Dom Amore: ‘Like a true movement,’ Caitlin Clark, WNBA’s new star power pushing CT Sun franchise to new level

UNCASVILLE — The Connecticut Sun ticket office was able to put this season-opener to bed long ago. Once it became clear the Indiana Fever would be bringing Caitlin Clark to town, tickets for May 14 went quickly.

The secondary market is a different story. Nose-bleeds are out there for hundreds of dollars, courtside seats for thousands. The Sun front office is still getting media requests for the game, up to 89 by Friday.

So the Caitlin Clark Effect is real, and the impact of the star power coming into the WNBA is uplifting for all franchises, even the Sun, which has long been one of the league’s more successful, on and off the court. Season ticket sales have roughly doubled for 2024.

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“As someone who has been around a long time, from the infancy of this league, it’s fun to see,” Sun coach Stephanie White said at training camp Friday. “We’ve had moments when we’ve had some momentum, but this feels like a true movement, right? A true movement.”

In Connecticut, women’s basketball has been mainstream for decades, thanks to UConn, and when the landscape of the professional women’s game settled in the mid-1990s with one league, the WNBA, Southeastern Connecticut became the base for one of the league’s few stand-alone franchises.

The Sun averaged 6,244 per game last season in its 10,000-seat arena, holding steady between 6-8,000 throughout its 21-year history. The Las Vegas Aces, assembled as a super team that delivered a second straight championship, led the WNBA with 9,551 per game. Other franchises, in much larger markets, including New York (7,777), Chicago (7,242) and LA (6,554), drew marginally better than the Sun.

But the arrival of Clark, the all-time scoring leader in NCAA men’s or women’s basketball, from Iowa, Angel Reese from LSU, and with Paige Bueckers coming from UConn next year, has elevated a buzz to what now sounds like thumping speakers at a rock concert. TV viewership for the NCAA women’s tournament shattered previous records, and the Iowa-South Carolina final, watched by 18.9 million, a 90 percent increase over 2023, got more eyeballs than the UConn-Purdue men’s final (14.8 million). More than 2.4 million tuned in to the WNBA Draft to watch the formality of the Fever picking Clark No.1.

“Man, that was crazy, because we haven’t seen that,” said the Sun’s DeWanna Bonner, who has been in the WNBA since 2009, when she was the No.5 pick overall. “We’ve seen jumps here and there. But to see it jump off the table like that, that’s amazing, because when I played (at Auburn) there was no social media, there was no talk about women’s basketball. so to see this now is very exciting. Let’s just keep it positive, we’re all here for the same reason.”

Positive long-term ramifications could include WNBA expansion into places like Philadelphia or Boston, and increased TV revenue which would lead to better work conditions and higher salaries.

Last season, mirroring the NBA’s trend toward “super teams,” free agency and trades moved several of the best players in The W to Vegas, which could be the front-runner for an NBA expansion franchise one day, and New York, where the Liberty have yet to win a championship. With former UConn superstar Breanna Stewart, former Sun MVP Jonquel Jones, and Sabrina Ionescu, who was the biggest college star a few years ago, the Liberty reached the finals, but lost to the Aces.

The Sun retooled with White, the WNBA coach of the year, and made it to the semifinals, losing a competitive series to New York. With Alyssa Thomas, the MVP runner up to Stewart, Bonner and Brionna Jones back from her season-ending knee surgery, the Sun figure to be a contender again in 2024.

As Bonner touched on, social media, Instagram, TikTok, whatever the platform, has given women’s stars like Clark, Reese and Bueckers a pop-icon status their predecessors didn’t have. Talent and charisma, a little edginess here and there, it’s a powerful combination.

So Mohegan hit the jackpot, in a manner of speaking, with its random drawing of Indiana for its opener. The Aces moved their games against Indiana from their 12,000-seat home to 18,000-seat T-Mobile; Washington, which plays in a 4,200-seat arena, is moving to 20,000 seat Capital One Arena for Clark’s appearances. Certainly, the Sun-Fever game on May 14 could have sold out 15,000-seat XL, but it’s staying put.

“I don’t think there’s a team in the league that’s not excited about the attention being paid to the WNBA right now,” said Jen Rizzotti, former UConn star and UHart coach, and now the Sun’s president. “If (Clark) walks in the building and we have 9,000 people and a sellout, they’re also going to be seeing the Connecticut Sun play.”

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The Sun report more than 1,100 new season-ticket subscriptions, bringing its base up to 2,500. The team has sold more than 20 percent of the individual game tickets for its 20 home games. Of course, former UConn players will becoming in with many of the visiting teams, including just-drafted Nika Muhl with Seattle and Aaliyah Edwards with Washington, and walk-up sales for games played in the middle of a casino always figure to be solid. But the season-ticket base suggests, as White said, a “true movement,” people coming to see the Sun and the WNBA for their own sakes.

“There are going to be new fans to our league,” White said. “Every year it happens a little bit more. I’m not sure that we’ve had a year where it’s happening to this magnitude. It’s the perfect intersection of players. great players, fan engagement, interaction, social media and just a heightened interest overall with carrying certain players from college to the NBA. The more and more we see the transfer portal, less affiliation with teams and more affiliation with players, you’re going to continue to see that trend.

“So I’m excited about the opportunity for the new fans of the W to see our team, to see the players who have been playing in this league for a long time and welcoming them into the next level.”

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