With the Olympics fast approaching, the game’s brightest stars descend on the desert for an All-Star event unlike any other.
The WNBA’s 25th anniversary season has debatably been its most exciting yet, showcasing nail-biting action, the return of the dunk, and a rising class of young stars who are positioned to usher in the next generation of the longest-standing women’s professional league.
The All-Star rosters feature plenty of iconic names, including Tina Charles, Candace Parker, and a record-setting 12th appearance from Sue Bird. But they also feature a whole lot of new blood: Eight first-time All-Stars are the fold tonight in Las Vegas.
Tonight’s game tips off at 7 p.m. on ESPN from Michelob ULTRA Arena at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
And it’s a night to celebrate a true milestone for the women of professional basketball’s past, present, and future.
Bright Lights, Sin City
This is the first time Las Vegas has ever hosted an All-Star Game for a mainstream professional sport.
The WNBA’s edition is the first to plant its flag in the Nevada oasis, but they won’t be the last — the NHL’s All-Star Weekend is slated to descend upon Vegas next year.
In recent years, Vegas has shifted from go-to site for platinum pop-up spectacles like boxing and mixed martial arts to a real 24/7 sports city. And the WNBA’s role in that evolution cannot be understated.
At the forefront of the trend? The Las Vegas Aces, who claimed Mandalay Bay as their home in 2018. They are now joined by the Vegas Golden Knights (NHL), Las Vegas Lights (USL Championship), and the NFL’s recently relocated Raiders.
And starting in 2022, a National Lacrosse League franchise will join the party led by New York Liberty and Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai.
The Aces are definitely happy to have a home game this week, and they’ve earned it, as four Vegas players were named All-Stars: Liz Cambage, Chelsea Gray, Dearica Hamby, and 2020 league MVP A’ja Wilson.
A Night to Remember
The 2021 All-Star Game not only means a nice break for a number of players, but also serves as an official Summer Olympics send-off.
And as it has done all season, the league will commemorate the current crop of stars while also celebrating the accomplishments that shaped their success.
This includes a halftime celebration of the 1996 gold-medal winning USA team that symbolized a major step forward for women’s pro sports with their dominance on the international stage, which paved the way for the launch of the WNBA the very next year.
This time, the game’s format pits Team USA vs. Team WNBA. And the winner will claim more than just bragging rights.
For some members of Team WNBA, the game is personal. As Bahamas-born Connecticut Sun star Jonquel Jones told Just Women’s Sports, she’s motivated for victory based on the stories she could tell if her squad brings home a W: “I’m going to be like 85 talking to my grandkids, and I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, back in 2021, we beat the gold medal team, so technically I won a gold medal.’”
Team WNBA will have some Olympic star power of their own, as they will be co-coached by Hall of Famers Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson, who own a combined six gold medals.
The evening’s event will serve as a moment of reflection on the history of the league. But beyond just the Summer Games, also presents a window into other successes that are still to come.
A Record-setting Season
At the midseason mark, the WNBA is finding record-setting support from a growing fanbase.
TV viewership has hit new highs thanks in large part to expanded viewing schedule in partnership with WNBA Changemakers Google, and ESPN. Early-season reports showed that 74% more fans tuned into the first week of WNBA games on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 than in 2020.
However, in a recent interview with Forbes, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert estimated the league’s actual viewership gains were much higher due to the pandemic’s delay on the season’s start date in 2020.
Just as the story goes with the men’s game, however, TV ratings alone tell an incomplete story. The game’s actual reach is truly much greater.
Need evidence? Each night, the WNBA Twittersphere explodes with fan love, highlights, and, of course, runway-caliber drips. In addition, the WNBA stands from coast to coast have been star-studded, with the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and power couples like Russell Wilson and Ciara all dropping in to catch the action live on any given night.
Off the court, the WNBA also continues to be a tireless advocate for various issues, extending their legacy work for voter registration and Black Lives Matter that served as the heartbeat of last year’s “Wubble.” The league recently announced that 99% of its players had received the COVID-19 vaccination, and that all 12 of its teams had met desired vaccination thresholds.
We can only anticipate that the engagement numbers will continue to flourish with the league’s first-ever Commissioner’s Cup championship between the Connecticut Sun and the Seattle Storm on August 12th with prize money north of $500,000 on the line.
But that’s still a good four weeks away. Tonight we celebrate the WNBA and all it has accomplished on behalf of women in its 25-year history.
Sure, there have been countless “Ladies’ Nights” in Vegas over the years. But never one like this.