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The check-in: More attendance records topple
Plus: WNBA and NWSL playoffs!!!!!!
1. It was a record-setting attendance weekend for women’s basketball.
Two big-time women’s basketball attendance records were broken over the weekend. First off, 17,143 fans showed up to Barclays Center on Sunday to watch the New York Liberty beat the Las Vegas Aces 87-73, the largest gate attendance in WNBA Finals history.
Then, in Iowa, the Iowa women’s basketball team played in front of 55,646 fans at Iowa's football stadium in an exhibition game against DePaul that Iowa won 94-72. The previous record was 29,619 fans at the San Antonio Alamadome to watch the 2002 NCAA championship game between Connecticut and Oklahoma.
The scenes? They were immaculate.
Pretty cool, if you ask me!!
2. NWSL decision day was an absolute blast.
On Sunday, all 12 NWSL teams kicked off at the same time in the final six games of the season, with four playoff spots and the NWSL shield on the line. The result? Edge-of-your-seat chaos, which thankfully was broadcast red-zone-channel style on CBS Network so it was possible to follow it all in real time. (I thought the whiparound broadcast was really well done, and I look forward to it being a tradition on every NWSL Decision Day.)
The highlight of the day for this elder millennial? A four-minute stretch that saw a brace by Megan Rapinoe of the OL Reign, a goal by Alex Morgan of the San Diego Wave, and a bicycle kick by Sydney Leroux of Angel City.
If you watch only one of those goals, let it be Sydney Leroux’s:
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INCREDIBLE. (Also, watch this video she posted on Instagram, please.)
Ultimately, the San Diego Wave won the NWSL Shield. They will get a bye into the semifinals, as will the Portland Thorns. The four teams who clinched their postseason birth on Sunday are the North Carolina Courage, OL Reign, Angel City FC, and NY/NJ Gotham FC.
Here’s what the playoff bracket looks like:
I’m especially stoked that the Courage get to host a playoff game, I can’t wait to see the atmosphere in Wakemed on Sunday night.
Oh, and thankfully, Sunday was not the last day of Ali Krieger’s career, since Gotham will be at Wakemed this weekend, but it was a day to celebrate the greatness of Ali Krieger as she played her final home game, and goodness, do I ever miss her already.
3. The WNBA Finals are now a complete toss-up.
Just over 48 hours ago, I was worried that the Las Vegas Aces were about to sweep the New York Liberty. Now? Who knows! After looking completely lost in the first two games of the series in Vegas, New York was back on its home court in Brooklyn on Sunday, and back to its winning ways, defeating the Aces 87-73 in front of the aforementioned sellout crowd and forcing a Game 4, which will be played on Wednesday night.
While the Aces still have the 2-1 lead in the series, they’re facing serious challenges: Starting point guard Chelsea Gray and starting center Kiah Stokes will both be sitting out of Game 4 with foot injuries. While I wanted a five-game series, I did not want injuries to play a role in the outcome. And hey — they might not. With A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young, Alysha Clark, and Kelsey Plum on the court, the Aces should never be counted out. But especially given their lack of depth, their path forward just got significantly more difficult.
4. I talk more about NWSL and WNBA playoffs, and review the busy week in women’s sports, in this week’s Power Plays Podcast.
5. I have complicated feelings about Matt Ishbia.
Okay, we need to talk about what’s happening with the Phoenix Mercury. Matt Ishbia bought the team in February as part of his purchase of the Phoenix Suns, after former team owner Robert Sarver was forced to sell the two teams due to misconduct, including being sexist and racist in the workplace. I was very skeptical at the time: Sarver was a piece of shit, but the Mercury are a storied WNBA franchise. Would Ishbia care about that at all? Or was the team a complete afterthought for him?
Now, here’s the thing: I believe the Mercury probably were as a complete afterthought for Ishbia, who certainly dreamed of NBA ownership much more than WNBA ownership. But then he made some moves that showed he wasn’t overlooking the team. Over the summer, while the Mercury were in the midst of one of the worst seasons in franchise history, he hired Nick U’Ren away from the Golden State Warriors, where he served as executive director of basketball operations, and made him the new general manager of the Mercury. I’m not the biggest fan of NBA-to-WNBA transactions, but U’Ren has built his career as part of a championship team and has ties to the Phoenix area, so I could easily justify it — especially since it clearly meant Ishbia was willing to spend money. Then, earlier this month, Ishbia announced he was spending $100 million on a new training and practice facility for the Mercury. I have no snark about that. It’s just wonderful.
But this week, it was reported that Ishbia is hiring Orlando Magic assistant head coach Nate Tibbetts as the head coach for the Mercury. This man is the assistant coach of a losing basketball team and has no experience in women’s basketball or extensive experience as a head coach. And Ishbia isn’t just hiring him, he’s reportedly making him the highest paid head coach in the WNBA.
Michael Voepel of ESPN did a great job breaking down everything that feels off about this hire in a must-read X thread, noting, “None of this is meant to question how good a coach Nate Tibbetts is or will be. He may do a great job in Phoenix. It's about the opportunities that Black women in particular don't get, especially in a business where they represent the majority of the work force.”
And that’s the thing: You simply cannot ignore the optics of this hire. They matter. Too many men throughout the history of the WNBA have used the league as a stepping stone to further their career in the NBA and left messes in their wake. (See, just extremely recently: Fisher, Derek; Wade, James.) Too many women, Black women in particular, have poured their heart, soul, brain power, and emotional energy into this sport only to be passed over when time comes for a promotion or hiring.
Now, I want to make myself clear: I’m not rooting for Tibbetts to fail. I hope for the sake of the Mercury players and fans that he finds success. I hope that his heart is in the right place. And I think that overall, pushing up salaries for head coaches is a great thing — as long as owners make sure that players are taken care of in this next CBA. But for Ishbia not just to hire Tibbetts, but to automatically make him the highest-paying coach, is certainly sending a message about what Ishbia prioritizes; it just might not be the message he thought it would be.