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Back to Vegas for the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game

By Derek May:


Team Wilson is introduced at the start of the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game, July 2023

I have an unsettling relationship with Las Vegas. My memories of living there in the early 1990s recall a city defiantly unconcerned with children like myself and chock-a-block with gangs and violence. There are very few things that could have tempted me back after 30 years; and in my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have guessed it would be basketball. In fact, I thought my days as a WNBA fan had left me for good the same way my beloved San Antonio Stars left us for Sin City back in 2017. That hurt ran deep. I couldn’t even watch the league for years (my father still hasn’t forgiven them). The betrayal I felt in the move to a city I loathed was only compounded by the fact that they replaced our head coach with one of the NBA’s most legendary jerks: Bill Laimbeer. Talk about kicking a fan when he’s down. . . .


Becky Hammon - Las Vegas Aces Coach
Becky Hammon - Las Vegas Aces Coach

In the end, though, it took another legend to bring me back: Becky Hammon. A 6-time All-Star, named one of the Top 20 greatest WNBA players ever, and having led the Stars to the finals in ’08, she somehow has crafted an even greater career post-retirement (for which she'll be acknowledged this weekend as an NBA Hall of Famer). Following on as the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA and the first to coach a regular-season game, she was eventually offered the biggest head coaching contract the WNBA had ever seen to bring her expertise to the Las Vegas Aces. And, dammit, she brought me along, too.


As Becky lifted the Aces up last year, my own excitement raised to heights unseen since she wore the silver & black #25. I learned to love the game again. I began to feel that old desire to entrench myself behind a team, its players, and—sigh—its new city. So when they announced that Vegas would host the WNBA All-Star Game in 2023 (for the third time), I thought this might be it. It was time to return.


Satou Sabally - Dallas Wings
Satou Sabally - Dallas Wings

Our All-Star adventure actually began before we even got to Vegas. While switching planes in Minneapolis, I spotted a familiar face at our gate; rising WNBA phenom Satou Sabally of the Dallas Wings was heading to her second All-Star appearance. You might think that a beautiful, 6’4” two-time All-Star and candidate for both most improved player (and perhaps MVP) might have garnered more attention. But I seemed to be the only one who recognized her, and certainly the only one who shyly approached her pleading for an autograph, which she very graciously obliged.


Her ability to go unrecognized, not to mention fly commercial, is a symptom of the struggles the league and its players continue to endure. I’m old enough to recall when NBA players flew alongside us plebes (I used to see them quite often during my myriad trips as a youngster—even getting the entire Dallas Mavericks teams’ autograph once!), so one might argue that it’s part of the growing process. But while Sabally might currently be able to travel unvexed by fans other than me, not all players are so fortunate. The issue of security became evident when Phoenix Mercury player and former Russian prisoner Brittany Griner was accosted at a Dallas airport. The WNBA currently prevents teams from chartering flights, mostly as a cost measure. And while the bane of the league is its relative obscurity, with it growing each year, changes will become inevitable.


Once my wife and I arrived in Vegas, it was a short taxi from Harry Reid Airport to our hotel, the elder-statesman Excalibur. Along the way, our cabbie regaled us with the many changes to the city since I’d last been there. Gone are the Dunes, the Sands, the Desert Inn, the Aladdin. Now we have the MGM Grand, the Luxor, Planet Hollywood, and the Horseshoe. We chose the Excalibur strategically, since it was affordable and had a free tram running from there through Luxor and on to our WNBA destination, the Mandalay Bay.


