She got game: Phoenix Mercury, Chicago Sky showcase growth of league in WNBA Finals

Fans at Phoenix Mercury games have been fully engaged, and that’s good news for the WNBA. (Photo by James Franks/Cronkite News)

CHICAGO — From the moment the ball was tipped at Wintrust Arena for Game 3 of the WNBA Finals, a sold out crowd was fully engaged.

After almost every Chicago Sky basket, arms shot up like cannons launched. Roars of triumph could be heard, from the first 3-pointer to the dagger three that helped the team take a 2-1 series lead over the Phoenix Mercury.

It’s been that kind of series. And that’s good news for the WNBA.

When Phoenix and Chicago last met in the Finals in 2014, television ratings skyrocketed 91% from the previous year, ESPN reported.

The current meeting of these franchises reflects a similar result. The overtime thriller Wednesday in Phoenix became the most-viewed Game 2 since the 2003 Finals peaking at an audience of one million.

Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said she is amazed how much the league has grown. Brondello has been around the league as both a player and coach since 1998, a year after its inception.

“We’ve got a really great product and it’s great that people are watching,” Brondello said. “Getting on TV, I think, that’s part and parcel, it goes hand in hand.”

Both Game 1 and 2 were showcased on ABC and ESPN, as opposed to the third game, which was bumped to ESPN2 for the NBA preseason.

WNBA Finals attendance has also been high. Game 2 at the Footprint Center attracted 13,685 fans, the highest in a season in which turnout was below average before the playoffs. Wintrust Arena holds just 10,387, but eager fans flocked to get in the building.

Before Game 3, Sky forward Candace Parker heard the game was sold out, but she had to see it with her own eyes.

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Parker scoured for tickets on the main website, but couldn’t find any. She then turned to the secondary ticket market.

“The resale value was amazing,” Parker said. Friday before the game, the cheapest ticket on Ticketmaster was $233.62.

“I think it’s great for our fans, it’s great for the city of Chicago and it’s great for the WNBA for that to happen.”

Another turning point happened in Game 2 when the Suns and Mercury played their second doubleheader, with the Mercury logo on the court for the men’s game.

“The NBA played on our court, they played on the WNBA court for preseason games. I think that just says a lot where the league is and the way the league is going,” Parker said.

After the Suns’ win against the Portland Trailblazers, players from both teams stayed to watch the Finals match. Often, NBA players stoically watch courtside, but in Game 2 the Suns were invested.

If a referee made a controversial call, players popped out of seats in disagreement. Jae Crowder lost himself in the atmosphere doing the “tootsie-roll” dance, only stopping when teammates pointed to the video board that exposed Crowder. He quickly sat down mid-dance, sheepishly peering up at the crowd.

Even Devin Booker had a viral moment using a vintage camera, capturing Skylar Diggins-Smith’s back-breaking shot in the final seconds of overtime.

“I think we should support each other because in the end it’s basketball, men and women,” Brondello said.

Brondello also noted the support from Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver and the players. Support that was prominent last season when NBA players increasingly wore WNBA merchandise.

In a sea of fans at Wintrust, that WNBA orange hoodie stood out like a fluorescent safety vest. Many in attendance sported the trendy sweatshirt stamped with the league’s logo, symbolizing the league’s recent popularity uptick.

Mercury president Vince Kozar said the orange hoodie is just one factor in this season’s exponential development. Another was the progress that stemmed from players and coaches speaking up on racism and social justice.

“There’s never been a better time to be involved with the WNBA,” Kozar said. “Seeing the value of diversity, equity and inclusion, supporting women athletes and women’s sports, this is that moment.”

Engagement from merchandise to social media has erupted, Kozar said.

That was on full display in this series following a heated moment between emerging Sky star Kahleah Copper and Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham, who were fighting over a loose ball in Game 2. A photo of the exchange caught fire on social media.

Memes were posted on Twitter. T-shirts were made. A rivalry was born.

In a press conference before the Finals, WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert stressed the importance of rivalries to spark fan interest.

When Game 3 moved to Chicago, Sky fans were well aware of the contention. Fans booed Cunningham and rocked the building when Copper scored an and-one, falling to hardwood brought down by none other than Cunningham.

As the WNBA celebrates its 25th season, the Mercury and Sky will cap it off, building momentum in the process.

“We’ve got not just great players but great people with great stories as well,” Brondello said. “I’m excited about what the future will hold.”

Amna Subhan(she/her)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Amna Subhan expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Subhan, who has interned at The Arizona Republic and the Southern California Newsgroup, is working in the Phoenix Sports Bureau.