One consistent concern heard from WNBA fans over the years is that the league doesn't think "big picture" enough -- including with the WNBA All-Star Game.
The 15th rendition of the game will be held Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) in Minneapolis at the recently renovated Target Center. And there will be a new format for the contest: No more East vs. West, but instead two captain-picked teams of 11 players each. Team Elena Delle Donne will face Team Candace Parker, with members of the hometown Lynx on each side.
But while there's no shortage of excitement among WNBA fans about all they've seen in this record-breaking season and hope to see at the All-Star Game, the lack of activities around the game is disappointing.
There are kids' clinics on Thursday and Friday, but those are prearranged by invitation of the WNBA and not open to the public. On Friday afternoon, there are practices for both teams and a panel on women's leadership that includes Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. Those are open only to All-Star Game ticket holders, although the Lynx also are bringing in about 2,500 youngsters to the practices and are giving game tickets to about 1,000 who are from less-privileged circumstances.
Then there is the "orange carpet," which the WNBA players will traverse as they enter Target Center early Friday evening for a reception inside that is not open to the public. So that's basically a half-hour of the players walking past fans and hopefully stopping to sign autographs and pose for pictures -- if you're in the right spot. There will be a 3-point shooting contest at halftime of the All-Star Game.
Why not try for a festive atmosphere specifically highlighting the WNBA, created around the Target Center for two days? How about a fan jam with live music, games for kids, player appearances and autograph signings, trivia contests, raffles and ticket or merchandise giveaways?
Why, for a league still in growth mode, is the All-Star Game not made more of a celebration of the fans? Isn't that really supposed to be the purpose of every sport's All-Star Game?
Yes, but the individual franchises that host the All-Star Game have a bottom line: They are the ones responsible for ensuring they at least break even on the venture. And at this point, the Lynx are still short of reaching what would be a sellout of 17,893.
Carley Knox, the Lynx director of business operations, said that Minnesota is committed to making it a first-class experience for the players and fans, but things like a fan festival outside Target Center just didn't fit into the budget.
"We're trying to blow it out of the water with what we're doing with introductions and entertainment throughout the game," Knox said. "We really wanted to focus on the main components, rather than spreading ourselves too thin on a lot of different things.
"Tickets are as low as $20 for the upper bowl. So fans can come enjoy the game, as well as the practice, the entertainment we've worked in there, and the inspiring women panel."
Plus, there are some limits for the host franchises because it's a WNBA-organized event. The league finalizes the activities schedule -- which wasn't made public until last Thursday, nine days before the game.
"The players as a collective are not engaged by the league in the planning of the All-Star Game and fan-engagement activations. We certainly would welcome the opportunity to collaborate and provide creative input on a high-profile event during the season." Terri Jackson, WNBA players' union director of operations
What do the players think? Players' union director of operations Terri Jackson said the WNBPA would like to have more input on the All-Star Game.
"Unfortunately, the players as a collective are not engaged by the league in the planning of the All-Star Game and fan-engagement activations," Jackson said. "We certainly would welcome the opportunity to collaborate and provide creative input on a high-profile event during the season."
As for the new format with team captains, the league followed the lead of the NBA, which went to that model for its game in February. The WNBA did not publicly announce the new format until June 5, two weeks after the season had started.
Jackson said the players' union was not opposed to the concept that many fans floated of making the All-Star draft public. But she said the players had reservations about how it would be executed.
"They did express concern that the league had reached out at a time that was pretty 'late in the game' to get this done, and to get it done right," Jackson said. "Nevertheless, the players responded quickly with suggestions like a special gift or special recognition for the last pick. We thought that was pretty innovative and might further drive media attention, fan engagement and maybe usher in new corporate sponsors."
What about more corporate engagement, such as from Nike? The company is in its first full year as official apparel provider for the NBA, WNBA and G League. Nike released a line of products specifically linked to the 2018 NBA All-Star Game. As for the WNBA, there is "nothing planned," according to a Nike spokeswoman.
And there's this challenge: Local sponsors that the Lynx (or other host franchises) might be able to get for the All-Star Game aren't allowed because they conflict with exclusive partnerships of the WNBA/NBA.
Does the NBA's expertise in event planning and marketing factor in? That league's All-Star Weekend has turned into an enormous celebrity-filled party that also has many ways of engaging average fans. But it wasn't always like that. Current Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts is credited with coming up with the concept of the NBA's All-Star Weekend in 1984, which included the dunk contest for the first time.
Welts, then with the league office, had to work hard to sell the concept of the All-Star Weekend both to sponsors and to outgoing NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien, who was handing over the reins to David Stern. Welts was a big-idea guy, and it was an idea that took flight and continues to soar.
This is not to make a direct comparison between the two leagues; the NBA has been around a half-century longer and has a much greater reach and fan base. But the NBA had to learn how to sell itself so effectively, and it did. Perhaps the NBA could find more ways to make the WNBA All-Star Game a bigger showcase than it is.
Ultimately, is this really just about economics and the WNBA's continued battle to create a stronger footprint in the sports-entertainment realm? Or are there some fixable gaps in communication and inspiration among all the parties involved? It's probably fair to say both.
But especially in a season in which the league continues to have so much to celebrate, the question is worth asking: Why can't the WNBA throw itself and its fans a little bigger party?
Knox responded to that by saying she hopes people wait to see how things actually go in Minneapolis.
"Let's get through the weekend and then pass judgment," she said. "We've worked hard and put a lot into this, so let's see what people think after they've experienced it."