'You just feel like you're a part of something': How fan-driven communities are helping grow WNBA viewership

For many, the fandom goes beyond a team or a city. It’s an opportunity to build a community and find your people, which often spills over into real life. And WNBA fans could be organizing exactly what the league needs to grow their viewership.

Lorri Gyenes, also known as Sky Mayor Redhead Lorri, has been a WNBA fan since the league’s inception and is popular with the Wintrust Arena faithful. She is a Chicago Sky season ticket holder and has backed them since day 1, following the team from what used to be the UIC Pavilion to the Allstate Arena and its current home in the South Loop. At first, Gyenes and her fellow “Sky Riders” used message boards to connect and plan follow-up activities, but have since transitioned to what’s known as #WNBATwitter.

“On WNBA Twitter, I feel like I made friends,” he told the Tribune. “I met a guy several years ago. He was from Sweden and he flew in from Sweden to come watch the WNBA and then we met at the game.”

“You feel like you’re part of something. I am a former psychologist. … A lot of the people who come to these games are actually introverts, but they feel like they belong, and that’s important too. So it’s not just the sport, you know? There is more to it than that.”

That same feeling of belonging is shared by Alliya Pinckney, a member of the PWRFWD (power forward) women’s basketball fan community.

“I don’t really have any interest in the NBA,” said Pinckney, a former player and coach at the University of St. Thomas in Miami. “The women’s game is everything that I’ve really liked a lot, a lot because of the fundamentals, because of the attention to detail and things of that nature.

“When I stopped playing and training, I didn’t have people who had the same interest as me. It was always about the man’s game. So when I found PWRFWD, it was literally the best thing I’ve ever had because it was the community I never knew I needed.”

Originally focused on being a platform that allows athletes to take control of their personal brand, PWRFWD changed to an online community of fans with more than 1,000 members.

“We were accidentally building a community bigger than anything, any product,” said co-founder and CEO Luke Bonner. “Then we finally realized that we were in a unique place. It was really like being a bridge between athletes, fans, agents, sports executives, et cetera, et cetera.”

PWRFWD has members from all over the world, and they congregate on the group’s Discord app, discuss WNBA games, and compete for a shot at their courtside seats. They have two tickets to the field for each WNBA market, and members nominate people to win “the experience of a lifetime,” said Nadia Eke, community manager for PWRFWD.

“People are calling on communities to nominate them,” Eke said. “The reason we did it that way is because we wanted people to have a chance to meet each other. I think a lot of times when people build communities on this scale, that element of interpersonal warmth is missing. We really wanted to bring that back to the space we were creating.

“What was really important for members of our community is to be connected with other people who are so passionate about what they do and what better way to connect them than to get to know each other.”

Though not strictly a WNBA fan group, participation leans heavily toward women’s professional basketball as fans desperately seek places to connect.

In addition to their usual seating, PWRFWD had a suite on Tuesday at Wintrust Arena for the Commissioner’s Cup Final between Sky and Las Vegas Aces. PWRFWD invited their Discord members to experience the game. Pinckney, a Chicago-area native who lives in the Bay Area, flew to Chicago to join the group, and two other fans flew in from Minnesota. Morgan Park graduate Subria Whitaker was also in attendance.

Whitaker and her friend Aaliyah Granger, a Mississippi native, created grow the game, a fan group that gathers across the country for WNBA games. Unlike PWRFWD, there are no season tickets, but it is grassroots fandom at its most authentic.

After Whitaker noticed that it sparked interest on his social media accounts, he began inviting people to games.

“In the years that I’ve been a fan of the WNBA, I’ve always talked about it a lot,” Whitaker said. “But there was something from last year where more people started noticing it, especially on Twitter. People were like, ‘Oh, you’re always at these WNBA games and you always talk about it and it looks like fun, and I want to go.’ ”

Grow the Game has hosted so many fan meetings that it has been recognized by Sky and given its own entry link. A portion of the proceeds goes to Grow the Game to help host more meetups and attract new fans. Since Whitaker and Granger started, they estimate they’ve helped more than 250 people go to WNBA games.

A common refrain from detractors of women’s sports is: “They don’t have fans.” But the league’s avid following has inspired believes otherwise. Complaints are frequent about the accessibility of the game, as there are so few teams, so few games, and no consistent TV schedule.

When the 3-point and skills competitions during All-Star Weekend were closed to fans, the WNBA left out some of its most ardent supporters and overlooked the keys to its current and future success. Despite that, the All-Star Game drew 9,572 fans. The Sky are averaging 7,008 fans this season, up from 3,187 in 2021. Online fan communities are popping up and helping to bridge gaps created by league missteps.

“I love sports,” Gyenes said. “Part of it is supporting women, but also feeling like I belong somewhere, that I can come out of my shell.”

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