As Caitlin Clark makes her L.A. debut, Sparks plan to win over the WNBA's latest followers

More than 16,000 followers buzzed in Edmonton’s Rogers Place. Christine Monjer scanned the group earlier than the Sparks’ preseason sport in opposition to the Seattle Storm and noticed {couples} on a date evening, households with their children, individuals who regarded like former basketball gamers and others who appeared to have by no means performed the sport. All had been lined up in a merchandise line that wrapped across the concourse.

The Sparks crew president stood in awe.

“This isn’t the W from 10 years in the past,” Monjer mentioned, “that is only a model new period for us, so we’re assembly the second.”

The Sparks are hoping to surf the WNBA’s tidal wave of recognition to reignite a company that has fallen from grace within the midst of a three-season playoff drought. The pivotal season reaches an early crest Friday because the Sparks host Caitlin Clark’s Indiana Fever at 7 p.m. at Arena within the star rookie’s solely regular-season sport in L.A. this yr.

The former Iowa star will obtain a grand welcome to L.A. as the sport was moved from the roughly 4,000-seat Walter Pyramid to the Sparks’ 18,000-seat downtown residence.

The Sparks made preparations late final yr with Long Beach State to play 5 video games on the Pyramid resulting from a renovation challenge at Arena. But within the final month, the group referred to as to let officers know their plans had modified, first for the Fever sport, then for the following two video games after that, mentioned Mike Habura, affiliate athletics director for amenities and occasion operations, who manages the Pyramid.

The crew cited a necessity for elevated capability as the explanation for the transfer, he mentioned. Some renovations in Arena had been postponed, Monjer mentioned, which was partly why some video games may return.

Ticket costs modified accordingly — based on Stubhub, the typical value of tickets offered when the sport was nonetheless on the Pyramid was $253. After the sport modified venues, the worth dropped to $192.

Seeing the excessive demand, Monjer nonetheless needed to make a optimistic first impression on followers who could possibly be attending their first WNBA sport. The crew president, who joined the Sparks in March after serving to construct the Las Vegas Aces into some of the recognizable WNBA manufacturers, capped the worth for tickets purchased instantly from the crew at $50 for the highest degree.

“More followers within the constructing, higher for the W, higher for the Sparks, higher for everyone,” she mentioned.

Not content material to only get within the door, Carson Faulkner purchased one ticket close to the courtroom for Friday’s marquee sport for $200. The 21-year-old enterprise pupil at Saddleback Community College attended his first Sparks sport Tuesday, watching the crew maintain off the Washington Mystics in a two-point victory. His favourite participant, Cameron Brink, made the game-clinching defensive cease.

Faulkner, carrying Brink’s gold Sparks jersey backward so her final identify and No. 22 was throughout his chest, first heard in regards to the 6-foot-4 ahead whereas watching Golden State Warriors video games, when announcers talked about that NBA celebrity Stephen Curry — Faulkner’s idol — was Brink’s godbrother. He then began following Brink’s profession at Stanford, the place she led the Cardinal to the 2021 nationwide championship, was named an All-American thrice and gained two nationwide defensive participant of the yr awards.

When he noticed the Sparks had the second choose, the Orange County native knew the chance was excellent for his native crew to seize his favourite participant.

“Now I’m going to be a Sparks fan due to her,” mentioned Faulkner, who draped his jersey over a railing on the Pyramid for an autograph as Brink walked off the courtroom after warmups.

The most anticipated rookie class of the WNBA’s 28-year historical past has introduced unprecedented curiosity within the league. The WNBA had a 14% enhance in attendance in the course of the first week of the common season, based on the Associated Press, and boasted 10 sellouts together with historic TV scores. An common 2.1 million viewers tuned in to Clark’s debut in opposition to the Connecticut Sun that was the most-watched WNBA sport on ESPN.

The Sparks noticed a 30% enhance in season ticket gross sales in comparison with final yr. The crew led the league in attendance for 3 consecutive seasons earlier than the pandemic, however has struggled to recapture the identical enthusiasm as star gamers bolted in free company throughout Derek Fisher’s failed tenure as a basic supervisor and head coach.

In a front-office makeover, the Sparks break up the top coach and basic supervisor positions in 2022, signaling the franchise’s willingness to maintain up with the fast-changing WNBA panorama. In his first yr on the helm, coach Curt Miller led the Sparks to a 17-23 report in entrance of a median residence crowd of 6,553, which ranked seventh within the WNBA.

“To me, the most important hope was after they employed this specific coach,” mentioned Susan Burden, a season ticket holder of greater than 20 years, “as a result of he’s a very good coach and we appeared to have been lacking that.”

While she acknowledged that the crew is in rebuilding mode, Burden was desperate to comply with the method as she attended each video games in Long Beach. Attendance for the 2 video games on the Pyramid reached 93% capability.

