On Aug. 15, Dawn Staley sent a tweet directed at the four WNBA teams for whom former Gamecocks play (Las Vegas Aces, Chicago Sky, Indiana Fever and Dallas Wings), asking for one or more of them to play a game at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina.
That wasn’t a one-off or idea, a fantasy Staley thought of and then forgot the next day when returning to work as the head coach of the Gamecocks. In an interview with The State a week after her tweet, Staley said she has already begun personally lobbying for a contest to happen, straight at the very top — WNBA president Lisa Borders.
“I talked to the WNBA president, but she in turn told me that the teams work independently, so I’m gonna try to reach out. It’s hot right now because the Aces didn’t make the playoffs, Dallas is still in the playoffs, Indiana didn’t really have a great year and Chicago, I know the owner of Chicago, so hopefully we’ll be able to make it happen. They can have two games here,” Staley said.
The rationale is simple for Staley — attendance at WNBA games averaged 7,716 last year, while South Carolina drew 13,239 fans on average to Colonial Life Arena in 2017-2018. She believes the dedicated USC fan base would jump at the opportunity to see their favorite stars play at home again.
Those stars — A’ja Wilson, Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis, Tiffany Mitchell and Alaina Coates — all remain close with Staley and USC, and Wilson and Coates are both originally from the Midlands.
Staley acknowledged such games would have to take place in the preseason so that none of the teams involved would have to give up a valuable regular season home game.
But neutral-site preseason games have happened before — the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx played the Washington Mystics in Des Moines, Iowa, this past May. The owner of the Lynx also owns the Iowa Wolves, an NBA G League team.
Also in May, the Mystics played a preseason game against the Indiana Fever at the University of Delaware, the alma mater of star player Elena Delle Donne — exactly the same scenario Staley hopes to make happen.
Those games drew crowds of 4,203 and 3,323, respectively. Both the Lynx and the Mystics have had just one preseason home game since 2013 with as large a crowd.
Through a spokesperson, Las Vegas Aces coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer said Friday that he has not spoken with anyone at South Carolina about Staley’s proposal but believes it is a great idea.
South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner also said Friday he is supportive of the idea, but has yet to discuss it with Staley.
“This is my seventh year as the director of athletics. I like doing things that are different,” Tanner told The State’s Josh Kendall of the proposal. “We have the USA exhibition game. The Beyonce concert wasn’t just about this is an opportunity to maybe make some money. It was great for the city of Columbia. It was great for the students coming back to campus. Recruiting. It all plays in.”
The Sky and Wings did not respond to requests for comment, and the Fever declined to comment.
Colonial Life Arena will host USC’s graduation ceremonies on May 10 and 11, 2019. Currently, there are no other publicly scheduled events that month, when the WNBA preseason occurs.
Staley is not the only one who has been thinking of ways the WNBA can take advantage of large women’s college basketball fanbases in markets where the league doesn’t have a permanent home — this past June, Borders told the Associated Press that she was open to the idea of hosting an annual WNBA game in Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the national powerhouse Lady Vol program and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
The State’s Josh Kendall contributed to this story