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In 22nd season, WNBA connects with fans more than in years past

Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker leads her team over the Minnesota Lynx. Afterward, she discusses the state of the WNBA. (Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — It’s 11 a.m. here at the Staples Center, and the Los Angeles Sparks are circled up at mid court. Coach Brian Agler is speaking to the team slowly and methodically. Tonight’s game is a big one.

The Sparks are facing off against the Minnesota Lynx, which is unequivocally the league’s biggest rivalry. All week, ESPN has been running ads featuring superstar players Maya Moore and Candace Parker, hoping to amass a large viewership.

And it will. The network will garner a large viewership because it has all year compared to years past.

As of July 31, the WNBA is having its most-watched season since 2015, with combined viewership up 35 percent. And, compared to last season, sales on the WNBA store website this year are up nearly 50 percent.

Agler will discuss this soon. He and others will discuss why this 22-year-old, 12-team professional sports league is connecting with fans more than ever. They will discuss how difficult it has been to get to this point and how much more room the league has left to grow. But first, Agler must finish the post-shootaround conversation with his team.

As he talks schedule for the day and strategy, Parker is listening but peering up at the rafters. She is peering up at the section of the arena where the banners hang, including the Lakers’ banners dating back to when the NBA only had 12 teams.

*****

During the 1967-68 NBA season, the year’s 22nd year in existence, this was indeed the case — 12 teams in 12 cities. The NBA’s attendance average was around the 6,000 mark that year.

Upon hearing this, Agler nods.

“Back in those days, [the NBA] would take two teams and go play eight consecutive nights in eight cities,” he then says. “Any kind of professional league that is trying to build goes through [challenges].”

For Agler, the challenge often revolves around getting people to the game. For the WNBA, the challenge relates to fandom for the league.

This year, growth is apparent thanks to exposure on social media, the development of star rookies like A’ja Wilson and increased competitiveness among teams. A long road of growth lies ahead, although this would be the case for any professional sports league 22 years in according to David Berri, an economics professor at Southern Utah University who for 20 years has researched the economics and gender issues around sports.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Berri says. “There’s no, ‘if I somehow do some social media campaign, voila! I will simply create billions of fans.’ No.”

Berri says through his research he has learned fan bases develop in part through history.

Twenty years into the NBA’s existence, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers had not played each other 12 times in the NBA Finals. Twenty years into the MLB’s existence, the Yankees had not played the Red Sox more than 2,000 times.

The WNBA also doesn’t have the benefits that college basketball does due to alumni of schools relating to the branding and the colors and the jerseys.

Simply put: With the WNBA, context is developing each season.

“People who don’t follow it go, ‘I don’t know what a Las Vegas Ace is,’” Berrie says. “Is it good? Is it bad? Is this game meaningful? What is the context here? Without that, the game means nothing.”

That is exactly why ESPN — which has a $25 million per season contract with the WNBA — is televising this game between the Lynx and the Sparks. The two teams that have competed against each other in the last two WNBA Finals.

They have history.

“I don’t want to be the Cleveland — and I mean this with all due respect — to the Golden State,” Parker says of her Sparks. “Golden State has rings. Cleveland has a ring. So, right now, [the rivalry] is great for the fans. But for us, we’re down. We haven’t won as many as they have, so that’s what drives us.”

*****

Seventy-five minutes before tipoff, Cheryl Reeve is standing on the Sparks’ logo at mid court and speaking to five reporters. She says this is the most reporters she has spoken to pregame and attributes that to the rivalry.

“We each bring out the best in one another,” Reeve says, “and sometimes the worst.”

On this night, as far as basketball quality goes, it is the former. Possessions into the game, with Dwyane Wade watching from the sideline, Maya Moore knifes into the lane and lays the ball in on the left side of the hoop. On the other end, Parker drills a 3-pointer from the left wing.

These two superstars have been essential to the league’s growth. Agler can attest.

“It’s a team game, but they sort of market the individual,” he says. “It’s different than football. You can see these people’s faces front and center and sort of in a two hour gap you see the drama unfolding in front of you. You see the emotions.”

Los Angeles leads 20-8 at the end of the first quarter, and the second stanza brings that emotion. Parker attacks the rim on a particular possession with in-game music playing and lays the ball up with her right hand. It rims out. She tips it again like she’s playing ping pong with the rim.

Ultimately, after another tip and miss, she fights for a ball and taps it out on the Lynx. When the referee rules Sparks ball, Parker yells: “Yeahhhhh!”

At halftime, the Sparks lead 40-29.

*****

When the third quarter begins, fans rise from their seats. They urge their team on — a majority of them kids. Berri says this is a very positive sign.

“If you can establish fandom [at a young age], that fandom will continue,” Berri says. “It’s like Pepsi and Coke. They advertise towards 10-year-olds. There’s no point in Pepsi or Coke advertising toward a 40-year-old because the 40-year-old either likes Coke or doesn’t like Coke.”

Parker needs water after a third quarter in which the Sparks were ahead 59-46. She is en route to scoring 23 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Her team is en route to a victory.

The Sparks win 79-57, and Parker high-fives teammates and the opposition afterward. She then retreats to the locker room, where she wraps her knees in ice and sits at her locker. There, Parker speaks about the importance of the win and what it means for the fans.

As the questions turn toward the league she has starred in for 11 years, she smiles and brings up her 9-year-old daughter, Lailaa Nicole Williams.

“It’s going to take time for the game to grow and for women’s sports to grow,” Parker says. “My daughter is in a generation where she’s not going to have to hear, ‘You play like a girl.’ And if she hears it, she’s probably not going to take offense to it because she’s not going to know what it means.

“I think we’re growing up in a time now where … We’re getting there.”

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