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How Aces’ ‘generational’ talent, personalities are growing the game

The Aces’ Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum celebrate after winning the Skills Challenge at the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — A’ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray had Michelob Ultra Arena in the palm of their hands on Saturday.

With the ball wedged behind the backboard, Wilson grabbed a mop used for wiping sweat off the court and went to retrieve it. Then, as she said after the game, the music took over her body.

Wilson started to dance, and Gray joined in. As they moved in unison, the crowd cheered and laughed. It was one of the most genuine and vocal reactions from the crowd at the WNBA All-Star Game, and it had nothing to do with basketball.

The Aces duo took a mundane moment and made it magical.

Over the last two seasons, Las Vegas has captured the attention of the basketball world. And as excitement surrounding the sport increases, the Aces are at the center of it.

“Since I came into the league until now, the increase in media attention, national games, social media has been tremendous,” said Aces guard Kelsey Plum, drafted first overall in 2017. “And I think it’s just going to continue to grow.”

The 2022 playoffs, in which the Aces took home the WNBA title, resulted in the most-watched WNBA postseason in 20 years. This year at the All-Star break, the league is on pace to register the most-watched season in history. Attendance is up 27%, TV viewership is up 67%, and the 2023 All-Star Game hosted in Las Vegas was sold out. It also clocked in as the most-watched All-Star Game in 16 years, with 850,000 average viewers tuning into ABC.

The Aces as a team are also making their mark on the growth of the game.

Halfway through the regular season, Las Vegas is firmly in first place at 19-2. They had four players voted into the All-Star Game — Wilson, Gray, Plum and Jackie Young — and Wilson served as a captain for the second season in a row after garnering the most fan votes. The Aces are also averaging the highest attendance in the league this season, welcoming over 9,000 fans per game, according to Across the Timeline.

“I think that we have some generational talent on this team,” Plum said. “And I also feel like we have some generational personalities. And I think that people connect with people. So growing the game is something that I think is important to us individually and collectively as a team.”

On the court, the Aces have created one of the best teams in history. Their starting five includes four former No. 1 draft picks: Wilson, Plum and Young were selected by the franchise, while the fourth, Candace Parker, joined the squad in the offseason as a free agent. The fifth starter is Gray, who signed with the Aces in 2021 free agency and has since made herself invaluable, earning 2022 Finals MVP after a breakout playoff performance.

Coaching the team is Becky Hammon, a WNBA legend herself who went on to serve as Gregg Popovich’s assistant coach in the NBA before taking over the Aces organization and winning a title in her first season.

“I think with someone like Becky as well at the helm, it brings even more attention,” Plum said. “Las Vegas is like a perfect melting pot, and I think that it’s taken off in a way that’s been super beneficial to the game and to the league. And I think you see other organizations stepping up as well.”

Hammon heads up the Aces on the sidelines, but when it comes to the team’s public image, Wilson leads the way.

The 26-year-old has deals with companies like Ruffles and Starry that help her build her brand. But more than that, it’s Wilson’s personality that draws fans.

Her dance mid All-Star game was just a snapshot of who Wilson is. In press conferences, she professed her love for Bojangles, joked about her team not following curfew leading up to the game, and answered questions while holding assistant coach Tyler Marsh’s baby. When he started crying, Wilson looked into the media room and said: “Where are this baby’s parents?” The remark, as a Wilson joke usually does, elicited laughs from the media.

Wilson holds the attention of every room she’s in, and the same holds true on a basketball court.

She’s been instrumental in the Aces’ success, and there’s been plenty of it.

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A'ja Wilson has become the lifeblood of the Aces team on and off the court. (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

The two-time MVP has been dominating the WNBA since 2018, when she was named Rookie of the Year after a standout career at South Carolina. For her career, Wilson is averaging 19.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.

Las Vegas has finished in the top four of the WNBA standings in each of the last four seasons, and looks primed to finish on top again in 2023. They advanced to the Finals in 2020, appeared in the semifinals in 2021 and won the title in 2022.

“We win,” Wilson said. “It’s easy to cheer on a team when they’re winning. And that’s what it’s gonna take, for people to see us as winning the games, playing the right way and making it entertaining. So, when it comes to growing the league or the game, whatever you want to say, I think we do it in a way that’s like, ‘It’s us.’”

While the Aces are at the forefront of the league’s growth, they aren’t the only team that has a hand in it.

The most-watched game this season so far was between the Dallas Wings and the Los Angeles Sparks, and the most-attended contest was Brittney Griner’s return to Phoenix, when the Mercury took on the Chicago Sky.

The Aces have a personality that’s hard to ignore and is unique to their franchise. The other 11 teams, Wilson says, have their own thing.

“It’s going to look different for different teams, different cities,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean, like, don’t watch it or it’s not as entertaining. It is, it’s there. Give it a chance. And I think that’s what we do. We just go out there and be us.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Midge Purce-Backed Docuseries ‘The Offseason’ to Drop This Summer

cast of the offseason nwsl reality series
'The Offseason' follows a group of NWSL stars as they prepare for preseason play. (The Offseason)

The Offseason, a reality series created by Gotham and USWNT star Midge Purce, has officially confirmed its streaming debut, Purce announced in Cannes on Tuesday.

The six-episode, half-hour docuseries will stream this summer on X, though a specific premiere date hasn't yet been set.