Attention on the WNBA is at an all-time excessive, however the league desires to ensure it’s not fleeting. The course of is much like a funnel; the highest is bigger than it has ever been, mentioned Ceyda Mumcu, chair of sport administration division on the University of New Haven. But league executives will need to maintain these followers shifting down the funnel, the place they may study extra gamers and turn out to be repeat and dependable followers.

“It is about retention,” Mumcu mentioned. “How can we maintain these of us, how can we construct that relationship, how can we construct that fandom.”

The Sparks plan to win over followers is with a tradition of hospitality at video games.

At Tuesday’s sport, Monjer was on the ground about 45 minutes earlier than tipoff. She likes to get out among the many followers early, get a way of how full the sector is, how rapidly entrance strains are flowing outdoors the venue and whether or not there are any bottlenecks. She paused close to the courtside seats, choosing up and re-straightening a number of neon inexperienced rally towels that had fallen off the chairs.

“Whether it’s your first sport or your a centesimal sport, we need to wow you each time,” she mentioned throughout an earlier interview. “Those small particulars are in all the pieces we do.”

But even one of the best efforts at hospitality typically fall flat. When the Sparks moved the Fever sport again to Arena, it created complications for followers who had already deliberate on attending the sport in Long Beach.

Some followers complained that their reassigned seats in Arena had been farther away than those they’d bought for Long Beach. Monjer mentioned seat misalignments usually occurred when followers purchased tickets on the secondary market and that every one followers who bought their tickets from the Sparks had been “taken care of,” although she has nonetheless responded to each electronic mail about issues.

“At the tip of the day, you need to do what’s proper for the crew, proper for the franchise and likewise to your followers,” she mentioned.

Still wanting to keep up a reference to the Long Beach group, Monjer’s enterprise crew was conscious in maintaining some video games on the Pyramid. Long Beach resident Jessie Comer couldn’t resist the chance to see the crew in his yard.

He and his 12-year-old daughter, Maiya, had been the primary followers seated on the Pyramid earlier than Tuesday’s sport. Wanting to choose up a sport, Maiya began enjoying basketball two years in the past on a whim. On the hardwood, the soccer-playing dual-sport athlete is a hard-nosed heart who prides herself on bodily protection like her favourite Sparks gamers Brink and Zia Cooke. When her father inspired her to shoot some additional free throws, she used to say she was drained. Lately, she’s been extra desperate to get on the courtroom.

“Now she desires to get on the market as a result of she sees these women enjoying,” mentioned Comer, who attended each of the video games on the Pyramid. “It form of motivates her.”

The Sparks have made a concerted effort to push their gamers into the general public eye. Since getting drafted second and fourth total, respectively, rookies Brink and Rickea Jackson have appeared on SportsCenter, rubbed elbows with Lakers greats in a collection at a Lakers playoff sport and sat courtside with Sparks teammates Dearica Hamby and Kia Nurse at a Clippers playoff sport. The evening earlier than Brink and Jackson performed career-bests in minutes to assist the Sparks maintain off the Mystics, they threw out the primary pitch on the Dodgers sport.

“The L.A. followers are one of the best,” Brink mentioned, “so simply hoping to convey a few of them to Crypto for our subsequent sport.”

Monjer credited Sparks director of public relations and communications Lauren Douglas with elevated public appearances. Growing the crew’s affect in the neighborhood is on the high of everybody’s thoughts within the group, from the entrance workplace to the bench, the place Miller has marveled on the approach Brink and Jackson have balanced the transition to WNBA play whereas additionally dealing with their off-court alternatives with enthusiasm.

“They’re going to go characterize us, which is so essential to construct our model again as much as what has been a very long time: a championship [team] and the gold star for our league for therefore lengthy,” Miller mentioned Tuesday. “Those two are going to assist convey that gold star again, that individuals are going to need to play in L.A., individuals are going to see what the Sparks are going to be once more.”

Despite being of their new period, the Sparks are by no means too removed from their outdated glory days. The crew is one among simply three unique WNBA franchises remaining. As the franchise welcomes the wave of latest followers, Monjer additionally desires to honor those that have caught round by means of the back-to-back championships in 2001 and 2002, the arrival of Candace Parker and the previous most precious participant’s departure, leaving the crew in its present rebuild.

Being there for each up and down has been a thrill for Susan Burden and Jennifer Scott. They’ve already loyally supported the crew with season tickets for greater than 20 years, however seeing the WNBA “take a leap up” this season has been “actually great to see,” Burden mentioned.

Even when Parker and former level guard Chelsea Gray bolted throughout free company in 2021, Burden and Scott by no means wavered. After a very lean yr, when the Sparks reached out about season ticket renewals in the course of the spring, possibly the longtime followers jokingly puzzled in the event that they actually needed to enroll once more.

“Now,” Burden mentioned, “we’re actually fortunate that we purchased tickets final spring.”

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