The WNBA certainly put some money into advertising the weekend’s events around town. All along the strip where giant billboards and posters, and local TV stations added nightly coverage. As you walked through the Mandalay Bay casino floor toward Aces home Michelob Ultra Arena, you passed plenty more signs promoting the events. However, there was a notable lack of materials involving the events. While nearly every hotel we explored has a sports-themed store or, at a minimum, merchandise, none—not one, not even in the Mandalay Bay—carried any WNBA merch, much less Aces gear. To my wife’s annoyance, I popped my head into every store we passed in every casino to check and, sure enough, I could find as many hats, shirts, mugs, etc. for the Raiders (football) and the Golden Knights (hockey) as I wanted but absolutely NOTHING for women’s basketball. This is less than a year after the Aces brought Vegas its first professional sports championship, complete with parade along the strip, and amidst its team on one of the hottest playing streaks in over a decade. The most common answer I received by an employee when I inquired if they had any Aces gear was, “The basketball team?”


The sad Aces Team shop inside Michelob Ultra Arena
The sad Aces team shop (on the left) inside Michelob Ultra Arena at the Mandalay Bay.

Part of the appeal for us as Aces fans was the opportunity to grab some swag in support, but this proved all but impossible. The main team shop, which amounts to little more than a concert-style kiosk, is located inside Michelob Ultra Arena and only accessible during game times. This weekend, however, it offered no Aces-specific gear—everything was strictly for the All-Star game. While a second table was set up down the arena hall and another occasionally popped up on the casino floor, again, all were limited to All-Star merch; and even then, the variety was nothing special. Sure it might be nice to get an A’ja Wilson All-Star jersey, but if I’m gonna spend $150, I prefer something more long-term. I foolishly assumed we might be able to find something beyond the limited supply offered online, but alas. I’d also hoped to visit the new multi-million-dollar Aces training facility a short drive south of the strip that, along with its state-of-the-art courts, gym, recovery facilities, and film rooms, also purported a Team Shop! Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the facility wasn’t open (even the shop!) to the public at this time. I can’t think of a more missed opportunity to engage and appeal to fans.


Panorama of the WNBA Live floor
Panorama of the WNBA Live floor

Our remaining hopes rested in the single-biggest consolidated event surrounding the All-Star weekend: WNBA Live! I honestly didn’t know what to expect, since though we’d registered weeks in advance, the amount of info on what would be happening was nonexistent until mere days before. What it amounted to was more of an exhibitors’ convention focused on promoting their own products rather than catering to fans. Around a dozen sponsored booths littered the open hall, most with only a vague connection to basketball. Admittedly, a few had shooting courts or skills challenges; one allowed fans to be filmed walking the tunnel like stars entering the court. A couple allowed you to customize a hat or tote. But some were inexplicably tone deaf, such as the Google House that presented no basketball connections whatsoever other than having Kelsey Plum as a spokesperson (who walked in and out taking promo pics without even acknowledging the waiting fans). There was the Nike booth that showed you shoes by Wilson and others but had none to buy (what was even the point?). And multiple DJs competed with themselves and each booth for musical volume that ended up as nothing more than cacophony.


On a positive note, one thing the WNBA has leaned into that is somewhat unique is the league’s and players’ connection to culture and fashion. There were several booths promoting Pride art, one focused on Black hair styling and products, another on salon-level nails. A particular booth by boutique, minority-owned business Playa Society had the most diverse and unique shirts, hats, and jerseys bearing some of the most popular players, including our Aces. Ironically, even with its incredibly high prices, it still offered the best assortment of gear for less than the official WNBA Live store, which offered nothing more than what we’d seen so far.


Aces star Jackie Young

But what really felt like a knock against the fans was the organization of meet and greets with the players. I’ve been to enough conventions to understand how it works, and that you can’t expect to catch everyone, but this was pretty infuriating. On Friday, the 3-Point Contest and Skills Challenge ended at 2 p.m. at the arena. It took almost 30 minutes to walk from there to the WNBA Live hall; and yet, most of the biggest stars (including the Aces) were scheduled right at 2 p.m. It was literally impossible to make (even one of the casinos employees commented to us along the way on the absurdity of the locale when so many others were available much closer).


