Sunday, April 14, 2024 Apr 14, 2024
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The Week Women’s Basketball Took Over Dallas

And gave us a glimpse of a brighter, more equitable future.
Iowa and LSU were a national spectacle playing out in Dallas. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It was not the most attended Women’s Final Four in history, but no one sitting inside the sold-out American Airlines Center Sunday would doubt it if you told them it was. 

It was so, so loud, because the people who were there had bought in 110 percent, literally and figuratively. Having spent hundreds of dollars—the cheapest-available seats on Stubhub a half hour before the championship tipoff were $540—to be sitting in the nosebleeds, nary a fan was without some school or WNBA or other women’s-basketball-related gear, and nobody had to be told twice to get on his or her feet and start screaming.

As severe thunderstorms passed overhead, it felt like forces of nature were converging inside the arena with the meeting of Iowa’s seemingly unstoppable momentum and LSU’s underdog tenacity, Caitlin Clark’s eye-popping shooting and passing against a team with five different scorers, pushing women’s basketball—and women’s sports—to a new level. And it was all happening in Dallas, putting an under-appreciated and growing side of the sports-crazed city front and center. 

Women’s basketball’s big week in Big D stretched far beyond the Final Four. Along with the fan events (including a Saweetie concert in the AT&T Discovery District) and the women’s Division II and III championships, which took place on Saturday, there were conferences hosted by USA Basketball and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, plus a slew of happy hours, parties, and brand “activations” as everyone who was anyone in the sport descended on the city for the most important week of the year. Even more than on the men’s side, the Women’s Final Four acts as a hub for all tiers of the sport, with pros cheerfully mingling with fans—the kind of fans actually equipped to recognize them out of uniform. 

This year, many of them had been hanging around Dallas since Athletes Unlimited opened play in Fair Park on February 23. That league features stars like last year’s No. 2 WNBA draft pick NaLyssa Smith and Connecticut Sun guard (and Irving native) Odyssey Sims. The upstart pro league, which just wrapped its second season, is meant to offer WNBA players an offseason option besides going overseas, as has long since been the usual mode of bolstering their modest regular-season salaries. 

A warm, excited crowd gathered to watch the WNBA talent face off in the league’s final stretch on March 24, which also happened to be its Pride Night. Though Fair Park Coliseum wasn’t full, those who made it out to the arena were privy to an entirely new vision of what professional sports could look like.

Progress Pride flags, which make support for trans people and people of color more explicit alongside broader support of the LGBTQ+ community, were handed out at the door along with noisemakers just as Texas’ conservative bloc in the statehouse debated which anti-trans regulations they would try to pass. As the players battled, a screen behind them read “WE SUPPORT THE TRANSGENDER COMMUNITY,” a particularly meaningful message to read as Layshia Clarendon, the WNBA’s first transgender player, completed a tough three-point play to raucous applause. 

As anyone who has checked in on a rodeo during the State Fair will attest, Fair Park Coliseum is hardly a glamorous venue. (Trying to get a rideshare driver into the belly of Fair Park is a whole other ordeal.) Undisclosed issues (presumably some kind of weather-related leak) at the arena forced AU to refund tickets to two games. Yet the league invested enough to make the space look camera ready, complete with big screens for replays, their slick logo plastered throughout, and plenty of in-game entertainment.

The arena offered amenities that larger leagues either don’t have or don’t bother to make accessible: infant care rooms and kids-play areas were front and center, as were displays about athlete book recommendations and voter registration. A huge poster about “celebrating Black women’s history”—in a can’t-miss spot across from the concessions stand—had quotes from people like Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, and Althea Gibson. One, from Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner read, “I am a strong, Black, lesbian woman. Every single time I say it, I feel so much better.”

The play itself resembled something like an expert-level pick-up game because the teams are redrafted each week of the month-long season by the league’s best players. (Here’s more on AU’s unique structure.) It’s an adjustment visually and auditorily, too: there are no home or away teams, which means there’s music playing the entire game (and, on this night, gave the crowd got the thrill of watching Crystal Bradford hit two straight three-pointers while the beat from M.O.P.’s “Ante Up” played). But more and more WNBA orange hoodie-clad fans started getting into the action as the game hit the fourth quarter. A well-timed T-shirt toss pulled them to their feet; the loser of one shirt-related scuffle scoffed, “You don’t even watch the W,” at the winner, punctuating it with an eye roll. 

For anyone who’s spent time trying to boost the visibility of the game, it was a beautiful, if under-attended scene. It has been a decades-long battle for women basketball players to get fair salaries. To get sponsorships and opportunities without having to compromise their predominantly Black and often queer identities. To find an audience stateside instead of having to go to places like Russia or Spain, where any glimpse of U.S. basketball talent is a thrill regardless of the gender of the person playing. The level of the initial investment in Athletes Unlimited, a completely independent entity, is unprecedented, and the care with which they’ve framed the game and its players is even more so. Maybe it was hard to get the word out in Dallas, but for once, that’s not because they didn’t spend enough on the product.

