On Monday, the ice went out at Xcel Energy Center. On Tuesday, the Minnesota Lynx hardwood court — imported in pieces from faraway Minneapolis — was installed. On Friday, the Lynx, in their WNBA preseason opener, will begin their season-long residency in St. Paul.
But the seeds of this story were planted months ago.
Because of the renovation at Target Center, the Lynx had to find another home for 2017. Briefly, the team looked at the Minneapolis Armory, which would have had some historical resonance, but it was a bit too small and a bit behind in its own renovation project.
They looked, too, at Mariucci Arena, but ultimately chose Xcel, which played host to two Lynx playoff games last fall.
And it appears when it comes to business, it will be a very good move.
“We’re actually going to be one of the few teams in the league that has experienced being displaced from your home, having a second facility, and actually growing our business,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “A lot of teams lose their business and have a hard time getting their fans back when they return. We’re going to grow.”
Several factors — winning, of course, being the biggest — have made that possible.
The franchise has focused on marketing the team to St. Paul and the eastern suburbs, with some success. The organization also targeted fans drawn by the team’s playoff run last season, getting some into the season ticket fold. Then there is Xcel Energy Center, pretty much a state-of-the-art venue.
“We completely underestimated, going into this, the true opportunity,” Lynx/Timberwolves President Chris Wright said. “We knew we had an opportunity. We didn’t know the level of the opportunity.”
Growing St. Paul fan base
Knowing the move was coming, the Lynx marketing department put together a plan to reach St. Paul and its suburbs, something the team has never really done. According to Wright, only about 15 to 20 percent of the team’s season-ticket holders come from the east metro. Now that area has become a focus.
“We looked at everything, from White Bear Lake to Woodbury, down to Cottage Grove,” Wright said. “Stillwater, Hudson. We said, ‘What can we do in those communities to build to the new season in St. Paul?’ ”
Meanwhile, Wright looked at the crowd of 19,423 that attended Game 5 of last season’s WNBA Finals. Of those, 2,600 were fans who had not attended a Lynx game all year. Wright calls them unique visitors. The team also marketed to that group.
The result: As of early this week, the Lynx were just shy of 700 new full-season ticket holders. Last year they had 3,600, and they renewed at about a 74 percent rate.
That’s down slightly from the normal 80-82 percent, but understandable considering the move.
It’s frankly better than Wright expected. But the new sales will push the team’s season ticket base past last year’s number.
Last season the Lynx were fourth in the league in attendance at an average of 9,266 — behind Phoenix (10,351), New York (9,724) and Los Angeles (9,638). Wright expects to top that in total attendance and at the gate.
“Both will increase,” he said.
Lynx officials hope that momentum continues when they are back at the Target Center in 2018.
“We want to bring back our new fans from St. Paul and the eastern suburbs, back to Target Center,” Wright said. “And the people who didn’t renew with us because of the move to St. Paul, there is an opportunity to bring them back.
“If we do that in 2018, we will substantially elevate our business.”
It’s still about basketball
But, dollars and cents aside, the Lynx have to play in a new place.
Having won there twice in last year’s playoffs helps. The floor and setup is similar, and the facilities are good. The fans will be there.
“Xcel is a great arena,” guard Lindsay Whalen said. “When you look at it on video, it was like we were in Target Center. I expect it to be really nice for our season.
“We’ll have to go a bit further east, but it’s all good. We’ll enjoy some of downtown St. Paul’s restaurants, and the people. I’m looking forward to it.”
As Reeve said, the venue really doesn’t matter.
“Wherever our fans are is home,” she said. “I don’t want to say it’s just a building. But when you’re in game mode, it’s, ‘Just tell us where we’re playing.’ Bring our team, bring our fans. That’s home.”