Minneapolis is ready to host the WNBA's best
MINNEAPOLIS -- Maya Moore, arms outstretched and her right hand gripping a basketball, has been on billboards this summer in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York. She's in the same "wings" pose as the classic photo of Michael Jordan, whose Nike shoe line includes Moore, the Minnesota Lynx forward, as an endorser.
WNBA games are attracting more viewers. The star power around the league has rarely, if ever, been this deep or this strong. There's a long way to go to capture more attention in the crowded mainstream of American sports, but these women have been busy building a bigger brand.
"You travel around, you see people interested, you hear the buzz," Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said. "We have a lot of work still to do, probably, but it is trending in the right way, and we'll take that as a positive."
The All-Star Game this weekend in Minnesota is the perfect time for the players to pause and take some pride in just how far they've come, even if their quest for higher salaries has only just begun. For Lynx guard Seimone Augustus, one of four players from the home team taking part in this year's showcase, the evidence of this growth has come around town at the grocery store and the movie theater.
"I know little girls know who we are. I'm talking about young boys and men who get geeked up about seeing us," Augustus said.
According to ESPN, the per-game viewership average of 247,000 for telecasts this season is up 38 percent from last year's ratings before the All-Star break. The game on Saturday afternoon will be broadcast on ABC for a ninth time, with an all-time high of 13 cameras in use. Video game maker EA Sports announced on Friday that NBA Live 19 will allow users to create female players for the first time.
"That's awesome. This is the year of the woman," Atlanta Dream forward Angel McCoughtry said, adding: "I think stuff is about to take off. I can feel it. We're going to be in more stuff. People are going to want our brands."
The Lynx are the sixth of the current 12 teams to host the midsummer game, joining Connecticut (four), New York (three), Washington (two), Phoenix (two) and Seattle (one). Teams in Orlando, which relocated to Connecticut, and San Antonio, which moved to Las Vegas, have also hosted.
"For as much as I hate the Lynx, they have such wonderful fans," Taurasi said, smiling. "They're so loyal. They come to the games and they come to compete, too, and you can appreciate that as a player."
The format changed this year, with captains Elena Delle Donne and Candace Parker picking the 11-player teams last week rather than the squads being based on conference affiliations. Team Delle Donne has nine players from the Western Conference and two from the Eastern Conference, with five guards and six forwards. Team Parker has seven players from the West and three from the East, with four guards and seven forwards.
The starters were revealed on Friday night. Delle Donne, the Washington Mystics forward, has Taurasi, Lynx center Sylvia Fowles and guard Sue Bird and forward Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm in her lineup. Parker, the Los Angeles Sparks forward, has teammate and guard Chelsea Gray in hers with Moore, McCoughtry and Dallas Wings center Liz Cambage.
Moore, the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player award winner in 2015 and 2017, was the leading vote-getter ahead of Delle Donne and Parker, but she declined the opportunity to serve as captain due to other obligations.
"For whatever reason this year, I feel more celebratory and excited to be here," Moore said. "I want to celebrate and enjoy this."
Especially if she has the chance to bump or taunt Augustus or fellow teammate Sylvia Fowles during the game.
"I'll definitely develop a float game if I see Syl coming down the lane on one of my drives," Moore said. "Seimone has been saying she's got something for me. We've been waiting a long time for this. Seimone, I think, is the one who suggested the format just so she could set this moment up."
Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson, who replaced Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike on Team Parker due to an illness, wasn't eager to guard Fowles.
"Because I've seen what she does to people, and I don't want to get on that train," Brunson said.
A'ja Wilson, the Las Vegas Aces forward and the only rookie selected, compared the selection process to "picking dodgeball teams" in childhood. There's still a competitive edge to the event, though, despite the fun-and-games environment.
"Don't let none of this fool you: Everyone's trying to win," said Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. "There's still bragging rights."