When you did get here, you got in line and waited. If you were lucky, you eventually had a wonderful interaction with one of the many players graciously offering their time and providing selfies and autographs to whoever asked. If not, however, you could spend half an hour in line before they simply cut you off, forcing you to have wasted your time and/or miss someone else. The players were scheduled on top of one another, and no matter your choice you could easily be disappointed with a miss. Most of the interactions and autographs I ended up with occurred by happenstance on the floor as players wandered between calls. While I am grateful for those opportunities, there’s absolutely no reason this couldn’t have been better coordinated for everyone to enjoy. I’ve been to a lot of season ticket holder events for both the Spurs and the Stars and trust me, it can and has been done better.


Aces Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray after winning the Skills Competition
Aces Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray after winning the Skills Competition

As for the official events themselves, I saved those for last, since if you’re a fan you may have already seen them yourself. Watching Sabrina Ionescu crush both the NBA & WNBA 3-point record in person, however, was wonderous to behold. Seeing Chelsea Gray bail out Kelsey Plum in the skills challenge was . . . typical (Plum is a great player, but she can definitely be her own worst enemy). What you might not have seen on TV was the pure joy of the arena. You definitely felt the comradery and excitement. The arena is cozy for holding 12,000 seats and was only about half-filled on Friday. But everyone there cheered and clapped for all the players, not just their favorites. There was a wonderful air of unity and exuberance that cascaded top to bottom.


Saturday brought out the big crowd. The arena was full, with the excitement and support even more palpable than the day before. It was giddy fun to watch the various stars warming up before the game, chitchatting, challenging each other to half-court shots, and truly enjoying the non-competitive opportunity to play with one another. The game itself was, naturally, mediocre—as expected. While the theory behind bringing the best of the best together for the ultimate match up is cute, in practice no professional wants to risk getting hurt in a game that doesn’t truly matter; and there’s no doubt the coaches and owners would flip if they even tried.


Tipoff

Though I could hear some fans bemoan the lack of effort and competition, they seemed to be missing the entire point. All-Star weekend is a chance for fans to see the best, and most likely their favorite, players come together. Every now and then you may see something remarkable, like Ionescu breaking a record, but mostly it’s about having fun while they have fun. Gray clowning around with the ball. Plum trying to guard Griner. An MVP cheering on an otherwise foe to set a new scoring record.


Post-game picture from our seats
Post-game picture from our seats

In the end, this celebratory weekend was a microcosm of the WNBA itself, the good and the bad. The league is growing by leaps and bounds each year. Viewership is soaring. Players are becoming brands. Teams are loading up with superstars, birthing new rivalries and sparking exciting matchups. And more and more people are coming out in support. I saw long-term fans wearing their old San Antonio Stars jerseys, and I saw young kids in their Aces or Liberty fits. But unfortunately, this growth isn’t commensurate with availability. It should be as easy for fans to promote this league as they do any of the men’s. It’s insanity that in the home city, in the home building, in the home arena, you can’t find a single team item. It’s insanity that we who come out to see our players in person get turned away because of bad organization. It’s insanity that these athletes aren’t as appreciated by their teams, their ownership, and their cities as they are by their fans.


I admit I enjoyed my time in Vegas after 30 years. I will always be thankful to my new team and the coach who brought me to them for giving me a reason to give this city and this league another chance. But I know there’s a long, long way to go to bring these experiences up to where they should be (some of which I covered here previously). It may be a while before I attend another WNBA All-Star game, but it’ll happen, of that I’m sure.


Til then, I’ll be watching.

 

Derek May, of San Antonio, TX, is Editor-in-Chief and occasional writer for Flapper Press. He has written nearly 50 movie reviews for movieweb.com and completed 13 original feature film and television screenplays, many of which have been winners or finalists in such prestigious competitions as the Walt Disney and Nicholl Fellowships, the Austin Film Festival, and the Creative World Awards. He served as a judge for 10 years for the Austin Film Festival and Texas Film Institute screenplay competitions. His latest project has been the highly acclaimed stop-motion animation fan series Highlander: Veritas, which released its second season in July 2022.

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