Saturday, May 25

‘It’s showtime’: Las Vegas Aces making WNBA Finals the place to be

The Athletic has live coverage of the WNBA Finals Game 2 featuring the New York Liberty vs. Las Vegas Aces

LAS VEGAS — There wasn’t an empty seat in “The House.” Just before tipoff of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, shortly after noon (PT) on an NFL Sunday, Michelob ULTRA Arena was rocking. Extended “Aces” chants echoed from the sellout crowd as it feverishly twirled “Raise the Stakes” towels in anticipation of what was to come. The atmosphere remained electric for over two hours as the Aces beat the Liberty 99-82 to take a 1-0 series lead.

The crux of all the support, of course, is winning.

“Vegas appreciates winning,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said Sunday. “This city has really rallied around this team, even before last year’s championship. It’s just so cool to see. And not only are they selling out, but they’re interactive — they’re booing, they’re cheering, they’re barking. They’re such a part of it. It’s just so cool to see the growth of the game. We’re going to need ’em. This is going to be a tough series. They really help us. We feed off their energy. And tonight was tremendous.”

The defending WNBA champion Aces had the best record in the league this season and are playing in their third WNBA Finals in four seasons. They need two more wins to become the first team since the 2002 Los Angeles Sparks to win back-to-back WNBA titles. It’s pretty easy to root for such consistent dominance.

Across 20 regular-season contests, the Aces led the WNBA this season with an average home attendance of 9,551 fans. Altogether, they drew 191,024 fans during the regular season. In the playoffs, the turnout has only increased. Through their first four home playoff games, the Aces led the WNBA with an average of 10,249 fans. Game 1 against the Liberty was sold out, and the same goes for their ticket allotment for Game 2 and the conditional Game 5.

“The city of Las Vegas has really embraced this team,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Sunday. “You used to come in and come from the airport, and the cab driver wouldn’t know who the Las Vegas Aces were, and now everybody in the city knows who the Las Vegas Aces are.”

To stand out in the increasingly crowded sports and entertainment field of Las Vegas, the Aces have had to go above and beyond. Their season overlaps with those of the NFL’s Raiders, NHL’s Golden Knights and UNLV football, not to mention a litany of other large-scale events and attractions like casinos, concerts, clubs and bars. Despite that, Aces games have remained one of the places to be in Las Vegas. Pulling that off started with something deeper than simply winning basketball games.

After arriving in Vegas in 2018, the Aces ingratiated themselves with the community. That meant not only conducting outreach on The Strip but also making sure their presence was felt in the surrounding neighborhoods through local corporate sponsorships, after-school programming and promotional events centered on topics such as education, financial equity, diversity and inclusion as part of an effort to ensure that Las Vegas felt the Aces were truly theirs. Continuing that work in the years since has established foundational local support.

“I think it continues because we’re in the community. It’s not just enough for people to come to our building; it’s for us to go to them,” Aces president Nikki Fargas told The Athletic on Thursday. “That’s a big part of why people feel connected to us — because we give back to the community as well.”

That plus high-level basketball gets fans into the doors of Michelob ULTRA Arena. What makes them keep coming back, though, comes down to the game day experience.

“The fan experience has to be over the top,” Aces chief marketing and communications officer Blair Hardiek said. “The product on the court speaks for itself, but we want to have an experience where from the minute you step into the facility to when you leave, you’re thoroughly entertained.”

In true Las Vegas fashion, the Aces have leaned into their pregame national anthem renditions and halftime performances. Jordin Sparks and Ashanti were the latest to perform on Sunday. The Aces have hosted musical acts such as Rick Ross, Kehlani, Teyana Taylor, Lil Jon, Coi Leray, the late Coolio and the Blue Man Group, numerous dance crews like the Jabbawockeez, Cirque du Soleil performers, ventriloquists and more. There are various giveaways, themed nights and on-court engagements. Throughout games, they constantly pepper fans with interactive videos, games and chants through their JumboTron and sound system.

“It’s cool to see from last year to this year how many more fans we have, and not just that they’re sitting in their seats, but they’re smiling, they’re up, they’re dancing, they’re engaging with the game,” Hardiek said. “They’re not just watching the game go by.”

When it comes to marketing, it’s helpful that the Aces have one of the most personality-laden and marketable rosters in the league.

A’ja Wilson — the two-time MVP, two-time defensive player of the year and five-time All-Star — is a prominent Nike-endorsed athlete who regularly goes viral thanks to her humor. Plum is known for barking at the crowd and hosted her inaugural “Dawg Class” summit to help ease the transition from college to the pros for athletes through her Under Armour endorsement this past offseason. Chelsea Gray’s dynamic handles and creative passes make her a nonstop highlight machine. Candace Parker is one of the best players in league history and works as an NBA analyst on TNT in the offseason. Role players Sydney Colson and Theresa Plaisance have garnered a big enough audience to land the unscripted comedy series “The Syd + TP Show,” which debuted last month.

