Lynx reap rewards of on-court success

  • Article by: ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 14, 2012 - 7:32 AM

As the WNBA saw the lowest average attendance ever, the Lynx were second in attendance and tops in merchandise sales.

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Fans waved their towels along with w big picture of Rebekkah Brunson in the first half of game one of the Western conference finals at the Target Center in Minneapolis Min., Thursday October 4, 2012. Lynx won 94-77.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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When Chris Wright budgets for each season, the Lynx president does not anticipate a postseason run.

"You always hope for the playoffs," he said, "but we have to be prepared for the possibility it doesn't happen."

In the team's first 12 WNBA seasons, it made only two playoff appearances, and made two quick exits.

But now, after more than a decade in the shadows, the Lynx are the league's bright light, favored to win a second consecutive WNBA title.

The Lynx had the league's best regular-season record (27-7 for the second season in a row), and their on-court success is nearly matched on the business side. The Lynx were second in the league in attendance (averaging 9,683) and first nationally in merchandise sales.

That bucked a leaguewide trend. Average WNBA attendance was 7,457, lowest in league history.

Success for the Lynx, who open the WNBA Finals on Sunday night against Indiana, has come especially at Target Center, where they are 19-1 this season and 3-0 in the playoffs.

"From a profit standpoint, are we more profitable the deeper we go in the playoffs?" Wright asked.

"Yes, we are."

Fan turnout at Target Center has been a little soft in this year's playoffs so far. The average of 8,583 is 1,200 fewer than through the first three postseason games last year. But the Lynx hope to approach the back-to-back 15,000-plus crowds they drew for the Finals a year ago. As of Friday, they had sold 11,500 tickets for Sunday's game.

The enthusiasm for a first-time run by a wide-eyed Cinderella team is hard to duplicate. The league finals are later this season because of the five-week break for the Olympics, and the Lynx are competing with a successful Vikings season, the Timberwolves preseason and the baseball playoffs on TV.

Ticket sales up

Wright, also president of the Wolves, sees the half-full glass. By the end of their season-ticket campaign for next year, he said, the Lynx should have the first- or second-highest ticket base in the league. Merchandise sales at the arena pro shop have increased 68 percent.

And in rounded-off numbers, season-ticket holders are renewing at a 90 percent rate. Lynx officials expect to start the 2013 season with 3,000, a jump of 500 over this season.

The season-ticket base for 2011 was about 1,000.

One business hurdle for the Lynx is finding a jersey sponsor. For some WNBA teams, such a sponsorship is worth $1 million annually. Wright said the Lynx and companies they have met with have been unable to agree on terms, but he is patient.

"We will do an appropriate deal at the appropriate time," he said.

On the court, success is easier to measure. Three more victories over the Indiana Fever, whom the Lynx defeated in back-to-back games last month, would mean the team's "Road to Repeat" slogan would become reality.

"They are very, very good," Fever coach Lin Dunn said after her team lost to the Lynx by seven points in a road game last month.

The Lynx have Olympic gold medalists Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore as their core players.

"It's a difference, going from trying to compete with some of the best and now you are considered the best," Augustus said. "And [we] could possibly do something that hasn't been done in like 10 years. It's a great feeling to see how well this organization has come as far as putting this team together."

The last team to win consecutive titles was Los Angeles (2001-02). The defunct Houston Comets ruled from 1997 to 2000 in the WNBA's infancy.

If the Lynx repeat, dynasty talk would begin.

Lots of carryover

"We're set up very well," said Roger Griffith, the team's executive vice president and de facto general manager. "Our key players are in their prime. And Maya is Maya. She is a great player who still has a way to go before her prime."

Moore is 23. Augustus, Whalen and top rebounder Rebekkah Brunson are between 28 and 30. Center Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the fifth starter, is 41 and presumably will retire soon, but who knows? She is already off the curve in athletic longevity.

Griffith said most WNBA players peak from 26 to 34. "We certainly have a large window," he said, "a very good basketball team, a team that can compete in the WNBA."

And the league's hard maximum salary cap of $878,000 per team reduces the chance veterans who become unrestricted free agents switch teams. So Griffith expects this core group to stay together, led by coach Cheryl Reeve.

Reeve is nearing the end of her third season as the Lynx head coach. Her contract expires after this year.

"I've had the opportunity over 18 years to see a lot of coaches with the Timberwolves and Lynx," Griffith said. "People tend to underrate her importance to the team. When you look at our roster, our players and the type of coach Cheryl is, she gets the most of them.

"She understands how the WNBA works. I do not see any circumstances she is not coaching next year."

And getting a fat raise perhaps. Reeve and the Lynx keep her salary privileged. Her closest confidant, a daschund named Tucker, isn't barking about it, either.

"It is a great time to be part of the Minnesota Lynx," Reeve said. "I know when I was hired, we had a group here. Once we made the trade for Whalen, and we got Rebekkah Brunson here, we knew we had a foundation."

The team also drafted Moore and signed McWilliams-Franklin before last season.

"When you have a rock-solid business operation," Wright said, "with a rock-solid roster, then you are dangerous."

  • WNBA FINALS LYNX VS. INDIANA

    Game 1: 7 p.m. today • Target Center

    TV: ESPN2 (106.1-AM)

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