Chicago Sky, WNBA begins highly anticipated season Tuesday

The WNBA’s 28th season, which begins Tuesday, is filled with expectations.

If training camps have indicated anything, it’s that this season will exceed them all. The 2024 rookie class already has garnered huge attention without a game being played.

‘‘There’s a general excitement,’’ Sky center Elizabeth Williams said. ‘‘Especially when you have the type of players, like Angel [Reese], that are coming in that already have such a big following.’’

That following, combined with prime-time TV slots during the women’s NCAA Tournament, led to record-breaking viewership in March and carried into the WNBA Draft.

The draft drew a record TV audience of 2.45 million viewers. The previous mark was 601,000 when Diana Taurasi was selected as the No. 1 overall pick by the Mercury in 2004.

‘‘In the past, people would be fans of college players,’’ Williams said. ‘‘But it wouldn’t necessarily translate [to the WNBA]. Now, because we do have more visibility and we’re making the efforts to be out there, it’s a different energy.’’

In the two weeks since training camps opened, the WNBA has adjusted significant areas of its operation, including streaming and travel plans.

After failing to stream Reese’s and center Kamilla Cardoso’s preseason debut, which resulted in a fan’s livestream reaching 1.8 million views, the WNBA and Sky responded to fan outrage by streaming the team’s second preseason game. When fans responded with disapproval after seeing Fever guard Caitlin Clark and 2023 Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston being videotaped while walking through an airport in Dallas, the WNBA announced plans days later to allow teams to use charter travel.

The adjustments warrant the question: Is the league ready for the eyeballs this rookie class will bring to it?

The WNBA’s announcement of charter travel, which will cost the league $25 million per year for the next two seasons, was relayed to a room full of Associated Press sports editors before it was communicated to teams and players. Two days later, the WNBA issued a news release with vague language about when charter travel actually would be made available.

‘‘We are thrilled to announce the launch of a full charter program as soon as practical for the 2024 and 2025 seasons,’’ commissioner Cathy Engelbert said.

As it turns out, only the Fever and Lynx will use charter flights for their first road trip of the season. Williams told the Sun-Times that all WNBA players had been invited to a town-hall meeting Monday with Engelbert. The expectation was that Engelbert would provide more feedback about the status of charter travel for the entire league.

‘‘I know it’s still a work in progress,’’ Williams said.

The impact of this high-profile rookie class is being felt in individual franchises, too.

Since drafting Cardoso and Reese with the Nos. 3 and 7 picks, respectively, the Sky have seen season-ticket sales increase by 33% and revenue by 58%, CEO Adam Fox said. The Star Tribune in Minnesota reported Lynx season-ticket sales have increased by 50% and revenue by 39%.

‘‘The growth has been absolutely amazing,’’ Sky coach Teresa Weatherspoon said. ‘‘And it’s only going to get better. We have the right young women assembled in this league, a great deal of talent. Everyone knows the direction this league will go.’’

The Sky will open the season with consecutive road games Wednesday and Saturday against the Wings. Both games are sold out. College Park Center in Arlington, Texas, where the Wings play, has a capacity of 7,000.

Across the league, ticket sales have skyrocketed. Clark’s regular-season debut Tuesday with the Fever at the Sun is a sellout, with 8,910 tickets sold. The Sun’s only other season-opening sellout came in their inaugural game at Mohegan Sun Arena in 2003 against the Sparks.

The Fever had only 22 of their games nationally broadcast last season, but they lead the league this season with 36 of their 40 games set to be featured on national telecasts or streams. The Aces, Mystics and Sparks already have opted to move their games against the Fever to bigger arenas.

It’s worth noting that the Mercury, Lynx, Fever and Liberty already play in the same arena as their NBA counterparts. Climate Pledge Arena, the home of the Storm, has a capacity of 18,300.

Also noteworthy is the increased security effort, specifically in Chicago. From the start of training camp, the Sky added extra security measures at Sachs Recreation Center in Deerfield, where they practice. There is a daily police presence at the facility, and the team will travel with multiple security guards this season.

Some teams have taken steps to meet this critical turning point in women’s sports. The Storm unveiled a state-of-the-art practice facility 10 days before camp. The Aces moved into their new facility before last season, and the Mercury announced a joint $100 million investment with the Suns in a team campus, including an individual practice facility for the Mercury.

‘‘From an organizational standpoint, I have everything,’’ said former Sky guard/forward Kahleah Copper, who now plays for the Mercury. ‘‘All I have to worry about is being the best version of myself on the court. That’s all I should worry about. As you pour into your players, you get what you put in.’’

Copper requested a trade in February after the Sky failed to sign any notable free agents. A key reason for that was their practice location.

Last month, Sky co-owner and operating chairman Nadia Rawlinson told the Sun-Times she hoped to announce the team’s plans for a new practice facility by the start of the season. On Monday, the team said it had no news to share.

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