As a relative newcomer to Minnesota, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve wasn't sure what it would take to get Twin Cities sports fans excited about women's basketball. So she went straight to the expert: Hutchinson native Lindsay Whalen, who was at the epicenter of the last great frenzy surrounding the sport.
Whalen, now a Lynx guard, became a folk hero in her home state when she led the Gophers to the NCAA Final Four in 2004.
"At the beginning of the season, Lindsay told me, 'Coach, this is a bandwagon town,'" Reeve recalled. "If we win, it'll come."
The woman knows her audience. The Lynx, who used to draw only the most diehard fans, have become the darlings of the local sports scene with their run to the WNBA Finals. Sunday, they drew an announced crowd of 15,258 to their Game 1 victory over Atlanta, with the line to buy tickets stretching out the Target Center doors and down First Avenue. The entire supply of 1,000 playoff T-shirts were sold out by halftime.
Conrad Smith, the Lynx's chief operating officer, said Tuesday that the team has been swamped with phone orders for tickets for Wednesday's Game 2. Huberts Sports Bar and Grill at Target Center is gearing up for a viewing party for Friday's Game 3 in Atlanta, while some fans are dropping everything to follow the team to Georgia.
The increasingly crowded bandwagon includes luminaries such as Gov. Mark Dayton, former Gov. Jesse Ventura, Twins outfielder Ben Revere, Wild forward Matt Cullen and Vikings stars Chad Greenway and Kevin Williams. It also includes random strangers, such as the guy in the Minneapolis skyway who spotted the team logo on Smith's shirt Tuesday and said, "Two more games! Go, Lynx!"
He clearly was rooting for a Lynx sweep in the best-of-five series. Should they win, they would be the first major pro team in Minnesota to capture a championship since the 1991 Twins, which could endear them even more to a sporting public desperate for a victory parade.
"It really hit me Sunday when I looked around at the crowd and saw so many people in Lynx jerseys and T-shirts and hats, standing up and screaming and having a great time," said Smith, who has been with the Lynx since their inception in 1999. "Everyone has worked so hard to get to this point. To see the joy in their faces was really heartwarming."
Rebecca Law could relate. The sudden tsunami of interest makes her feel a little like those who saw Bobby Zimmerman playing coffeehouses in Minneapolis before millions knew him as Bob Dylan.
After trying for years to encourage others to join her at Lynx games, she is more than happy to have the extra company.
A real-estate attorney from Minnetonka, Law and her husband, Vincent Shepherd, bought courtside seats to celebrate their wedding anniversary six years ago. They have sat there ever since, and later this week, she will go to Atlanta to cheer the team.
"I'm putting the rest of my life suddenly on hold just to go down there," Law said. "It's the only choice I could have made.
"Now, I'm hearing other people talking about the Lynx before I even bring it up. That's like a sea change. And I love it. Seeing all those people at Game 1, I got goosebumps all over my body."
Success drives sales
The Lynx's debut in the Finals attracted the second-largest crowd in franchise history. The team averaged 8,447 fans during the regular season and a league-high 11,199 during four home playoff games, with the lower level selling out for Game 1 in two days.
Since the playoffs began, Smith said, the Lynx have sold more than 600 new season tickets for 2012 -- with 30 to 40 now being purchased every day. New sponsors have come on board, too; two of them, including Medica, signed deals during the regular season, which Smith said is rare. The Twins, Wild, Vikings and Timberwolves have shown support by buying blocks of tickets to give away.
And the fans aren't simply showing up. The national media has taken note of their irrepressible ardor for their team, which runs unusually high for a WNBA franchise. Before Game 1, people swarmed the plaza outside Target Field for a Lynx block party, where one young man wearing a Whalen T-shirt planted a kiss on a life-size photo of forward Maya Moore. Dozens brought handmade posters to the game, including one that proposed marriage to Moore and another drawn on the back of an old "Circle Me Bert'' sign.
The Lynx expect that to continue throughout the Finals. Smith said the team is trying to replenish playoff merchandise before Game 2, and Huberts is preparing for a Game 3 viewing party expected to draw as many as 300 fans.
Smith also offered a word to the wise: Don't show up just before the opening tip, because times have changed at Target Center.
"Prior to this year, you could get your ticket and get in your seat within five or 10 minutes," he said. "Now, with thousands of people coming, our whole ticketing system is stressed. It's not like the old days. This is the brand new Lynx."