Ivory Latta grabbed a microphone after perhaps the grandest Mystics win of the season and turned to address the crowd. At least, I’m told she addressed the crowd. No one could possibly hear her. The crowd was too loud.
The noise during Washington’s rather electrifying Wednesday afternoon comeback — the Mystics, playing without their top two scorers, trailed by as many as 21 and never led in regulation — was, I suggested to one Verizon Center regular, louder than 95 percent of Wizards games.
“Or 100 percent,” he noted.
That wasn’t a joke, either. As Kristi Toliver poured in 29 points, and the short-handed Mystics launched 39 three-point attempts, and then sprinted into their All-Star break with a back-from-the-dead win, the noise was enough to make your ears ring. It was a rock show inside a closet. It was miked-up cicadas on speed. It was thousands and thousands of kiddie campers high on cotton candy and Dippin’ Dots.
“We actually had to come into the huddle every single time to make sure we could hear each other, it was so loud,” Latta said after the Mystics’ 100-96 overtime win over the Atlanta Dream. “I think that may have been a first, to be honest.”
“It was crazy,” Tierra Ruffin-Pratt said. “Deafening.”
“I couldn’t hear anything,” Natasha Cloud said. “They were piercing my ears at one point. They were literally piercing my ears today.”
Blood actually did not spurt out of Cloud’s ears as she said this. So okay, not literally piercing. But this was an A-plus, invigorating, spleen-rending crowd. If you, a WNBA skeptic, went to a Mystics game with a crowd like that, featuring a comeback win like that, you would absolutely want to return, and/or visit an ear doctor. So how do you create more crowds like that?
“Keep bringing them kids,” Latta suggested, except turning every Wednesday night into camp night seems untenable. Any other ideas?
“We need to get these old people into it, middle-class old people,” Cloud offered.
Which, finally, brings me to newspaper readers. (What a setup!) And which brings me to Ted Leonsis. The sports owner/life poobah/media critic has been perhaps less provocative since he decreased his blogging schedule, but he recently offered some throwback red-meat during a conversation with Marie Claire. He acknowledged in that piece that the WNBA has struggled to gain traction, but said “the issue stems and starts with the media coverage, in that the game isn’t given the respect that it’s due.”
“If you listen to sports talk radio, they are not talking the right way about most women’s sports,” Leonsis told the magazine. “Those people will retire, or frankly a lot of them are getting fired or laid off — and we’ll get younger people into key media positions who are more egalitarian, more open-minded, more respectful.”
That’s an old-school mouthful. Why focus on the media? Why so much concern about sports-talk radio? Why does he care?
“I think media helps to set agendas,” Leonsis said Wednesday afternoon. “I mean, you either get neglect or snark [about the WNBA]. And I don’t get it. I think it’s bad business, too. That to me is so remarkable: As a programmer, you want to reach the widest audience possible. … If you’re only talking about what’s in front of you, and you’re talking to your peer group, and your peer group is dying away, it makes no sense to me as a media professional.”
Now, I know some D.C. sports fans would prefer to hear less from Leonsis. I know some fans would rather he focus on winning basketball games than programming sports-radio stations. I know some of my media peers are pretty well tired of his criticism, too. And, at least judging by our Web traffic, I have a decent idea of how easy it is to attract readers (and listeners) for Mystics topics. (“Not easy” is the answer.)
But! But I actually find myself siding with Leonsis on at least this one particular issue. I think there is some value in pushing Mystics coverage on an uncertain audience, because there is value in having a viable women’s league. A pretty massive crowd of reporters and television cameras assembled Wednesday afternoon to cover an Otto Porter news conference, and then a pretty tiny crowd of reporters covered the thrilling (really!) sporting event held moments later in the same building. It doesn’t bother me that, say, the Tour de France isn’t part of the local sports conversation. But it irks me that even a competitive Mystics team with brand-name stars still seems so tangential.
“Making a mountain starts with carrying one little stone, and that’s what we have to do,” Leonsis said. He believes every NBA owner should own both a WNBA team and a developmental team. He doesn’t love that there soon will be 27 G-League teams, but just 12 WNBA teams. He said his peers need to consider themselves promoters of basketball, not just promoters of the NBA.
“I don’t think we respect the [women’s] game enough,” he said. “I think it’s internal bias. It’s how you were raised. And then you get the echo chamber.”
His WNBA team, of course, will soon play in a 5,000-seat arena. That’s less than the team’s average crowd — and far less than Wednesday’s crowd of 15,597, most of whom can’t drink legally. And yet both the owner and his coach think the move actually will provide a jolt.
“It’s hard to respect the WNBA in a 20,000-seat arena, because we’ll never sell 20,000 seats,” Leonsis said. “But getting 5,000 people into a 5,000-seat arena will make it successful.”
“Some of the fans think we just don’t want to play in a big-time place, that we want this small, minor-league product,” Coach Mike Thibault said. “Our players and I are saying, ‘No, we want to play where we have a home-court advantage.’ I’d rather have a smaller building and have a sold-out building every night, have a home-court advantage every night.”
They did Wednesday night. Well, Wednesday afternoon. Latta said the team had its best win of the season — without the services of Elena Delle Donne — explicitly because of the howling mob of 10-year-olds. Hours later, my ears still weren’t right, which is how you know a sports crowd did it right.
I still have no idea how to get all those 10-year-olds, or their parents, to click on this column. But I think it’s worth trying.