As the WNBA and Chicago Sky are set for their final tune-up for the fifth season in Chicago, there are more questions than answers. Will the Chicago Sky be stormy or clear? What are the long-term chances for the Chicago Sky being "blue skies from now on?"
After four years, the question remains. Will Chicago commit?
Whenever a new major sports league comes to town there is that familiar insecurity that one often feels when beginning a new relationship.
The league and its teams worry that after the honeymoon, fan interest will fall off. Fans are reluctant to give their whole hearts to the new home team. Like anyone in the early stages of a relationship, there’s a lot of pulse taking, a lot of hypersensitivity to any sign or signal that the new suitor may not be around for the long haul.
It becomes a chicken and egg situation. Fans are reluctant to commit for fear the team or the league might fold, and if the franchise or the league folds, it is usually due to lack of fan support.
Often the media are the most reticent to commit. Again, using the relationship metaphor, there is a sense in which the media plays the role of the fans’ extended family.
Typically, the extended family’s attitude toward a prospective partner can douse the flame before it ever ignites.
If the local media don’t give the new suitor a stamp of legitimacy, many fans will not consider a first date. Sure there are the rebels and the ones who are in love at first sight, for whom the family’s opinion be damned, but there is a much larger group that just won’t be open to a first date with someone who is not considered “relationship material” by the family or the community.
As much as all of this is true for any new sports franchise, it is especially true of women's sports. And as difficult as it is for women's sports in other major markets, women’s sports in Chicago have had to fight twice as hard as they have in many other major league markets.
Chicago was slow to embrace the WNBA, and when they finally did, the Chicago Sky arrived as an expansion team with extra-NBA ownership. The Bulls did a survey and passed on the WNBA, saying there was insufficient interest. Chicago had to wait for someone outside the NBA to come along and take the plunge. The Sky's success thus far seems to prove the Bulls right.
Now, for the second season, there is added competition for the "insufficient fanbase." WNBA and WPS (Women's Professional Soccer, Chicago Red Stars) are competing with each other for the loyalty of many of the same fans, and neither is doing that well.
But who gets the blame, the fans or the media?
In a recent online chat with Chicago sports media personalities, I raised the issue of Chicago’s two major league women’s teams being all but frozen out of mainstream media coverage. And in saying frozen out, I mean not even a mention of a score on the evening news, say nothing of film highlights.
The replies I received were very telling. One person asked, “What’s the Red Stars?” That was followed by some comments about the name Red Stars sounding communist or socialist. Another comment was, “Aren’t they 0-3?”
The only woman in the group—Cheryl Ray Stout—said she “tried to watch the Sky,” when they first came to town four years ago, but the quality of play was so poor she “couldn’t stand to watch.”
There were more comments about women’s basketball just not measuring up to the level of play in the men’s game. Then one of the panel members said he thought women’s soccer might actually take hold if it can survive long enough to get some traction.
At that point I chided the media panel again for not giving the Sky or the Red Stars a fair shot. The woman in the group said, “The pie is too small. We can’t slice it any smaller.”
My response: In Chicago, they slice the pie for minor league hockey, despite the presence of a major league team, and for arena football, despite having an NFL team, so if the pie is sliced too thin, reduce minor league coverage to make room for major league women’s coverage.
Unfortunately, I did not receive a response to that comment.
Thus, there is cause to be concerned for the future of a fan’s relationship with the Sky and the Red Stars and with their respective leagues, and attendance is the most obvious indicator.
If one attends a game and sees a crowd that looks a little smaller than the previous season, one begins to feel that queasy feeling, that tightness in the chest, that worry that the new love won’t be there in the morning.
The Chicago Sky has consistently run at 50 percent or less of WNBA attendance norms, certainly not a reassuring number to Chicago fans. In fact, in their inaugural season, the Red Stars drew more fans than the Sky in season four ('09).
While the Sky is dead last in WNBA attendance and always has been, the Red Stars were second in WPS, last year. In ’09 the Sky drew 3,932 compared to the Red Stars' 4,941, or more than a thousand fewer fans than their soccer counterparts, per game.
This is especially significant since the two leagues’ seasons are largely concurrent.
League-wide, however, the WNBA appears to be ahead of soccer (when compared to WPS and/or its predecessor, WUSA). And while the WNBA increased its attendance from year one (9,669) to year two (10,869), WPS attendance, including Chicago, is down somewhat in the second season thus far.
It is true that in year three through year 10 (2006), the WNBA reversed its attendance trends, but since then, they are trending higher again. After hitting a low of 7,490 in 2006 the league-wide attendance climbed steadily if slowly to 8,039 in ’09. This number is still more than 20 percent below the peak year but is nearly 10 percent higher than the low point.
But league trends are not necessarily Chicago trends as we have seen. And now that the Sky has moved to the Arena Previously Known as the Horizon (now Allstate Arena, but with the Sky as a major tenant perhaps they should change it back) there will be twice as many empty seats even if the team can hold its own or increase its attendance.
And that is a major point of concern. We have learned from Major League Soccer that scale of venue is crucial to long-term success. Once MLS was able to escape the "cavernous" American football stadia for soccer-only venues, attendance and prosperity increased dramatically.
WPS is dealing with the same issue now. For the women's game, despite the fact that unlike men's soccer in America, WPS is the world's premier professional women's league in their sport, attendance is lagging far behind the men's game. Those relatively intimate soccer-only MLS venues are "cavernous" in relation to the attendance at the women's game. In Chicago, the 4-5,000 fans who turn out to see the Red Stars play a typical home match are dwarfed by 21,000 seat Toyota Park.
UIC Pavilion was an ideal venue for the Sky, since crowds of 3-5,000 were not swallowed up by the space. More than half of the seats at UIC were filled more than half the time. Allstate, on the other hand, is in the range of smaller NBA venues, and unless the Sky can dramatically increase their gate, their crowds will seem smaller, quieter, and the games will seem less exciting.
All of this spells uncertainty for the elder sister of major league women's sports in the Windy City. While it's too soon to draw any conclusions about the long-term fate of the Red Stars or their league, it appears that 2010 could be a crucial year for the Sky.
Despite declarations by ownership that the franchise is stable, it is hard to imagine that another season of attendance running a third to a half of the league range, looking and sounding even smaller than it is, in relationship to the new environment, will not spell the end of the WNBA in Chicago. And while the WNBA is entering its 14th season, the league as a whole is still on NBA life support.
The only hope for the Sky, or we suspect, their counterparts on the soccer pitch, is a sea-change in the attitude of local media. On the other hand, the media follows the crowd. If there were enough grass roots support, the media would eventually follow the noise.
Without media the only way to attract a crowd is publicity. As expensive as advertising and marketing is in major media markets, the WNBA and the WPS have no choice but to dramatically increase their public exposure by any means necessary. If that means buying prime advertising, then that must be done.
Social media is an increasingly effective means of generating buzz, especially for the young adult demographic. The WNBA and WPS and each of their franchises are fairly active on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media but the effectiveness of the messages they send out should be evaluated. It is possible they could do a better job of optimizing social media to fill the seats.
Major league women's sports offer an extra dimension to the competitive sports community in Chicago and nationwide. But in Chicago especially, the future of the Sky and the (Red) Stars depends on the decision of the franchises to find a way to woo and hold new fans regardless of the cost, and on fans to let their hearts go for the sake of a chance to see something promising grow into something permanent.
It's also time for the Chicago media to preempt scores and highlights of minor league sports in favor of major league women's sports. To adapt a cliché from a classic sports movie, "If you report it, they will come."