Of all the amazing sights Nicole LaVoi witnessed at Target Center in recent weeks, none made as great an impression as the exchanges happening on the streets around the arena. One night, when the Twins and Lynx both were playing at home, the University of Minnesota researcher saw people selling their baseball tickets and buying tickets to see the Lynx instead.
In the past, few people would have given up an evening at Target Field -- even in a season as blighted as this one -- to sit indoors and watch women's basketball. The Lynx made their home court the most thrilling venue in town, drawing scores of fans who never had seen a WNBA game. It happened for one simple reason. Night after night, this collection of gifted athletes put on a great show, proving that the things we love most about sports have nothing to do with gender.
It's been argued for years that women's sports cannot succeed without a gimmick. If the gals would just show a little skin, or maybe get into a cat fight once in a while, or date a famous guy, that would bring in the fans. Except it never will.
The Lynx won over Minnesotans with a summer of exquisite basketball, played in true team style by 11 women devoted to the game and to each other. It remains to be seen whether their popularity has staying power, or whether this will become just a fleeting moment in time. This much is indisputable: When they ride down Nicollet Mall on Tuesday with their WNBA championship trophy, they can also celebrate their role in bringing greater respect and appreciation to women's sports.
"I can't tell you the number of conversations I overheard in class, at the bar or after the game, from young males that had never seen women's basketball before,'' said LaVoi, associate director of the U's Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. "They were analyzing the game and talking about how amazing the players were. They were really into it.
"People who hadn't been exposed to the game got drawn in because the team was so good. Even someone like Lindsay Whalen, people didn't say, 'We should watch her because she's a Minnesotan.' They said, 'We should watch her because she's good.' That's why this team got so much traction -- because they were promoted as athletes. That is really a positive thing for the Lynx and for women's sports in general.''
Though the Lynx's profile rose substantially this season, the team -- and the WNBA as a whole -- have been making steady gains for five years. Lynx attendance has risen every year since 2006 and is up more than 2,000 per game since then, including a 10.8 percent jump this season to 8,447 fans per game.
The WNBA's attendance and TV viewership on ESPN2 continue to increase. The league has eight new sponsors. Sales of team merchandise on the WNBA website rose 12 percent this year, with the Lynx and rookie Maya Moore the hottest sellers.
WNBA President Laurel Richie has said the league's "conversion metric'' is simply to get people to come to a game and see the newest generation of players in person. Women's sports still battle the perception that they're boring and that the athletes are inferior to men. The people who cling to that tired idea obviously never have seen the awe-inspiring moves of Moore and Whalen, the stone-cold brilliance of Seimone Augustus or the beauty of the teamwork directed by coach Cheryl Reeve.
The WNBA always has been able to sell the authenticity of its athletes. The Lynx have long proven that professional sports need not be consumed by greed, ego, thuggery or bad attitudes, which is part of the attraction for its core audience -- but not enough to break through to the masses. If the league is to sustain its growth, it must continue to open eyes and minds to the expanding quality of the women's game.
There are many who predict that will never happen. The Lynx, who already have sold more than 600 new season tickets and renewed 90 percent of existing ones, give hope that it can. Just consider it one more achievement in this historic season.
"We'll have to wait and see whether they can parlay this into long-term support and respect,'' LaVoi said. "But when people came to see the Lynx this year, nobody was going to leave that arena and say they weren't spectacular athletes, or that it wasn't exciting. That is only good.''
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org