Even if you’re a pretty big sports fan, you probably had no idea that the WNBA season tipped off on Friday.
And why would you? The league is as irrelevant as it’s ever been.
That being said, even if you couldn’t name a single WNBA franchise, you can actually probably name at least one WNBA star — Brittney Griner.
If that name is ringing any bells at all for you, it’s because you were keeping up with the sordid story of her detainment and arrest in Russia, when she was busted at a Russian airport for carrying hash oil.
After being kept in, effectively, the gulags for 10 months, President Joe Biden and his administration were able to secure her safe return to the United States, albeit at a controversially steep cost.
Now safely back stateside and ready for things to return to normal, Griner was able to resume her typical duties as the Phoenix Mercury’s center on Friday.
While the Mercury were obliterated by the Los Angeles Sparks to the tune of a 94-71 loss, Griner notched a respectable 18 points, six rebounds and four blocks in the loss.
Frankly, there wasn’t much to be terribly critical about (aside from the game result) in regards to Griner’s grand return.
Would you ever attend one of Griner’s games?
In fact, according to ESPN, Griner even got a standing ovation and “welcome back” chants despite technically being a road player at the Los Angeles-based Cypto.com Arena.
That reception was apparently not enough for Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard, who was left scratching her head about the crowd size.
Phoenix Mercury head coach wants to know why Brittney Griner’s debut didn’t sell out the arena 👀
“How was it not a sellout?” pic.twitter.com/YlQtF9utrA
— Sportsville (@Sportsville_) May 20, 2023
“It was great, but like honestly, come on L.A.,” Nygaard said after the game. “Like, we didn’t sell out the arena for [Griner]? Like I expected more. You know?
“Let’s be honest.”
Okay then. Let’s.
According to the statistic database Statista, based on the WNBA’s average regular season attendance last season, the Sparks typically drew a crowd of about 5,600.
According to ESPN, 10,396 fans were at Crypto.com Arena, almost doubling the team’s average attendance from a season ago. Oh, and Vice President Kamala Harris was there too, for some reason.
Point being, Nygaard is either just factually wrong here, or she seems to have a wildly outsized opinion on the WNBA’s popularity.
“Like, it was great, it was loud,” Nygaard continued, before she became visibly baffled. “But, um… How is… How is it not a sellout? How is it not a sellout?”
It wasn’t a sellout because WNBA games seldom sell out. No amount of confused hand-wringing will change that fact.
But also, and this can’t be stressed enough: Brittney Griner is not some rock star of a saint.
What Griner went through in Russia was unjust. But it was also a fiasco of her own doing. No, people shouldn’t go to intensive labor camps for 10 months for carrying a small amount of recreational drugs on them. But unjust rules are still rules, and Griner broke another country’s.
It’s okay to both be happy that Griner is safely back with her family and appalled that America had to give up a notorious Russian arms dealer to do it. Nygaard can’t expect this to be some slam dunk cultural win. It’s polarizing, at best.
It is worth noting that for as obnoxiously clueless as the WNBA and its staff are, Griner has, for now, followed through on her word of having a newfound appreciation for the national anthem.
In the midst of the George Floyd hysteria, Griner derided the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” as some misguided form of social protest. Since returning from Russia, however, her tune has changed.
ESPN reported that Griner did, in fact, stand at attention for the playing of the national anthem before the game.
That act alone is hardly worth more people showing up to WNBA games. Respecting the national anthem is a bare minimum.
But if Griner and other WNBA stars actually do start embracing patriotism over leftism?
It probably won’t make a difference attendance-wise, but at least it would make the games more tolerable.