The Final Four, by contrast, felt over-attended, if such a thing is possible. People wearing yellow shirts that said “Carver South” (trying to put a Texas riff on the name of the Iowa basketball arena) mingled with a zillion people wearing sequined purple and gold bomber jackets (a riff on LSU coach Kim Mulkey’s notoriously flashy style), with the occasional really tall woman—who, for once, you could pretty fairly assume played basketball—mixed in. Merch lines stretched halfway around the arena concourse, as fans of all stripes sought evidence that they had been here, in Dallas, to witness one of the most hyped Final Fours in recent memory.

LSU versus Virginia Tech wasn’t a blowout, but the Tigers started strong and survived a mid-game surge by the Hokies. Midway through the fourth quarter, their championship bid felt inevitable. Not so much in Iowa’s bout with reigning champs South Carolina, which found each team taking blows and responding in kind. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark hit a three from the logo early in the fourth quarter to tie the record for three-pointers made in a tournament, only for the Gamecocks’ Zia Cooke to fire back with an impossible-looking layup. 

The signs all started to look truer and truer as the quarter wound down, though. “In Clark We Trust.” “The Final Four Is Feeling 22” (a timely reference both to Clark’s number and the Taylor Swift show happening concurrently in Arlington). “Two More Years Please.” The star-studded crowd—including Lisa Leslie, Opal Lee, Billie Jean King, and Cheryl Miller, who wore a shirt that read “We Deserve To Be Here”—joined 5.5 million people at home in the adrenaline rush of watching one of the most memorable individual performances in the sport’s history helping topple what had been the undefeated, No. 1 overall seed. 

“She’s like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi put together,” one fan said of Clark, on the long walk away from the arena to try to find any available rideshare drivers. 

“A whole bucket,” another responded. “When she pulled up from the logo, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”

The expectation for Sunday quadrupled, along with the attendant crowds. PNC Plaza was unrecognizable: a sea of giddy, passionate women’s basketball fans touting their fandom with all kinds of custom garb. (The woman wearing a collage shirt featuring a bunch of pictures of LSU star Alexis Morris’ head proved prescient since Morris scored 21 points on 57 percent shooting a few hours later). ESPN’s pregame set was on the plaza, and the usual talent—Rebecca Lobo, Carolyn Peck, Elle Duncan, and Andraya Carter—looked almost overwhelmed by the number of gleeful fans cheering them on. “Andraya’s so cute,” one LSU fan said in passing, as though deeply acquainted with the analyst. Free cans of Coke were given out to whoever wanted them, as though anyone needed more energy. 

You could not move in the American Airlines concourse pregame; you could not hear once it tipped off. Iowa started off strong, with the majority Hawkeye crowd practically shaking the arena when she made her first three to break the tournament record. Then LSU’s Jasmine Carson happened: a player who averaged a little over 8 points a game this season hit 21 in the first half—without missing a shot. Local legend Gary Blair and the king of AAC himself, Dirk Nowitzki, got rousing midgame recognition for their just-announced upcoming induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but it was still just a diversion from the main event. The Hawkeyes got rocked, and a new first-time champion emerged in LSU, in front of 19,482 people in the arena and millions more at home. 

Kim Mulkey's LSU Tigers were triumphant in Dallas. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It felt like the start of something for women’s basketball nationally. Social media was almost insufferable (as ever), but be it Clark, the Tigers’ fierce play, or the inane takes about each of them, women’s college basketball stole the thunder of the opening weekend of MLB play, as well as the men’s semifinal games (one of which featured a wild buzzer-beater). 

“This particular tournament feels a lot different than any of the other ones I’ve been in,” Iowa center Monika Czinano told reporters Saturday. “The opportunities that we’ve had this time around, the things we’ve gotten to do — it feels a lot more equitable than it has in years past.”  

But it should also be the start of something here in Dallas and North Texas. This is of only 12 metropolitan areas with a WNBA team in the Wings, who threw a glitzy party at the W chock full of players and coaches. (Even among their peers, the rush for selfies when Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi walked in was unmatched.) It has some of the best high school programs in the state in DeSoto, Duncanville, and South Grand Prairie, where ESPN’s Monica McNutt gave a talk to the team while she was in town this week. The UT Arlington Lady Mavs made it to the Tournament last year and almost pulled off a first-round upset, to say nothing of the SMU, UNT, and TCU teams. 

This can be the way we receive the sport all year long, not just one exhilarating week. Dallas proved as much with the thoughtful, thorough way that the Dallas Sports Commission (in concert with the Big XII) hosted this year’s tournament. Their work is in keeping with Mayor Eric Johnson’s focus on sports, who has explicitly said that he wants to draw more pro sports teams to Dallas. But what if he could instead provide a boost to the underexposed women’s professional and college teams that are already here?

Women’s basketball can be so much more than a one-off on the calendar, and last weekend showed how great this can feel when it is.


Natalie Weiner

Natalie Weiner

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