly that, to try to attract and drive a coolness factor among a broader set of the fan base.”
It’s difficult to gauge how strong that fan engagement has been in comparison to recent seasons. Average attendance per game last season was just over 7,500, the lowest in league history. Part of that drop was due to the New York Liberty moving their home games from Madison Square Garden to Westchester County Center, but on average, every team brought in fewer fans except Dallas, Phoenix and Seattle. A recent article affirmed that the Las Vegas Aces were showing lower announced attendance than last season, despite their championship ambitions. On the other hand, TV viewership was up in the first half of 2018 and that trend continued this year: the first three games broadcast on ESPN this season averaged 413,000 viewers, a 64% increase from 2018. The fact that people are watching even without longstanding household names is indicative of the W’s staying power.
The Sky are far from immune to the issues facing the WNBA at large, particularly with regard to stability and success. In the fourteen seasons since 2006, the team’s first season, the Sky have had six coaches and three home arenas. This year will be only the fourth winning season and fifth postseason berth in team history.
Sky ticket sales have not reached the level of traditional powerhouses like the Los Angeles Sparks or Phoenix Mercury, but attendance has risen as the team has become more competitive in recent years. Average attendance has increased nearly every season since they began and the average number of tickets sold only dropped about seven percent from 2017 to 2018, compared to 12 percent league wide. This year, Chicago averaged 6,749 fans for their 17 home games, only about 300 fans less than their high water mark set in 2016 (not coincidentally their last playoff season).
Attendance only tells part of the story for the Sky, however. Their fans embody the diversity of the league at large and connect with the team on a level that surpasses the team’s play. The WNBA are the only North American professional sports league to have a majority or near-majority of women and people of color at the executive level, both for the teams and at the league office. There are Twitter accounts maintained by fans from Brazil and France, and one young lady from France, whose handle is @Quigslootplay in honor of her favorite players, met Quigley and Wade at a home game this season.
The international enclaves of supporters are not limited to the Sky alone. Nearly every WNBA team has accounts maintained from Brazil or France, and the Seattle Storm, not surprisingly, have a Japanese fan club on Twitter. The does not take away from the fervency with which the Sky’s overseas fans support their club.
Sky fans have followed the team from the former UIC Pavilion (now Credit Union 1 Arena) to Allstate Arena in Rosemont, and back to Chicago and Wintrust Arena. The new stadium’s centralized location, only two miles from downtown and two blocks away from a CTA line, allows fans much easier travel to and from games. Sky players understand what the move has meant to the team’s fortunes and are glad to be playing within the city limits.
“I think moving from Allstate to downtown and Wintrust has been the best move that we made, and our fans followed us,” said Dolson after the Sky’s 105-78 win over the Phoenix Mercury on Fan Appreciation Day. Cheyenne Parker agreed, saying that she likes playing at Wintrust more and that the fan base has been key to the team this season.
The fans across the league not only represent their teams, they don’t seem to have an issue with the squabbling or trolling that takes place in the social media spheres of other sports. After Parker and Liz Cambage of the Las Vegas Aces had a minor scuffle during a game earlier this season, Sky guard Allie Quigley took to Twitter to defend her teammates and call out Cambage for her conduct on the court and also referenced her recent column in The Players Tribune. Sky fan Ricky Hill (@PrettyRickyRoo) voiced their support for both Parker and Dolson and got into a long discussion with a Cambage fan.
Rather than lobbing insults at each other, Hill and other Cambage fans rationally discussed what had occurred and came to a consensus: it shouldn’t have carried on and both Quigley and Cambage were in the wrong in some way. (There was even a part of the thread that ended with the promise of hugs, but that seems to have disappeared.)
Nevertheless, the thread showed both how dedicated WNBA fans are to their favorite players and teams, and the compassion they have for one another. As Hill put it, “Twitter doesn’t have to be so mean!”
What The Future Holds
After the win over Phoenix, the final home game of the season, Hill and other Sky fans congregated at the Marriott hotel a few steps away from the arena. They had been trying to coordinate a Sky fans meetup for most of the year. Talk at the table did not solely center on basketball, but it was clear how much the fans had connected with the players and with each other. Season ticket holder Danya Rosen had attended an event for season ticket holders the day before at Arlington Racecourse and precisely articulated that bond.
“That’s part of what I love about the W. It’s so much more accessible and the fan experience is so much richer,” Rosen said. “I’ve met the players multiple times; Cheyenne Parker always remembers me. She also talked to Dolson about the bruises she’s sustained over a season of battling with Cambage and other centers, which only served to deepen the bond between player and fan.
Chicago’s 109-104 overtime win against the Connecticut Sun was another signal for any remaining doubters that they will be a difficult out in the playoffs. Diamond DeShields registered her first 30 point effort as a pro and reached 1,000 points in her young career. Courtney Vandersloot picked up her ninth double-double of the season, finishing with 15 points and 11 assists. Astou Ndour, who has filled in so ably for Jantel Lavender, scored 12 of her 16 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. With the win, the Sky moved into a tie with Las Vegas for fourth place. If the Aces lose to Phoenix Sunday and the Sky beat Washington, Chicago will secure a first round bye.
Nevertheless, the road to perennial contention and economic success will not be easy for them. They still have to put it all together, both in these playoffs and in the near future. Likewise, the attendance numbers and upcoming labor negotiations will most likely determine the future solvency of the WNBA. However, both the Sky and the W have proven themselves resilient, and fans are more than willing to follow them to their next chapter.
Chris Pennant covers professional basketball for WARR Media