Other than owner Glen Taylor and most of the Minnesota Lynx players, Conrad Smith might be the most easily recognized person in the organization on game night.
He wears a lapel nameplate that says, simply, “Conrad.” He smiles a lot. And his gray-and-white hair isn’t long enough to cover the crescent-shaped scar on the side of his head, a remnant from last year’s surgery for brain cancer.
Friday night, as the largest crowd of the season filed in for the Lynx’s first playoff game in seven years, Smith — whose official title is chief operating officer — worked the arena floor, shaking hands, talking to fans and employees, making sure everything flowed smoothly.
Friday playoff game was big night
It was a big night. The Lynx usually don’t sell tickets in the upper level of the Target Center because there isn’t the demand, but they had to Friday.
A crowd announced at 11,891 — including Gov. Mark Dayton and former Gov. Jesse Ventura — witnessed the Lynx’s sloppy yet thrilling 66-65 victory over San Antonio in Game 1 of the best-of-three Western Conference semifinals.
Attendance numbers can be dicey because the WNBA, like the NBA and the NHL, determines attendance by tickets distributed, rather than the actual turnstile count. Frankly, it’s dishonest. Season ticket holders are included whether they show up or not. If the Lynx give the Susquehanna Hat Co. 300 tickets in a promotional exchange, and the CEO takes 12 clients and dumps the rest of the tickets in the Mississippi, the Lynx still count 300 in their attendance. This is why the Timberwolves often announce 15,000 when 7,500 are in the house, which is a joke.
But to these eyes, 11,891 looked about right. A lower bowl sellout is 9,181, and several upper-level sections near midcourt had plenty of occupied seats. Smith said few Lynx tickets, even freebies, have gone unused this season. That will be tested again Tuesday night, when the Lynx and San Antonio Silver Stars play the deciding Game 3 at 7 p.m. (The Lynx lost on the road Sunday, falling 74-65.)
It’s easy to see why the Lynx are drawing. For once, the team is actually good, finishing with the WNBA’s best record at 27-7. They play an entertaining style with emphasis on defense and rebounding. (First-time spectators may be surprised by how fast and physical the women’s game is.) The Lynx have a star scorer in guard Seimone Augustus and a popular homegrown product in point guard and MVP candidate Lindsay Whalen, plus the WNBA Rookie of the Year in Maya Moore, and Coach of the Year in Cheryl Reeve. And the enthusiastic crowds love the players.
If you choose wisely, tickets can be surprisingly inexpensive, with many lower-bowl seats as cheap as $10. For the playoffs, the Lynx did two things unheard of in modern pro sports. They did not raise ticket prices for the first round. And any season ticket holder who renewed early for 2012 got a free ticket to Game 1, preferably to give to someone who had never come to a game.
“We realize we’re still building this thing,” Smith said. “We want it affordable for families and groups to come out. It’s the right decision for us.”
Lynx attendance was up 11 percent this year, with crowds averaging 8,447, second-best in team history and fifth in the 12-team WNBA. A winning product obviously helps. WNBA teams usually market to women and families, and parents know they can bring kids to a Lynx game without being surrounded by f-bombing drunks.
That hasn’t changed even with people spilling in from Hubert’s, where glass double doors open onto the concourse leading to the court.
A high-volume, high-energy event
Game-night theatrics feature a high-volume onslaught of the senses. Before the game and during timeouts, a master of ceremonies orchestrates giveaways and pumps up the crowd. Various Lynx players appear on the video board above the court asking for cheering and support.
Some of the timeout promos are priceless. My favorite: the sendup of a Spaghetti Western duel between Prowl, the furry Lynx mascot, and a goofy-looking cowboy in the Ikea parking lot at the Mall of America, complete with quick camera cuts and wah-wah music. Spoiler alert: It ends with a kick to the groin. (Maybe this isn’t that family-friendly after all.)
And during play, these fans do not sit on their hands. They stand until the Lynx score their first points. They get into it. Too often they’re prompted to clap or cheer by Prowl or the emcee, which is unnecessary. They know what to do.
“It’s a fun atmosphere, a fun environment,” Augustus said. “I’ve never seen a professional crowd that is so into the game, that is so intense, it feels as if they’re part of what’s going on. They’re on the court with us. We can hear fans, like, ‘Shoot it!’ We can hear fans, like, ‘Play some defense! Get the rebound!’ That’s something we kind of enjoy. They pay attention to the game. It’s not just a social hour, a social gathering for them.”
Moore played before large, enthusiastic crowds at the University of Connecticut and senses a similar vibe here.
“It’s just an excitement,” she said. “That excitement that I’m used to comes from the fans appreciating how hard we play, how together we play.
“At UConn, we felt like when we stepped on the court we were going to outwork the other team, and we were going to play more together than the other team. Those are things we’re doing here with the Lynx. We’re playing hard. We make hustle plays, work together, move the ball. The crowd loves it and appreciates it. That same energy, that same love, is what I feel out there when we’re doing that and the crowd is embracing us.”
Gary Cohen, the president of the Gopher women’s basketball Fast Break Club, and his wife, Margaret Macneale, have been season ticket holders for eight years. They renewed for next year early, and gave their extra Game 1 tickets to another couple. “He is the big Lynx fan in the family, and he was very excited to get the tickets,” Cohen said.
“It’s nice family fare. We don’t have kids, but if we did, I’d bring them here. It’s a great atmosphere.”
Changing fan demographics
This year, Augustus, Smith, and Cohen all noticed a change in demographics: More men are watching the Lynx, and not just the fathers of girls. Smith said a 21-year-old and dozen or so of his buddies celebrated his birthday at a recent game. Friday night I saw hundreds of men without children, one in a T-shirt with a picture of himself with Augustus. Other men wore autographed Lynx jerseys — the ones new this year, not older ones.
“They have a group of guys with my uniform on, or Maya’s uniform on,” Augustus said. “That’s amazing to see.”
Edward Alexis of Chanhassen said he bought a ticket online Friday for his first Lynx game. “I came to see Maya Moore,” he said. Watching warm-ups near the court, he ran into a buddy, Nate Hardy of Minneapolis, a former Target Center worker who attends most games.
“I’m a basketball fanatic,” Hardy said. “Doesn’t matter who’s playing.” Still, he especially likes the way the Lynx defend and play together, and thinks the larger crowds here are great signs for the WNBA’s future.
“If we win the championship,” he said, “we should say the league owes us.”
Smith just wants them all to come back. If the Lynx play enough home playoff games, they might break even for the first time, he said. (For that reason only, he quietly hoped this series would go three games.) If not, that’s the goal next season.
“I’m thinking long-term,” he said. “We don’t want to be a flash in the pan. We want to stand the test of time, winning or losing. Look at the Cubs. When did they last win a World Series? But they’ve got a wonderful brand.”