Women’s basketball legends Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley sat courtside Sunday as the WNBA All-Stars took the floor at Wintrust Arena in front of a loud, energetic crowd.
Retiring veterans Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles received flowers after the first quarter. Chicago-area native Candace Parker and her Sky teammate Courtney Vandersloot received the loudest welcome from the home crowd.
But despite the celebratory atmosphere among the 9,572 fans inside the arena, some missteps overshadowed the league’s first All-Star weekend held in Chicago.
There was no shortage of demand to see Sunday’s game. According to ticket marketplace Vivid Seats, the average ticket price on the secondary market was $164, the highest for a WNBA All-Star Game in the last five years — and 64% more than the second-highest.
But unlike last years, fans were not invited to attend Saturday’s 3-point and skills competitions. Instead of holding the events at Wintrust Arena, which was committed to host the Nike Nationals high school girls basketball tournament, the league staged them inside McCormick Place with temporary courts and bleachers.
As the Sky’s Allie Quigley made history by winning her fourth 3-point competition, Sky fans were relegated to watching it on TV. The team invited “select premium” season ticket holders to a viewing party at a hospitality area inside McCormick Place. Other fans were expected to hang out at WNBA Live — an outdoor fan festival set up in the McCormick Place parking lot — while the events took place in the otherwise empty convention center.
The fans in attendance during Saturday’s competition were youth basketball players competing in the Nike Nationals, many of whom seemed less than interested in what was taking place on the court.
After two seasons affected by the COVID-19 pandemic — there was no All-Star Game in 2020 and attendance was limited last year — WNBA fans were excited to return to All-Star weekend festivities, with many booking flights from around the country once Chicago was announced as the host in late April.
But they seemed to be the only ones planning ahead. Other parts of the planning — including schedules and locations not being released until the night before the events — also dampened the festivities.
“When we picked Chicago as a place for the All-Star Game, we knew we weren’t going to be able to have Wintrust Arena (on Saturday). It was already committed,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said when asked before Sunday’s game about fan frustrations surrounding Saturday’s events. “So given that, when we found that Nike Nationals was going to be here, we took this great opportunity to integrate the elite youth sports into our 3-point and skills competitions, so the competition was not outside.
“There’s also a lot going on in our world around security and even having an outdoor festival at this very crazy time as you see shootings and people driving into restaurants with outdoor diners and things like that. So as we were planning this last fall, we were trying to find the best thing to do to try to stand up at least a little bit of an outdoor festival, to have a fan festival element. We still have COVID out there. So you know, cobbling together everything that’s going on and coming off two tough COVID years and not having Wintrust available yesterday, it just wasn’t possible to have a fan event.
“We didn’t have an arena that could happen here in the city of Chicago. I understand the fans are frustrated not attending that, but again, last year we weren’t at 100%, the year before we didn’t have an All-Star Game, so we’re kind of just trying to build what All- Star weekend will look like. We’re just trying to do the best we could with the cards we were dealt this year.”
A spokesperson for Wintrust Arena said discussions to host the Pampered Chef conference began before COVID, and the contract was signed in May 2021. The WNBA’s contract for All-Star weekend in Chicago was signed in April 2022, with discussions beginning in December 2021.
Fans weren’t the only ones who felt left out of the festivities. All of the 3-point and skills participants were either already in Chicago, such as Quigley and Sky teammate Azurá Stevens, or were coming to Chicago to play in Sunday’s game. The Los Angeles Sparks’ Lexie Brown, who is tied for ninth in the league in 3-pointers made this season, joked on Twitter that she would have paid for her own airfare to take part in the competition.
All-star weekends are about the players, but they’re also a celebration for the fans. The games don’t count, but they’re an opportunity for fans to see the league’s biggest stars assembled in one place.
With Chicago’s scenic downtown as a backdrop and perfect summer weather on display, the WNBA managed to stifle what should have been a triumphant return for fans and missed an opportunity to win over more local residents.