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Chicago Sky fans temper newfound attention with heightened expectations ahead of 2024 home debut: 'It's transformative'

Julia Poe, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Basketball

For longtime Chicago Sky fans, it feels as if women’s basketball finally arrived at its breakthrough moment.

That feeling built up long before the Sky’s home opener Saturday against the Connecticut Sun. Across the WNBA, business is booming — 10 sold-out games during opening week, a 14% increase in attendance across the league, an 181% increase in ESPN viewership. And in Chicago, the arrival of first-round picks Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese lifted the Sky to new heights.

“This year is so different because it’s finally becoming mainstream in the way that all sports are mainstream,” fan Ciera Love said. “This unique space that we’re in — it’s transformative, not just for the game today but for generations to come.”

Last season the Sky averaged 7,241 fans per game, according to Across the Timeline, just less than 70% of capacity at Wintrust Arena. The enthusiasm extended internationally for fans such as Clement Chavernoz, who fell in love with the team from London while catching games on WNBA League Pass in 2011.

But die-hard support didn’t translate to ubiquity in the Chicago sports market, which is saturated by the Bulls and Bears. Only a few years ago, strangers were still confusing season ticket holder Mat Benson’s Sky baseball cap for a Golden State Warriors logo.

But this season is different. Preseason ticket sales for the Sky were five times higher than in 2022 — and 41 times higher than 2018. The team sold out of Reese jerseys before she landed in Chicago. And from social media to broadcast viewership, it’s clear the Sky are poised for their highest profile season in franchise history.

 

“The Sky are the most successful sports franchise in Chicago in the last five years — they made the playoffs every year and won a championship,” season ticket holder Justin Cottrell said. “No other team in Chicago can say that. They’re trying to build a winning culture and I think that the city is starting to respect that and take notice of that.”

As the league embraces a wave of new fans, the Sky face a balancing act: capitalizing on the boom of attention while still hewing to the interests of longtime fans.

This is a challenge as both attendance and prices soar across the WNBA. Many fans gravitated toward the Sky because tickets were affordable. In 2021, the average ticket price for a Sky game was $43. In the same year, the average ticket price for a Bulls game was $225.

“I love going to live sports, I always have, but it just was not in the budget to go to Bulls games and Bears games,” Benson said. “Part of the reason why I started going to Sky games is I could get to as many games as I wanted for pretty cheap. The ability to see the team in person a lot really helps connect as a fan with the team. Being a part of the energy and a part of the experience in the early days — it was really exciting.”

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