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

More than 16,000 fans buzzed in Edmonton’s Rogers Place. Christine Monjer scanned the crowd before the Sparks’ preseason game against the Seattle Storm and saw couples on a date night, families with their kids, people who looked like former basketball players and others who appeared to have never played the game. All were lined up in a merchandise line that wrapped around the concourse.

The Sparks team president stood in awe.

“This isn’t the W from 10 years ago,” Monjer said, “this is just a brand new era for us, so we’re meeting the moment.”

The Sparks are hoping to surf the WNBA’s tidal wave of popularity to reignite an organization that has fallen from grace in the midst of a three-season playoff drought. The pivotal season reaches an early crest Friday as the Sparks host Caitlin Clark’s Indiana Fever at 7 p.m. at Arena in the star rookie’s only regular-season game in L.A. this year.

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

The Sparks made arrangements late last year with Long Beach State to play five games at the Pyramid due to a renovation project at Arena. But in the last month, the organization called to let officials know their plans had changed, first for the Fever game, then for the next two games after that, said Mike Habura, associate athletics director for facilities and event operations, who manages the Pyramid.

The team cited a need for increased capacity as the reason for the move, he said. Some renovations in Arena were postponed, Monjer said, which was partly why some games could return.

Ticket prices changed accordingly — according to Stubhub, the average price of tickets sold when the game was still at the Pyramid was $253. After the game changed venues, the price dropped to $192.

Seeing the high demand, Monjer still wanted to make a positive first impression on fans who could be attending their first WNBA game. The team president, who joined the Sparks in March after helping build the Las Vegas Aces into one of the most recognizable WNBA brands, capped the price for tickets bought directly from the team at $50 for the top level.

“More fans in the building, better for the W, better for the Sparks, better for everybody,” she said.

Not content to just get in the door, Carson Faulkner bought one ticket near the court for Friday’s marquee game for $200. The 21-year-old business student at Saddleback Community College attended his first Sparks game Tuesday, watching the team hold off the Washington Mystics in a two-point victory. His favorite player, Cameron Brink, made the game-clinching defensive stop.

Faulkner, wearing Brink’s gold Sparks jersey backward so her last name and No. 22 was across his chest, first heard about the 6-foot-4 forward while watching Golden State Warriors games, when announcers mentioned that NBA superstar Stephen Curry — Faulkner’s idol — was Brink’s godbrother. He then started following Brink’s career at Stanford, where she led the Cardinal to the 2021 national championship, was named an All-American three times and won two national defensive player of the year awards.

When he saw the Sparks had the second pick, the Orange County native knew the opportunity was perfect for his local team to grab his favorite player.

“Now I’m going to be a Sparks fan because of her,” said Faulkner, who draped his jersey over a railing at the Pyramid for an autograph as Brink walked off the court after warmups.

The most anticipated rookie class of the WNBA’s 28-year history has brought unprecedented interest in the league. The WNBA had a 14% increase in attendance during the first week of the regular season, according to the Associated Press, and boasted 10 sellouts along with historic TV ratings. An average 2.1 million viewers tuned in to Clark’s debut against the Connecticut Sun that was the most-watched WNBA game on ESPN.

The Sparks saw a 30% increase in season ticket sales compared to last year. The team led the league in attendance for three consecutive seasons before the pandemic, but has struggled to recapture the same enthusiasm as star players bolted in free agency during Derek Fisher’s failed tenure as a general manager and head coach.

In a front-office makeover, the Sparks split the head coach and general manager positions in 2022, signaling the franchise’s willingness to keep up with the fast-changing WNBA landscape. In his first year at the helm, coach Curt Miller led the Sparks to a 17-23 record in front of an average home crowd of 6,553, which ranked seventh in the WNBA.

“To me, the biggest hope was when they hired this particular coach,” said Susan Burden, a season ticket holder of more than 20 years, “because he’s a really good coach and we seemed to have been missing that.”

While she acknowledged that the team is in rebuilding mode, Burden was eager to follow the process as she attended both games in Long Beach. Attendance for the two games at the Pyramid reached 93% capacity.

