Chicago Sky fans temper newfound attention with heightened expectations at home opener: ‘It’s transformative’

For longtime Chicago Sky fans, it feels as if women’s basketball finally arrived at its breakthrough moment.

That feeling built up long before the Sky’s home opener Saturday against the Connecticut Sun. Across the WNBA, business is booming — 10 sold-out games during opening week, a 14% increase in attendance across the league, a 181% increase in ESPN viewership. And in Chicago, the arrival of first-round picks Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese has lifted the Sky to new heights.

“This year is so different because it’s finally becoming mainstream in the way that all sports are mainstream,” fan Ciera Love said. “This unique space that we’re in — it’s transformative, not just for the game today but for generations to come.”

The Sky lost to the Sun 86-82 on Saturday in front of an announced sellout of 9,025 at Wintrust Arena.

Last season the Sky averaged 7,241 fans per game, according to Across the Timeline, just less than 70% of capacity at Wintrust. The enthusiasm extended internationally for fans such as Clement Chavernoz, who fell in love with the team from London while catching games on WNBA League Pass in 2011.

But die-hard support didn’t translate to ubiquity in the Chicago sports market, which is saturated by the Bulls and Bears. Only a few years ago, strangers were still confusing season ticket holder Mat Benson’s Sky baseball cap for a Golden State Warriors logo.

But this season is different. Preseason ticket sales for the Sky were five times higher than in 2022 — and 41 times higher than 2018. The team sold out of Reese jerseys before she landed in Chicago. And from social media to broadcast viewership, it’s clear the Sky are poised for their highest profile season in franchise history.

“The Sky are the most successful sports franchise in Chicago in the last five years — they made the playoffs every year and won a championship,” season ticket holder Justin Cottrell said. “No other team in Chicago can say that. They’re trying to build a winning culture and I think that the city is starting to respect that and take notice of that.”

As the league embraces a wave of new fans, the Sky face a balancing act: capitalizing on the boom of attention while still hewing to the interests of longtime fans.

This is a challenge as both attendance and prices soar across the WNBA. Many fans gravitated toward the Sky because tickets were affordable. In 2021, the average ticket price for a Sky game was $43. In the same year, the average ticket price for a Bulls game was $225.

“I love going to live sports, I always have, but it just was not in the budget to go to Bulls games and Bears games,” Benson said. “Part of the reason why I started going to Sky games is I could get to as many games as I wanted for pretty cheap. The ability to see the team in person a lot really helps connect as a fan with the team. Being a part of the energy and a part of the experience in the early days — it was really exciting.”

But this summer, Sky games are one of the hottest tickets in the city, with entry prices for a June matchup against the Indiana Fever starting at $267 — and going up to $2,400.

This is partially due to exploitative resale prices — “People need to stop reselling these tickets so I can afford them,” longtime fan Jillian Ebanks said with a laugh — but between dynamic pricing and soaring demand, increased prices are likely here to stay for Sky games.

The accessibility of being a Sky fan went further than just the price and location of games. It also reflected the availability of players.

The team holds an annual meet-and-greet for season ticket holders that allows the opportunity for fans to speak one-on-one with their favorite athletes, a rarity among professional sports. And Sky players were often active on social media, interacting with fans and making themselves consistently available for their top supporters.

The result was a tightly knit relationship between fans and players, something the most invested fans cherished as a crucial aspect of their relationship with the team.

“I love the Bulls, I love the White Sox — unfortunately — but when you go to a game you feel like you’re just a number,” Eric Nemchock said. “When I go to a Sky game, I feel like I’m part of something. It sounds kind of weird, but I feel like I’m a part of the team. I feel like I’m a part of a fanbase in which I can be who I am authentically.”

That dynamic will invariably shift as the audience for the team expands — a reality that was crystallized during the Sky’s preseason game against the New York Liberty on May 7.

The Sky reserve access to preseason games for season ticket holders as a small incentive for the team’s most invested fans. In 2023, the exhibition game garnered 2,024 fans. This year, that crowd increased as 3,132 season ticket holders crowded into Wintrust Arena on a Tuesday for a glimpse at the new roster.

It was a stark contrast for Nemchock, who watched the crowd in awe of how quickly the fan base had grown. This recognition was bittersweet, a reflection that as the league grows, supporting the Sky likely will lose some of the intimacy that used to be a key selling point.

This newfound growth also comes with a slew of positive improvements that have been on display in the early weeks of the season — charter flights, expansion teams, increased revenue opportunities for athletes. And those improvements only sharpen the pressure for the Sky front office to keep up with quickly changing times.

Ahead of the season, fans voiced one common refrain: elation over the selection of Reese and Cardoso paired with a looming fear that ownership won’t do enough to make sure they want to stay in Chicago for the long term. That concern centers mainly around the team’s lack of a stand-alone practice facility as the Sky finish out the last year of their lease at Sachs Recreation Center, a public-use community center in Deerfield.

This isn’t a new conversation in Chicago. Lyndsay Helfrich remembers her introduction to the issue in 2020, when Diamond DeShields sent a request on Twitter to use any available basketball court because the Sky didn’t have the authority to give players access to the Sachs court during the pandemic shutdown.

But over the last two years, the conversations around this aspect of team ownership subtly shifted as teams such as the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm unveiled stand-alone training facilities. For Sky fans, this is no longer a matter of “giving players what they deserve.” It’s a simple competitive disadvantage.

Chicago never has been a particularly strong destination for non-local free-agent signings. The Sky’s history is littered with examples of top-level talent such as Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne choosing to leave. The departures of Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, Azurá Stevens and Kahleah Copper in the past two offseasons, combined with perceived misses on top free agents such as Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith — drove that frustration to a new frenzy.

“I want them to stop acting like they’re poor,” Helfrich said.

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Added Candr Jordan: “You can’t have world-class athletes and then treat them just like a bottom tier organization.”

And said Jonah Lewis: “The Sky are going to have to really put their money into the team and into those facilities. They have no choice but to do that to keep their team on a competitive level.”

“When you start going through who was here in the past 10 years and then went on to other teams to be incredible — boy, would it be cool to finally have the offerings that keep those players here,” A.J. Johnson said. “So if it’s a practice facility, cool. If it’s something else, cool. But whatever (Weatherspoon) and the players need, I hope they get it.”

These concerns don’t outweigh fan excitement for the season. If anything, they’re a reflection of the fact increased attention is accompanied by scrutiny. The growth expected to occur this year will inevitably come with growing pains as teams across the league adapt to heightened expectations

But the growing pains are welcome for a league that has been building toward this moment for 28 years. And as the Sky enter a new era — both for the franchise and league — longtime fans are eager to welcome a new generation into the fold.

“The phrase seems simple but — welcome to the ‘W,’ ” Sean Whitten said. “Continue to raise expectations and enjoy the game. Do your research, take the time to learn the history of the league and that will make it that much more enjoyable. There’s more to appreciate here than a lot of fans can even imagine at first.”