Brittney Griner has a request. "Hot girl summer!" the Phoenix Mercury center shouts from the court as her team practices for the WNBA All-Star game. As if on cue, a DJ spins a playlist of the summer's hottest tracks, each written and performed by women. The lyrics that blare over the sound system unapologetically demand respect, money, and recognition for their success; fitting, considering we're at a showcase of the best basketball players in the game.
WNBA All-Star is exactly what it sounds like: an annual exhibition game in which the league's top players, selected via a voting system, face off on the court. This weekend, Team Delle Donne (named for team captain Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics) takes on Team Wilson (led by Las Vegas Aces star A'ja Wilson) in Las Vegas, and the mood at Friday practice is light and excited. Just down the hall at the WNBA All-Star Fan Fest, hundreds of passionate fans gather to share in the experience.
Among them is Minnesota Lynx fan Erica Mauter, who flew in from Minneapolis for the weekend with her sister, a WNBA convert as of five years ago. Mauter, 41, says she's been going to games since the team's launch in 1999 and has been a season ticket holder since 2003. From her perspective, WNBA fandom is growing.
"This weekend I'll be preaching to the choir here, but I do that at home, too," Mauter says of her excitement for the league. "You grow up in Minneapolis, everyone's a [baseball] fan, everyone's a [football] fan. They've grown up as fans their whole lives, and that is just now true of people that are Lynx fans."
Even with excitement for the league on the rise, the WNBA is still fighting to prove their worth in the face of many misogynistic assumptions about their gameplay: that it's slower and less exciting, or that the players are somehow less skilled than their male counterparts.
"The 'lack of athleticism,' the fact that it's 'not a good product,' that it's boring — anyone who says that, I'm like, 'You clearly haven't been to a game,'" says 36-year-old Chicago Sky fan Ricky Hill.
Hill brings up an interesting point about women's professional sports leagues, which is that players and fans are looking to grow the game at a pivotal time. The recent U.S. Women's World Cup win has put a much-needed spotlight on gender parity in women's sports, and female athletes are speaking out about inequality in topics ranging from travel accommodations to media attention. Game attendance may be reflective of these disparities (the average WNBA game turnout is lower than the male-equivalent league), but it may also be the key to the league's success, as players and dedicated fans strongly believe that simply showing up for the league could help change the narrative around the game and ensure the WNBA is taken seriously.
"We should never walk down the street and not be noticed," WNBA All-Star Courtney Vandersloot of the Chicago Sky says, and speaking from a fan perspective, Mauter agrees: "We need people with the money to stop thinking about spending on women's sports as charity and think about it as investing in a product the same way they invest in [men's leagues]," she says.
It's worth noting how many of the league's players are dedicated to showing up for what and who they believe in. They're deeply invested in their respective communities, passion projects, and advocacy initiatives, including Pride (the WNBA was the first pro sports league to participate), Black Lives Matter, reproductive rights, homelessness, and issues surrounding gun control and violence. Whether it's as individual players or a collective league, the women aren't solely invested in what's happening on the court; they're showing up and engaging in local and national fights for equality that affect all of us. So why aren't we showing up for them?
At WNBA All-Star, with more than 9,000 fans in attendance, it feels like a hopeful glimpse into the league's future. Hill is waving a sign reading "Pressure Makes Diamond" in support of Diamond DeShields of the Chicago Sky, and others in the crowd are waving around cut-outs of players' heads or wearing jerseys they're hoping to get autographed after the game. The All-Stars are also playing into the energy; Griner does some of her trademark dunking for the crowd, and Erica Wheeler of the Indiana Fever hits seven three-pointers, racking up 25 points for Team Wilson.
Wheeler's journey has been an emotional one that most WNBA fans know well: Her mother passed away while Wheeler was playing college basketball at Rutgers, and she went undrafted after graduation. An early stint with Atlanta didn't work out, but when the New York Liberty brought her on mid-season in 2015, she never stopped proving herself. Her goal for WNBA All-Star? Be unforgettable.
"I think people are inspired by my story, how I got here and me just being undrafted," Wheeler says. She's wearing a shirt with her own face on it, underneath the word "Undrafted." It's become her own personal tagline, and it seems to be working. "I think everybody respects that journey," she adds.
Stories like Wheeler's and her WNBA teammates' are not as widely known as those of players in men's leagues, which is something the WNBA is working to change. By giving fans access to players' origin stories, advocacy projects, and personal style, the league is building a crucial connection that goes beyond talking about the players' profession.
"This is my life," says Liz Cambage of the Las Vegas Aces. "I've been shamed for being more than an athlete a lot of the time. So I think it's great that the world's kind of changed, and people are accepting that athletes do more than just play their sport. It's very exciting."
That personal connection to the players is attracting more fans to the WNBA in 2019. Fans like Hill and Mauter say they've noticed a shift in the way the league has created more content this season, and it also helps that mainstream sports media has started to give the WNBA more coverage and, therefore, more exposure and legitimacy.
The players have noticed, too, and are happy to share more of themselves in order to bring more people to the game.
"I've been saying it for a really long time," Delle Donne says. "The way to get fans is to show the diverse players of the league, tell different stories. Fans can connect with different things different players are interested in."
Griner is a great example of Delle Donne's sentiment: As an avid fan of off-roading, she loves sharing her passion with her fans who frequently suggest places she could journey. "I think that's pretty cool to connect not only on basketball, but other things that we do outside of the arena," Griner says.
Immediately after WNBA All-Star, players returned to their respective teams to take on the second half of their season. Players and fans are joining forces to keep the enthusiasm going.
"The best thing I can say for those who do attend the games, for those who do support, is to bring a friend," DeShields says. "Bring one of those strangers to the W who may not have had that experience and let them get a feel for it and see for themselves."
Hill agrees. They say they recently brought a first-timer to a game, who remarked the experience was "better than wine."
"I love getting folks to games, and every time I get someone to go for the first time, they say 'I can't believe how much fun I'm having!'" Hill says. "My partner and I have rallied so many people to go to Sky games because it's an intergenerational experience, it's totally family-friendly, it's super queer-friendly — it's just one of those spaces you see all different shades of people," they say. "You don't get that with a lot of stuff, especially not a lot of sports."
Emily Mauter says she finds that the energy is different at WNBA games compared to other pro sports events.
"It's super positive," she says. "It's super exciting and there's just something that's really nice about people all being happy to enjoy the game. There isn't as much competitive, aggressive energy. People are just excited to be there and it's fun to be in that environment."
Back on the court after the final buzzer of the game, Wheeler is named the MVP. She and Team Wilson were the big winners of WNBA All-Star, defeating Team Delle Donne with a final score of 129 to 126 — but the bigger victory is in the continued celebration of female athletes. It's been a long fight already, but the movement for equality is just the beginning.
This post is sponsored by the WNBA.
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