How South Carolina landed Las Vegas Aces’ WNBA preseason game, A’ja Wilson homecoming

Feb. 22, 2018.

The final South Carolina women’s basketball home game of A’ja Wilson’s career and, as declared by then-Columbia Mayor Stephen Benjamin, “A’ja Wilson Day.”

In four years, she helped USC to two Final Fours and its first national championship in 2017. And in 2018, she was gone.

After becoming the program’s first consensus National Player of the Year, Wilson became USC’s first No. 1 overall WNBA Draft pick and headed to the Las Vegas Aces.

Six years later, Wilson is coming home.

Back to Colonial Life Arena for a preseason exhibition between her back-to-back WNBA champion Aces and the Puerto Rican National Team at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Neutral-site preseason games like this one aren’t all that common in the WNBA, but they’re not unheard of. They can be used as a helpful tool to gauge interest as the league looks to expand and, in this case, help bridge the gap between WNBA and NCAA women’s college basketball fans.

“A lot of emotions for me because it’s a full-circle moment,” Wilson said of her homecoming. “And a lot of people in that arena, it’s going to be people that literally watched me from preschool to now. And so for me to go back and just show them where I am as a pro with my teammates is going to be super fun.”

Why are the Las Vegas Aces coming to South Carolina?

Originally, this preseason game featuring the Aces was supposed to be played in Wichita, Kansas.

The San Antonio Silver Stars hosted the Minnesota Lynx in a preseason game at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita 17 years ago, which Brian Hargrove helped organize while working for the Wichita Sports Commission. A couple years ago, Hargrove and his mother Linda decided they wanted to put on more professional sporting events in their home state through her organization ProHoops.

ProHoops is an annual invitation-only combine for top college seniors, free agents and overseas professionals to be evaluated by WNBA coaches and general managers as well as international coaches and agents. Linda started ProHoops 15 years ago after an extensive basketball career, which included helping coach the women’s 1992 U.S. Olympic team, serving as a general manager and coach of multiple WNBA franchises (Portland Fire, Washington Mystics) and standing at the helm of Wichita State’s women’s basketball program.

With Linda’s basketball connections and Brian’s event planning experience, the two set out to bring a WNBA preseason game to their home state.

Linda first reached out to Linn Dunn, a longtime friend and current Indiana Fever general manager. Dunn said the Fever’s preseason schedule was already full but suggested Linda speak with Aces GM Natalie Williams.

Williams and the Aces jumped at the opportunity. But ProHoops struggled to get another WNBA team to come out to Kansas. That’s when Brian came up with the idea of bridging the gap between NCAA women’s basketball fans and WNBA fans by bringing professional hoopers back to the college campuses where they became stars.

“With the Aces in already needing a game and all of that, we started thinking, ‘Well, where would be a natural place for the Aces to play?’” Linda said. “Well, good night — A’ja’s from Columbia!”

Naturally, Las Vegas loved the idea. Wilson’s freshman season at USC saw average home game attendance skyrocket from 6,371 to 12,293. The Gamecocks have led the nation in attendance every year since.

And the intersection of Aces and Gamecocks fans is wide. One of the A’ja Wilson Foundation’s annual fundraisers sells charter bus seats for a trip to an Atlanta Dream game when Las Vegas comes to town. Wilson’s mother, Eva, said they started with one bus but have since expanded to three.

If you ask South Carolina fans which WNBA team they root for?: “‘Vegas.’ ‘Vegas.’ ‘Vegas,’ ” said Lo Dreher, longtime South Carolina fan and graduate of the university. “Oh, I’ll cheer for Atlanta since they’re close. But, Vegas. When Atlanta plays Vegas in Atlanta, who do you think the crowd is going for? Everybody is going crazy for Vegas.”

Former South Carolina player A’ja Wilson walks across the court before the Gamecocks’ game against the visiting Terrapins at Colonial Life Arena on Sunday, November 12, 2023. Sam Wolfe/Special To The State
Former South Carolina player A’ja Wilson walks across the court before the Gamecocks’ game against the visiting Terrapins at Colonial Life Arena on Sunday, November 12, 2023. Sam Wolfe/Special To The State

How does a game like this come together?

Even with the venue change to Columbia’s Colonial Life Arena, the Aces struggled to find an opponent. Most WNBA teams are playing at least two exhibition games before the 2024 season starts. But for Las Vegas, Saturday’s game is it.

“No surprise,” Williams, the Aces GM, told The State. “Didn’t want to play the two-time world champs.”

After exhausting all intraleague options, ProHoops reached out to national teams, which is how Puerto Rico agreed to play.

Putting on this event is a collaborative effort between ProHoops, Las Vegas, the University of South Carolina and Colonial Life Arena. With everyone operating across three different time zones, the planning process has required “a lot of Zoom meetings,” Linda said, to discuss contracts, game day operations, halftime entertainment, marketing and social media strategy, apparel sales, media credentials and travel accommodations for both teams.

To use Colonial Life Arena this weekend, ProHoops agreed to pay South Carolina a rental fee of $55,000, according to documents obtained by The State. Ticket sales went through USC, which agreed to pay ProHoops $2 per paid ticket.

Las Vegas will have its own merchandise available for purchase in the arena, Williams said. ProHoops will offer event-specific merch that commemorates the game.

The Aces arrive in Columbia on Thursday by way of Washington, D.C., where they’re scheduled to visit the White House in celebration of their 2023 WNBA title. They’ll practice Friday, play Saturday, then begin the 2024 regular season at home Tuesday versus the Phoenix Mercury.

Las Vegas and ProHoops’ goal is for Wilson to play in front of a sold-out crowd this weekend (18,000), though they’re still several thousand short. The WNBA’s second consecutive Canada Game took place in front of a sold-out crowd of 16,655 strong last weekend.

Still, South Carolina fans are excited to welcome Wilson home. Within the first two or three days tickets went on sale March 3, Linda said, the lower bowl sold out. Over 11,000 tickets are gone.

“We’re pregaming,” Dreher said of the anticipation local fans have for this game. “…People are making whole weekends out of this thing!”

The Aces are open to more college town preseason games in the future. Maybe next year they’ll go to Notre Dame for Jackie Young. Then Middle Tennessee State for Alysha Clark. And Duke for Chelsea Gray. All in an effort to grow women’s basketball.