“LLLLLLLOUDER!” yells Chicago Sky in-game host Shaun Redwell, drawing out the “L” for several seconds. The crowd yells as a short man with an old-timey handlebar mustache runs around the court brandishing a rolled-up free T-shirt and teasing different sections of the arena with it. The Jumbotron camera zooms in on his face and he stares into the lens, eyeballs bulging out of his sockets. Mustache Man is a fixture at Sky games, a member of the team’s hype crew. He deserves a raise for the absurd amount of energy and antics he brings to every game.
A few feet away, the Connecticut Sun are done huddling up during this fourth-period timeout, and all five players stand in a line with their hands on their hips, staring at this strange scene. Their faces suggest confusion, or boredom, or both. I don’t know what is happening here and I don’t care.
I know what is happening here. Candace Parker and Courtney Vandersloot are already on the bench because the Sky have a comfortable lead and are on their way to tying up this semifinal series in their quest to “Recrown Skytown.” Three older people in matching sky-blue tracksuits dance and wave their rally towels from the first row of the stands.
I haven’t been a Sky fan for very long. I started going to games last August, just before the team made the playoffs as a No. 6 seed with a 16-16 record, and then surprised everybody by winning the WNBA Finals at home in October. It was a convenient and thrilling time to become a new Sky fan.
As an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times in 2013, I covered a couple Sky games and wrote a few game previews. I interviewed players and coaches. At the time, they played in an arena way out in the suburbs. Now they play in a much better location for city-dwellers: just past the south loop in McCormick Square. In 2013, the Sky had just drafted Elena Delle-Donne, a bona fide star, who went on to be WNBA rookie of the year and led the team to their first playoff appearance. But I don’t remember much about being at those games. I know I didn’t come away from covering the team feeling excited or energized about the league, because it took me nine more years to tune back in to the WNBA.
The Sky lost the first game I attended, but I felt right at home with my friends in the 200-level sideline seats. The game was close, a back-and-forth contest until the end. Allie Quigley sank seven three-point shots and led the Sky with 27 points; the view from the second level in the 10,000-seat arena was great; the fans were all friendly, and after spending most of my time covering the NFL, it was refreshing to be in a sports environment that was not full of mostly men. My friends and I ate dinner in Chinatown before the game, then walked over to the arena. It was a perfect summer night.
Since going to my first game last August, I’ve made it my personal mission to expose as many of my friends to the WNBA as possible. I organized a group of 18 friends and brought them all with me to Game 3 of the 2021 WNBA Finals. This year, I took a group of 17 to a game in July for my birthday (it was supposed to be 19, in order to set a new personal record, but two people bailed at the last minute). I took my dad to a game (he loved it but had notes about the music being unoriginal). I now have a guy in the ticket office. On the dating app Hinge, I chose the prompt: “GREEN FLAG” and wrote “Likes the WNBA.” So far it’s been a very helpful screening device.
At the first game I went to late in the 2021 regular season, we nearly had our section to ourselves. Attendance was just 38 percent. A month later, for a single-elimination playoff game, the arena was only 45 percent full. But this past season has looked and felt different. At a regular season game against The Dream in July, with no special circumstances attached to it, attendance was 68 percent. Our section is getting crowded (My 16 friends and I were .24 percent of that total). On Wednesday night, I asked around and the two groups sitting closest to me just started going to games this season.
Winning a championship will obviously help with drawing a crowd, and so does the ascendant quality of the league. I’ve seen Sue Bird in her last season and the insane wonder that is Breanna Stewart (she dominated the Sky and I hated it). I’ve seen Diana Taurasi get pissed at the refs. I’ve seen Aces owner Mark Davis sitting courtside and grinning ear-to-ear (I must admit that I appreciate his child-like joy for the WNBA). I’ve seen a healthy Parker play some of her best basketball this season. I’ve seen Vandersloot throw a no-look pass to her wife and teammate, Quigley. I’ve seen Kahleah Copper finish at the rim in more ways that I knew were possible.
My interest in the Sky didn’t stick the first time around, but this time I know it will. The improbable 2021 title run endeared this team to me, and I now have a group chat dedicated to the Sky, with friends who are just as interested, and an established routine of going to games. I own two shirts and one of the iconic WNBA orange logo hats.
As with most women’s sports leagues, there remains an exhausting discourse about viewership, ticket sales, and financial viability swirling around the WNBA. There’s no better place to tune all of that out than in the stands of a Sky game. The game-day environment is good, the team is even better, and the games are actually played where people live. There’s no simpler recipe for cultivating new fans. Just ask me and my 18 friends.