- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- A good rule of thumb in women's basketball is to never complain about a sold-out arena.
There are a few exceptions. One is if the arena is inside a casino, which is located a long plane ride, then a bus ride, from most of your star players and from much of the rest of the country. Another is if the mission of your league is to continue growing the game, to introduce your particular brand of basketball to folks who might not have seen it before, and if the aforementioned sold-out arena is located in Connecticut, a state that already embraces women's basketball. That's a little like having a film festival in Hollywood. Or, you know, like preaching to the choir.
On Saturday afternoon, 9,323 people filled the 10,000 seats inside Mohegan Sun Arena to watch the WNBA All-Star Game. There was buzz and interest and extra-loud cheers during introductions, especially for the three players (Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Tina Charles) who played their college ball at the nearby University of Connecticut. Then the stars of the women's game stepped onto the floor for 40 minutes of mostly defense-free basketball (hey, it's an All-Star game) that ended with the West beating the East, 102-98. Candace Parker, playing in her first All-Star game, scored 23 points and was named game MVP.
But missing from the scene was the kind of surrounding festivity that is present at the NBA's version of this event: the sense of a weekend-long block party, of a city hosting an event. Across professional sports, All-Star games are celebrations, good for entertaining existing fans and, hopefully, attracting new ones. The WNBA operates on a smaller scale than most, of course, but that doesn't mean those things should be missing entirely.
And so on Saturday morning, the players had breakfast with WNBA president Laurel Richie, and over eggs and bacon those players raised the topic of getting the game to some different locations, away from Mohegan Sun. In the past six seasons, Mohegan Sun has hosted three WNBA All-Star games: in 2005, 2009 and 2013. (The game wasn't played in 2008 or 2012, because of the Olympics.) The following WNBA cities have never hosted the game: Atlanta, Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Seattle and Tulsa. The players also mentioned having non-WNBA cities, such as Las Vegas and Houston, possibly in the mix to host the event, which would allow a different population base to check out the league.
"We would rather play somewhere else," said Tina Thompson, who is a nine-time All-Star and has played in the league since its inception in 1997. "When you go out the door of the casino, there is nowhere to go. You can't see anything for miles. I think for the players, that's confining in a sense."
Thompson said that her 8-year-old son Dyllan declined to join her for this All-Star experience, which will be her last, as she announced that she will retire at season's end. "He's like, 'I've been there before, we did that last time, and there's no Jam Session,'" Thompson said. "You want the people in your life to want to come, too. He's only 8 years old, but he can't be the only one who feels that way."
At the NBA All-Star weekend, in which many of the WNBA players participate, there are always events on the street -- a Jam Session -- in the days before the game, making the weekend more family-friendly. "I think Connecticut does a great job -- you get everything in one place," said Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings. "But when you look at the travel to get here, from West to East Coast, and the bus ride once you land, I think we should take it to another place that other players might want to come to. Not just the All-Stars themselves, but other players in the league, too. Then we would have an actual All-Star experience. Our biggest thing is to grow our fan base and pull people in."
Catchings and Thompson said that Richie responded well to the feedback. "A lot of it is about timing," said Richie, explaining how the game landed at Mohegan Sun again. "There were many teams that expressed interest, but we identify the weekend up front and if there is a convention in town that is already booked, that's tough. What the Mohegan Sun has as an advantage is the hotel and arena in one complex. That absolutely helps."
Of course, that asset of convenience and one-stop shopping is, from a different viewpoint, also a drawback. "Connecticut supports this game; the state is passionate about women's basketball," Taurasi said. "But maybe we need to put the game somewhere else, where we could draw some more fans, some more attention -- a little bit more life. The travel here isn't the easiest. You have a lot of people who would come if the travel was easier. And not everyone loves casinos. It's a big drawing point for some people, but for others, it's not their cup of tea."
Having this marquee event at Mohegan Sun is a safe choice by the league. The WNBA offices, located in New York City, are only a three-hour drive away. Also, the smaller size of the arena -- capacity 10,000 -- is perfect for a professional game that is still growing. And, as mentioned above, when you hold a women's basketball event in Connecticut, you're going to put fans in the seats. Problem is: For the most part, those fans already support the league.
"I think it would be great if we could look at other options," said Phoenix Mercury president Amber Cox. "I think we have an opportunity here, and that's the great thing about the WNBA is we can step outside the box a little bit, try new things -- if it makes sense financially. I would hope we would be willing and open to look at all opportunities."
It's hard to argue with a sold-out arena. But perhaps the best way to grow the WNBA and expose the league to new fans would be to hold the All-Star Game in a new location.