On Wednesday night, the Minnesota Lynx — currently the most dominant team in American sports — cemented their dynasty when they won their third championship in five years after defeating the Indiana Fever 69–52 in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals.
It was the first time since 2009 that the WNBA Finals have gone to a winner-take-all fifth game, and it was the first time the Lynx were able to clinch the title in front of their home crowd. A total of 18,993 raucous fans — including pop icon Prince and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater — were in attendance at the Target Center for the crowning moment.
Anyone who says that people don’t care about women’s sports hasn’t met the fans of the Minnesota Lynx. In Minnesota, the Lynx aren’t a sideshow or an afterthought — they’re an integral part of the sports community. Prince even threw the team a private concert to celebrate the win that lasted until 4:00 a.m.
“The arena was packed last night, and it was loud and everyone was into it,” Michael Rand, who has followed the Lynx closely in his role on the sports desk at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, told ThinkProgress. “It was a fantastic atmosphere.”
It wasn’t always this way, however. For years, the Lynx were in the basement of the WNBA and struggled to generate a lot of fan support. From 2000–2008, the team was ranked 11th or 12th in the league in attendance, averaging around 5,000 fans per game.
But in 2010, the journey to greatness began when coach Cheryl Reeve was hired and the team traded to get hometown hero Lindsay Whalen from the Connecticut Sun. Then, with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, the Lynx selected Maya Moore, who has since gone on to become one of the most successful athletes in American professional sports.
Maya Moore’s first five seasons… 3 titles, an MVP award and a Rookie of the Year award. No NHL, NFL, MLB or NBA player has ever done that
— Bucci Mane (@Buccigross) October 15, 2015
Since then, the team has reached the finals in four of the last five years, increased its average attendance by nearly 2,000 fans per game, and had two championship parades thrown for them in downtown Minneapolis. There will be a third on Friday.
According to Rand, the timing was perfect for the Lynx to build a solid fanbase, since the Minnesota Vikings, Twins, Wild, and Timberwolves were all struggling in 2011.
“They filled the gap, not just for people who like basketball and want to support women’s sports, but for people who think winning is nice,” Rand said. “They couldn’t have picked a better time to get good, and now they’ve now carved out their place in the Minnesota sporting landscape.”
The Lynx play in the newly-renovated Target Center in downtown Minneapolis, easily accessible by public transportation and car, and train at a first-class practice facility that they share equally with the Timberwolves. The team also gets a lot of crossover support from the other teams in the area.
Now, thanks in no small part to that patience and support, Minnesota finally has a winning sports team.
“They’re the Yankees of the WNBA,” Rand said. “Fans here hate the Yankees because they’re so good, but they love it when they’re on the [winning] side.”
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) October 14, 2015
With strong fundamentals and bevy of selfless veterans, including Seimone Augustus and Finals MVP Sylvia Fowles (a midseason addition to the team), the Lynx have drawn comparison to another basketball dynasty, the San Antonio Spurs. If that comparison holds true, then Lynx fans have a lot of winning to look forward to in the future.
By many measures, it’s been a rough year for the WNBA. The league began the season under a cloud of controversy, with the New York Liberty hiring alleged sexual harasser Isiah Thomas as its president and league stars Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson receiving suspensions for a domestic abuse arrest. The league had the lowest fan attendance in its relatively short history this season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters last month that he “thought the WNBA would have broken through by now,” lamenting the low television ratings and attendance numbers.
Last week, WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes added to the chorus of negativity when she said, “the players today, I don’t feel like they love the game. There are some, not all of them, but overall I don’t feel like the passion is there for the game.” Swoopes also made concerning comments about the looks and sexuality of WNBA players, praising “beautiful” players like Tulsa Shock guard Skylar Diggins while dismissing Griner and Johnson.
As Kate Fagan of espnW wrote, as bothersome as Swoopes’ comments were, they echoed an ongoing battle over the WNBA’s image, both internally and externally. “The league must love and understand itself before it can pinpoint the best way to communicate a clear message to the public,” Fagan wrote.
But with as many struggles as the WNBA has right now — not unusual for a league in its 17th year — the Lynx are proof that great basketball and institutional support can help overcome the inherent challenge of creating a foothold for women’s sports in a male-dominated environment.
“Well, this never gets old,” a champagne-soaked Reeve said as she entered the press room after celebrating the win with nearly 20,000 fans. “Best way to describe it is surreal.”