Attention on the WNBA is at an all-time high, but the league wants to make sure it’s not fleeting. The process is similar to a funnel; the top is larger than it has ever been, said Ceyda Mumcu, chair of sport management department at the University of New Haven. But league executives will want to keep those fans moving down the funnel, where they could learn about more players and become repeat and reliable fans.

“It is about retention,” Mumcu said. “How do we keep those folks, how do we build that relationship, how do we build that fandom.”

The Sparks plan to win over fans is with a culture of hospitality at games.

At Tuesday’s game, Monjer was on the floor about 45 minutes before tipoff. She likes to get out among the fans early, get a sense of how full the arena is, how quickly entrance lines are flowing outside the venue and whether there are any bottlenecks. She paused near the courtside seats, picking up and re-straightening several neon green rally towels that had fallen off the chairs.

“Whether it’s your first game or your 100th game, we want to wow you every time,” she said during an earlier interview. “Those small details are in everything we do.”

But even the best efforts at hospitality sometimes fall flat. When the Sparks moved the Fever game back to Arena, it created headaches for fans who had already planned on attending the game in Long Beach.

Some fans complained that their reassigned seats in Arena were farther away than the ones they’d purchased for Long Beach. Monjer said seat misalignments typically happened when fans bought tickets on the secondary market and that all fans who purchased their tickets from the Sparks were “taken care of,” though she has still responded to every email about concerns.

“At the end of the day, you want to do what’s right for the team, right for the franchise and also for your fans,” she said.

Still wanting to maintain a connection with the Long Beach community, Monjer’s business team was mindful in keeping some games at the Pyramid. Long Beach resident Jessie Comer couldn’t resist the opportunity to see the team in his backyard.

He and his 12-year-old daughter, Maiya, were the first fans seated at the Pyramid before Tuesday’s game. Wanting to pick up a sport, Maiya started playing basketball two years ago on a whim. On the hardwood, the soccer-playing dual-sport athlete is a hard-nosed center who prides herself on physical defense like her favorite Sparks players Brink and Zia Cooke. When her father encouraged her to shoot some extra free throws, she used to say she was tired. Lately, she’s been more eager to get on the court.

“Now she wants to get out there because she sees these girls playing,” said Comer, who attended both of the games at the Pyramid. “It kind of motivates her.”

The Sparks have made a concerted effort to push their players into the public eye. Since getting drafted second and fourth overall, respectively, rookies Brink and Rickea Jackson have appeared on SportsCenter, rubbed elbows with Lakers greats in a suite at a Lakers playoff game and sat courtside with Sparks teammates Dearica Hamby and Kia Nurse at a Clippers playoff game. The night before Brink and Jackson played career-bests in minutes to help the Sparks hold off the Mystics, they threw out the first pitch at the Dodgers game.

“The L.A. fans are the best,” Brink said, “so just hoping to bring some of them to Crypto for our next game.”

Monjer credited Sparks director of public relations and communications Lauren Douglas with increased public appearances. Growing the team’s influence in the community is at the top of everyone’s mind in the organization, from the front office to the bench, where Miller has marveled at the way Brink and Jackson have balanced the transition to WNBA play while also handling their off-court opportunities with enthusiasm.

“They’re going to go represent us, which is so important to build our brand back up to what has been a long time: a championship [team] and the gold star for our league for so long,” Miller said Tuesday. “Those two are going to help bring that gold star back, that people are going to want to play in L.A., people are going to see what the Sparks are going to be again.”

Despite being in their new era, the Sparks are never too far from their old glory days. The team is one of just three original WNBA franchises remaining. As the franchise welcomes the wave of new fans, Monjer also wants to honor those who have stuck around through the back-to-back championships in 2001 and 2002, the arrival of Candace Parker and the former most valuable player’s departure, leaving the team in its current rebuild.

Being there for every up and down has been a thrill for Susan Burden and Jennifer Scott. They’ve already loyally supported the team with season tickets for more than 20 years, but seeing the WNBA “take a jump up” this season has been “really wonderful to see,” Burden said.

Even when Parker and former point guard Chelsea Gray bolted during free agency in 2021, Burden and Scott never wavered. After a particularly lean year, when the Sparks reached out about season ticket renewals during the spring, maybe the longtime fans jokingly wondered if they really wanted to sign up again.

“Now,” Burden said, “we’re really lucky that we bought tickets last spring.”

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top