Lynx come out smiles ahead

The Lynx begin their title defense with reason to be upbeat again.

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From the left, Lynx players Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Lindsay Whalen couldn’t stop laughing during a photo shoot for media day earlier this month. They have reason to be giddy: The defending WNBA champions are favored to repeat.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Through the lean years for the Lynx, Roger Griffith says he always believed better seasons were ahead.

The team's executive vice president repeatedly said if Minnesota's WNBA team became a winner, fans would flock to Target Center.

Last year, in the franchise's 13th season, the winning happened, in startling fashion.

After six consecutive years of missing the playoffs, the Lynx won their first WNBA title.

The Lynx organization hopes the fans respond. The team is a business, after all, owned by Glen Taylor. And it has turned a profit only three times.

To finish in the black in 2011, the Lynx had to reach the league's championship series. Regular-season attendance averaged only 8,447 fans -- fifth in the league -- for a high-scoring team that was 14-3 at home.

The Lynx were cheered during a parade downtown after their championship and Griffith said, that day, "We are really positioned well for next year."

"Next year" starts Sunday when the Lynx play host to Phoenix at Target Center. The early financial signs are promising.

The season-ticket selling campaign for 2012 began at the same time as last year's playoff run and, in seven months, season tickets have tripled from 683 to about 2,000. Sunday's game against Phoenix could break the attendance record of 12,122 for a home opener set in the team's first season. About 10,000 tickets had been sold as of Thursday.

Corporate sponsorship dollars have topped $1 million -- already higher than 2011. That's about as specific as the Lynx get concerning money matters.

Finding a jersey sponsor remains one key goal. At least five WNBA teams have advertising on their uniforms with deals that are reportedly worth as much as $1 million annually.

Air time aplenty

Success has put the Lynx in the spotlight. NBA TV will broadcast 12 of their games nationally, two more than any other team, and ABC and two ESPN channels will combine to carry four Lynx games. FSN will televise eight games regionally.

Other stars are aligning for the Lynx to have a breakthrough season at the gate:

• The Olympics. Three Lynx players -- Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore -- are on Team USA, which is favored to win its fifth consecutive gold medal in London. The WNBA will take a five-week break for the Games.

• The plight of the major sports teams locally. None have thrived recently.

• Nine players return from their championship team, including all the starters. Ten of 12 WNBA general managers picked the Lynx to repeat.

• A business-savvy coaching staff. "Cheryl Reeve had a great line when we first met," said Conrad Smith, the team's chief operating officer, late last season. "[She said,] 'I need you to be successful on the business side for me to do what I want to do.' That tells it all."

Reeve supports players making appearances in the community and being on TV and radio, said Smith, now on medical leave. Reeve was on the coaching staff at Detroit when the Shock won two WNBA titles, but the team was still uprooted to Tulsa.

• Of the Lynx's first 27 games, 16 are at Target Center. They are 15-1 in their past 16 games at home.

Trending upward

Crowds at Lynx games bottomed out at an average of 6,442 in 2006. The franchise didn't fold or move, and Griffith credits a "wonderful" ownership group for the team's survival.

"Glen Taylor believes in this," Griffith said. "He thinks it is the right thing to do."

Last fall's title run built a fan base. Slightly more than 15,000 attended both home games against Atlanta in the WNBA Finals.

Tom Maurer of Brooklyn Park went to a few games last year and was at the exhibition game against Chicago on Tuesday at the University of Minnesota Sports Pavilion. He plans to attend more games this season. "They will be a little better than last year with the new draft picks and stuff," Maurer said. "I am a sports nut. I like all sports."

Dee Crapser of Jordan is an across-the-board sports fan like Maurer, except she has gone to nearly every Lynx home game in history.

"It was sad to sit through losing season after losing season," Crapser said. "But I am just a Minnesota fan in general. I have been a fan of the Vikings the same way. I go to all the Gophers games, women's [basketball] games. You do what you gotta do when you are a fan."

Which includes dreaming about another tremendous season. "Stay healthy, only they can beat themselves this year," she said.

"The start of every season is always exciting," Griffith said. "You are always facing the unknown, but you are always optimistic. This season is no different except the expectations are different. Now there is no sneaking up on people."

  • SEASON OPENER LYNX VS. PHOENIX

    11:30 a.m. Sunday • Target Center

    TV: Ch. 5 (106.1-FM)

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