The Minnesota Lynx play the Atlanta Dream on Sunday in game one of the WNBA finals. It's the Lynx's first trip to the women's professional basketball championship.
Up and down over the last decade — both on the hardwood and financially — the Lynx expects its largest crowd ever at Target Center this weekend. However, the team and the WNBA still struggle to find their place in the world of professional sports.
By all accounts it's been a banner year for the Minnesota Lynx. The team went 27-7 in the regular season. Point guard Lindsay Whalen led the league in assists and forward Maya Moore was named WNBA Rookie of the Year. Last Sunday, the Lynx rose even higher, beating the 2009 champion Phoenix Mercury to clinch a spot in the finals.
Minnesota's other professional sports teams had or are having losing seasons. But the Lynx are enjoying new-found attention, and players who labored in near-obscurity have become celebrities. Forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin is in her 13th season with the WNBA and says only now is she stopped on the street by excited fans.
"This is my first WNBA city where I've had those kind of crazy rabid fans, and I'm so excited for this game, for them to come out," she said. "It's going to be packed and loud and exciting, and it's what the WNBA finals are supposed to be.
Paying spectators will fill many of the seats at the Target Center on Sunday. But a thousand fans will be the guests of new Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman. The Lynx and Timberwolves are both owned by Glen Taylor. Adelman and a Timberwolves executive bought up ten percent of the arena's capacity to give away the tickets. Another thousand tickets will be given to charities.
Ticket giveaways are common for the Lynx. In a gesture of support, the Twins, Vikings and Wild helped the team fill seats for earlier games.
Nevertheless, the Lynx's success on the basketball court translates into more black ink on the balance sheets. While the team doesn't make public the details of its finances, attendance figures are at a 12-year high. In the tiny, windowless front office in the basement of the Target Center, Lynx Chief Operating Officer Conrad Smith said 2011 could be the first profitable season in a decade.
"The first couple of years we were profitable, but then we got away from it," Smith said. "But this year — and obviously the playoffs and how that all shakes out — we'll know at the very end how we did, which is great news for the league and Glen Taylor and our ownership group.
Also helping the Lynx and the WNBA is a reported eight-figure sponsorship deal with phone company Boost Mobile. The Boost logo appears on most WNBA team uniforms.
Long-term financial success will depend on attracting more fans, Smith said.
Season ticket holder Karen Sylte will be in her fifth-row seat Sunday night. She said she loves women's basketball because of its collaborative, non-ego-driven style of play.
"It's team ball. It's unselfish. A lot of NBA teams are about one-on-one basketball," Sylte said. "You don't see that very often in the WNBA, where a player will go one-on-one against another player."
But there aren't yet enough aficionados for the Lynx and WNBA to thrive. The league needs a much deeper bench of fans, said economist Andrew Zimbalist, who studies the business of sports at Smith College. The WNBA has survived for 15 seasons only because of subsidies from co-owned NBA teams, he said.
"It's a niche sport now. It'll probably be a niche sport for quite a number of years going into the future, even if it's well-managed," Zimbalist said.
However, the league has potential to make it on its own, he said.
Professional tennis has proven there's wide interest in women's sports, Zimbalist said. With the popularity of girls athletics, there's a natural fan base. However, team owners have yet to find a way to capitalize on this potential and bring the women's league out from its parent's shadow.