WNBA announces big changes to the All-Star Game, but familiar fan frustrations linger

It was an All-Star weekend set up primarily around the two players with the least amount of basketball ahead of them, a celebration of the past, the careers of Sylvia Fowles and Sue Bird – two gaming giants who heralded this season is their last.

From the flowers given to them all weekend (including literally after the first quarter of the All-Star Game) to the final ceremonial starts in the fourth quarter, there was a sense of transition. As the league’s top rebounder and assistant said goodbye to the game, Sunday also continued to usher in the younger generation: Kelsey Plum, 27, was named MVP and rookie Rhyne Howard had his moments; Bird praised Arike Ogunbowale, 25, and jokingly berated Sabrina Ionescu, 24, for hitting too many 3s late in the game.

And just like the theme of the game in Chicago, the weekend was emblematic of the changes felt by the league. All-Star weekend brought clear plans for a future that builds on the foundations laid over the past 26 seasons.

The league schedule will expand to 40 games next season, commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced ahead of the game. (That’s up from her all-time high of 36 this season.) She also committed to charter flights to the 2022 WNBA Finals and revealed the league’s postseason bonus pool would be doubled to nearly half a million dollars this year.

All of these changes point to the economic transformation that Engelbert has been preaching about since taking over as commissioner in 2019. The changes are part of the progress made by players like Fowles and Bird, whose legacies will be tied to this era. of the league.

Extending the regular season to 40 games adds another 24 games to the total, which means 24 more opportunities for nationally broadcast games, 24 more opportunities for fans to see their teams, and more money coming in. the league. Chartering flights is a necessary step to improve the product in the field. Gamers, for years, have been very honest and critical about the difficulties of commercial travel: not being able to travel first class and dealing with layovers, fast turnarounds and delays that naturally hurt their bodies and , in turn, what they can do on the floor. Ahead of the All-Star Game, Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon said the trip was a “glaring” issue that needed to be addressed because it “affects the product.” The increased post-season bonus pool is adding to players’ salaries, contributing to efforts to make playing abroad a real option rather than a necessity for one’s livelihood – one of the biggest issues that separates the WNBA in its struggles from other leagues.

All this is a sign of progress. These are all developments that, when Fowles and Bird entered the league, weren’t even on the table, but indicate just how much they helped develop the game.

But because it’s the WNBA, of course, it couldn’t all be rosy. While it’s important to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day (and neither was the NBA), creating a stable, lucrative, and popular game takes time. It’s a fair point, and the WNBA desperately wants you to remember that. However, it would be easier to accept some of the time-consuming longer-term transformation if the league’s familiar stumbling blocks didn’t return again and again this weekend.

Unlike the NBA, which announces its All-Star locations several years in advance, the WNBA didn’t announce Chicago as its 2022 home until late April, just two and a half months before the weekend. For fans looking to take a family trip or create a reunion of friends, having just 10 weeks to plan is less than ideal. Heck, there clearly wasn’t enough time for the league to make it the big gathering it should have been.

The expected difficulties arise when planning an event for thousands of people just three months in advance. And just as the WNBA was planning for the weekend, the Wintrust Arena — which hosted nearly 10,000 on Sunday for the All-Star Game — was booked for Saturday, when the 3-point and skills competitions took place. Instead, the WNBA established a gym at nearby McCormick Place that was used for the Nike Nationals, a high school girls’ basketball tournament. As a result, the event was not open to the public, likely due to restrictions on crowd size.

With Engelbert and the league continually talking about ‘fan touchpoints’, it seems deaf to hold two of the three All-Star Weekend events essentially behind closed doors, accessible only by TV crews, media , visiting basketball players and certain seasons. ticket holders. Engelbert noted that she hopes to make changes to this system and that the league may soon be able to announce future dates – but she is not ready to do so yet.

Meanwhile, other events held throughout the weekend, including a Chance the Rapper concert, were only open to limited groups. These concerts, which take place at everything from the College Football Playoffs to the Final Four to MLB All-Star Week, are an opportunity to attract a wider fan base and cater to the diverse fan interests that might shell out for flights, hotels, Ubers and games. tickets.

Engelbert said the concert was closed to the public for safety reasons, involving gun safety specifically citing cities like Uvalde, Buffalo and Chicago. But fans were quick to point out that Taste of Chicago — the world’s largest food festival that drew more than 1.5 million people to Chicago’s Grant Park before the pandemic — happened at the same time at about two miles from where Chance the Rapper performed at a small outdoor venue near the arena.

The commissioner also briefly mentioned COVID-19 concerns, which would be entirely fair given reports of the rise of the more recent omicron variant. However, much like other leagues and businesses, it seemed COVID-19 had become less of a pandemic safety issue and more of a reason to limit attendance, avoid media or keep gatherings more exclusive. The precautions inside the events didn’t seem to echo “COVID fears.” There was no vaccine mandate or testing requirement for fans. Masks were mostly absent from the arena and All-Star Game-related events, even among most of those who interacted most closely with players who are in a league with several weekly positive tests that rule players out in the “health and safety protocols”.

Finally, even for those who weren’t physically in town and struggled to access events, the experience was also hampered by similar annoying frustrations. During the first quarter and a half of Sunday’s game, ESPN’s streaming service did not display a box score or game clock on screen. As the league’s most committed media partner, that kind of snafus is not acceptable. ESPN has a responsibility to demonstrate the same level of attention to detail for each of its productions. As tired as it sounds to say it, it’s true: That wouldn’t happen with an NBA All-Star Game.

The league is changing for the better. Engelbert will tell you. Bird and Fowles will tell you. Anyone who saw this league 10 years ago or even five years ago will tell you that.

But All-Star weekends are meant to be celebratory events, especially for the fans who have done so much to follow and support a league. While this weekend may have been better and more robust than previous iterations the WNBA attempted, doing better doesn’t mean doing well. No one expects an event, especially during a pandemic, to be perfect, but the continued (and familiar) hurdles to fan experiences resonate deeply with a frustrated fanbase who have loyally backed and supported the league.

Fowles and Bird deserve all the flowers they got this weekend, but the league’s effort to put together this All-Star weekend doesn’t.

(Photo: Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)

Corina C. Butler