“Honestly, it’s everything. We always say here at the Aces — and even myself personally — that people don’t fall in love with a brand or organization; they fall in love with people,” Hardiek said. “So, it’s the accessibility of all of them and just the relatability. They’re very human, genuine, authentic. … If you come to a game, how they play is with joy. How they play is with love. So, fans feel that, they see it, and it helps with everything. … People want to follow the Aces because they’re falling in love with the people that the players are.”

Even coach Becky Hammon is a star in her own right, and she has urged the players to not only embrace their personalities off the court but also allow it to carry over into how they play on the court. Hammon harps on fundamentals, but she encourages players to shoot a lot of 3s, play with tenacity, run up and down the court and get creative. Winning games remains the top priority, but it’s also part of an effort to entertain fans.

“Becky wants them to be more than just the uniform,” Fargas said. “And this is Vegas, so when the lights come on, it’s showtime.”

Among the droves of fans drawn by the Aces have been numerous celebrities. Sunday, WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes, newly approved minority owner Tom Brady, Lakers forward LeBron James and several members of the Brooklyn Nets, including Mikal Bridges, Ben Simmons and Cam Johnson, attended. They’re part of an ever-growing list that includes the late Kobe Bryant, Floyd Mayweather, Shaquille O’Neal, Bill Russell, Dwyane Wade, Gabrielle Union, Paris Hilton, Dana White and others. Actor Mark Wahlberg sat courtside at Game 1.

“It’s fantastic for us to showcase people who are the best at what they do being in our building to watch us be the best at what we do,” Hardiek said. “Becky at last year’s (championship) parade said, ‘Representation and showing up counts.’ I think all the people that we get in the building, whether it’s a local fan, tourist, celebrity, no matter who you are, you enjoy the product that’s on the court and you enjoy the entertainment factor of an Aces game.”

A telling figure that highlights the Aces’ popularity spreading is the crowds they helped draw in road contests. In 20 road games, the Aces led the WNBA in average attendance at 7,632 and total attendance at 152,639. That’s reflective of the Aces having a national impact that extends far beyond Las Vegas.

A large part of that is because the Aces’ social media presence has skyrocketed. In October 2020, the Aces had just over 130,000 combined followers across Instagram and X, formerly Twitter. Now, they have over 365,000 combined followers across the two platforms. They’ve wisely put that enhanced platform to use and made a greater investment in merchandise to expand their reach. They view that as good for not only the franchise but also the league.

“I think it’s bigger than just the Aces because we’re seeing that now fans love the WNBA,” Hardiek said. “They like watching women’s basketball, not just the Aces. We are seeing more people in stands at away games, and I think it’s just a testament to the growth of the game, period.”

That takes visibility but also a level of commitment in terms of finances. Owner Mark Davis has shown that through building the Aces the first standalone facility in WNBA history, making Hammon the first $1 million coach in league history, launching an alumni initiative in 2021 and generally sparing no expenses when it comes to providing what the Aces need to continue pushing their operations forward.

“He wanted to change the landscape of women’s basketball,” Fargas said. “What you’re seeing is other teams are saying, ‘Wow, we need to step up and do the same.’”

The Seattle Storm broke ground on a team facility this year, and the Liberty have sent representatives to tour the Aces’ facility to do the same. Besides facilities, the Aces are helping push for greater pay for players, coaches, executives and various other team staffers, improved team travel and other benefits that the WNBA doesn’t yet offer.

Naturally, pushing for those changes requires production in terms of business success. The good news for the WNBA is there are signs of progress. TV ratings have been up throughout the 2023 season, which was the most viewed since 2008, and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors were awarded the league’s first expansion team since 2008 on Thursday. The only way for that to continue is for fan support to keep surging.

“There’s no better time to be part of the WNBA, and we’re going to continue to fuel our business transformation,” Engelbert said. “As we move into next season and the future, we’re also focused on globalizing the game, how the media landscape is shifting, what content is interesting to our fans and in what format — short form, long form — how our younger fans are consuming our content. And that’s just the hard work of everyone in the league’s ecosystem — including teams, players, owners — really (putting) this league in a great position, and it’s been a priority of mine to make sure the players, the teams and the league assets are getting the values they deserve.”

The Aces are leaders in that effort. They’re not just one of the best teams in the WNBA; they’re drawing the most support in the league in terms of fan turnout, have national influence and are trending upward financially. Of course, winning another championship would only push them even higher.

“There is no ceiling here of what the Aces can be or where the Aces can go,” Hardiek said. “It will continue to grow.”

(Photo of Kiah Stokes: David Becker / NBAE via Getty Images)