The Significance of the 2011 WNBA All-Star Game
Most important in WNBA history?
SAN ANTONIO, TX — The 2011 WNBA All-Star game was so much more than just the best players in 2011 playing against each other; it was a celebration.
But the honorees weren’t necessarily this year’s All-Stars; the entire weekend was a symbolic, appreciative nod to all the women who have played in the WNBA over the past 15 years. After all, we’re talking about a league that few expected would be celebrating a five-year anniversary, much less 15.
More than the game itself, the weekend (capped off by unveiling the top 15 players of all-time) was an homage to women’s sports in general.
Prior to the festivities on Saturday, WNBA president Laurel Richie spoke to the media about the state of the WNBA. The short of it? Attendance is up, renewals are up, and sponsorships are up.
“It’s [attendance] been up for the last four years,” said Richie. “We’re on track for it to be up again this year. The average attendance per game is up six percent. Gate receipts are up three percent. Renewals are at an all-time high, up 35 percent. Our partners are really engaged. Sponsorships are up 25 percent this year. I think most of you know five teams have marquee partners.”
Almost 13,000 people attended the game in San Antonio, one of the largest crowds for a WNBA All-Star game ever. Thousands of people were lined up outside the AT&T Center hours before the game in hopes of getting an early autograph or just to get to their seats as soon as possible.
But Richie’s most poignant statement dealt less with facts and figures and more with the on-court play.
“It’s shifting the dialogue from, ‘Isn’t it interesting they’re here,’ to, ‘Oh, my gosh, look what they’re doing.’”
That’s precisely what’s happening. Sure, there are some who haven’t (and will never) watch a WNBA game but the number of people who have been surprised at how phenomenal these players are is telling. Just looking at people’s comments on Twitter or even from NBA players themselves, it’s clear the WNBA turned some heads this weekend.
Part of that is because, due to the NBA lockout, the WNBA is the hottest ticket in town. Coverage of WNBA All-Star weekend from NBA TV was fantastic; from in-depth interviews to on-point analysis, you could tell they took it seriously.
That’s all the WNBA has ever wanted.
Looking at the future, it’s hard to ignore or overlook the momentum the league has managed to generate over the past few years. Honoring the WNBA’s top 15 players signaled a passing of the torch, so to speak, to a new crop of young women who are better prepared than ever to take the league to new levels.
“It’s such an honor to be on that list when you look at the names,” said Seattle Storm guard, and perennial All-Star, Sue Bird. “I was young when the WNBA started, at the end of my high school career. I watched them on TV and watched them in the Olympics. It shows where the league is going. It really is headed in the right direction. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of these women make a future Top 15 or Top 20 list. I think we all want there to be a successful women’s basketball league in the United States. When we play, it’s for the love of the game. It’s because we enjoy it. It’s because it’s the best competition. But in a lot of ways you want this league to succeed whether you’re named Top 15 or not. I know a lot of us feel that way.”
Most importantly, on the court, the players certainly didn’t disappoint. The game invoked a plethora of oohs and ahhs (such as Angel McCoughtry’s pass off the backboard to herself for a lay-in) and showcased the players’ ability to put the ball in the basket. The 2011 All-Star game set a record for highest combined field-goal percentage at 49.5 percent (92-186) and featured the most points scored in a first half for the East (65), West (66), and both teams (131). The East eventually won 118-113 and Swin Cash’s 21 points and 12 rebounds led to her being crowned MVP, the first time ever for a member of the losing team.
This year’s All-Star game will likely go down as one of the best ever – as will the 2011 WNBA Playoffs and Finals. The word that continues to come up is momentum; the league manages to create a considerable amount each season only to have 95 percent of their players head overseas for the next eight months.
Finding a remedy for this (i.e. money) is one of Laurel Richie’s focal points.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that despite the length of our season and our compensation package we are still able to attract the best in breed in women’s basketball,” Richie said. “I would love a world where players who feel they have to go somewhere else to supplement don’t feel that. We’re not there yet. It’s probably going to take longer than I think it should and they think it should to get there. But in the meantime, we’re going to do all we can to get us there and to make their experience while they’re here one that they want to come back to.”
Getting them to “come back” can also be applied to the WNBA’s fan-base. While the league’s die-hards are some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated fans of any sports league, the key is to find a way to appeal to new fans (in the right way) in order for the league to be 100 percent self-sustaining.
If you’re a casual or new fan, and you watched the 2011 All-Star game, I’d find it extremely hard to believe you wouldn’t come back.
And that is the most significant takeaway the WNBA could ever ask for.