The Offseason was filmed in Miami, two weeks before the NWSL preseason. It's a crucial time for athletes, a period where they prepare to join their respective teams and compete for both starting and roster spots. Production designed all the facilities, bringing in top-tier trainers, masseuses, chefs, and gym equipment to create a high-level training environment, ensuring the players were in peak condition, per the show's release. Throughout filming, athletes lived together in one house — a reality TV conceit rife for entertainment.

The series follows a number of NWSL stars, including Purce (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Maria Sanchez (Houston Dash), Lo’eau LaBonta (Kansas City Current), Michelle Alozie (Houston Dash), Taylor Smith (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Nikki Stanton (OL Reign), Ally Watt (Orlando Pride), Taryn Torres (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Paige Nielsen (Angel City FC), and Ify Onumonu (Utah Royals).

"We wanted to create a series that truly captures the essence of what it means to be a professional athlete," said Purce. "This series has always been about more than just sports — it's about the human experience behind the athlete, as well."

The show promises a behind-the-scenes look at professional women's sports, teasing major life decisions, on-field tensions, and players taking stock of the environments they'll be entering once their preseason trip is over. The series delves into the real-life challenges faced by the athletes, including club trades, contract negotiations, burnout, and the relentless pressure from outsiders commenting on the players' personal lives.

The Offseason's official trailer, released on Tuesday, shows snippets of Hubly contemplating retirement, Sanchez joining the group after signing a high-profile contract, and a healthy amount of banter about on-field achievements.

The spirit of the series is reflected in its producers: Box To Box Films is known for their sports content (Drive to Survive, Break Point, Full Swing), whereas 32 Flavors is the creative force behind Vanderpump Rules and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The series was funded by Seven Seven Six, and executive produced by Purce.

Lilia Vu Wins Meijer LPGA Classic After Injury Return

lpga golfer Lilia Vu
Lilia Vu won in her first tournament in two months. (Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Lilia Vu won her fifth LPGA Tour event on Sunday, taking home the Meijer LPGA Classic title in her first tournament appearance since March. 

The World No. 2 had been sidelined with a back injury, but returned with a vengeance last weekend. She began the final day eight shots back of leader Grace Kim, before surviving a three-hole playoff against Kim and former champion Lexi Thompson to take the title. 

"I think this is the most meaningful win," Vu told reporters. "Because there was a time two months ago where I was just crying on the range not being sure if I would ever play a tournament again without pain."

This was Vu's first Meijer LPGA Classic win, and a birdie on the third playoff hole helped secure it. A two-time major champion, she's now two for three in LPGA Tour playoffs. 

She said on Sunday that being unable to defend her title at the Chevron Championship was the "breaking point" in her season.

"Not being able to compete there really killed me," she said. "I feel like I thought I was taking the steps in the right direction, but I’m glad that I was able to take a couple months off and reevaluate my body, let it recover, do what I needed to do to get back out here again.

"And we did the right thing and took two months off. I think it hurt me not to play competitive golf because I literally live for competitive golf, but we did the right thing and that’s why I’m here today."

Vu walked away with $450,000 in prize money from the $3 million overall purse.

Jabeur, Sabalenka Pull Out of Olympics Citing Health Concerns

tennis player Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka will not play in this year's Summer Olympics. (ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images)

Ons Jabeur and Aryna Sabalenka joined a growing list of tennis stars opting out of the Olympics on Monday.

Sabalenka, the reigning Australian Open champion and World No. 3, told reporters in Berlin that she was looking after her health while citing WTA tournament participation requirements. The Belarusian had struggled with a stomach bug during the French Open, where she lost in the semifinals of a major for the first time since 2022. 

Similarly, Jabeur referenced the health risks that come with a change in playing surfaces. The World No. 10 has been battling knee injuries this season, and lost in the French Open quarterfinals to Coco Gauff

"Especially with all the struggles I was having last month, I feel like I need to take care of my health… It’s too much with the scheduling," Sabalenka told reporters. "It’s just too much. I made the decision to take care of my health."

Players will spend the next few weeks playing on grass in the lead-up to Wimbledon, while the Olympics will be played on clay at Roland-Garros. 

"After consulting with my medical team regarding attending the Olympics in Paris, we have decided that the quick change of surface and the body’s adaptation required would put my knee at risk and jeopardize the rest of my season," Jabeur tweeted on Monday. "Unfortunately, I will not be able to participate in the 2024 Paris Olympics. I have always loved representing my country in any competition, However, I must listen to my body and follow my medical team’s advice."

The two join Emma Raducanu in opting out of the Olympics. Raducanu — who has dealt with a number of injuries since her US Open win in 2021 — said the change in surface was "not worth the risk."

Jaedyn Shaw Breaks NWSL Record for Most Goals Scored as a Teenager

Jaedyn Shaw of the san diego wave
Jaedyn Shaw is now holds the record for most NWSL goals as a teenager. (Julia Kapros-USA TODAY Sports)

Jaedyn Shaw continues to make NWSL history, surpassing Trinity Rodman for the most NWSL goals by a teenager on Saturday. 

She did it in a game against Rodman's Washington Spirit in the 20th minute of the 1-1 draw. It brings her total to 13 league goals, after making her NWSL debut at 17 years old in July 2022. 

The goal is her third this season. Shaw currently leads Wave alongside Makenzy Doniak. 

Shaw has also been a member of the USWNT, alongside Rodman, netting seven goals over 14 national team appearances. If she gets called up to this summer’s Olympics under Emma Hayes, it will mark her first official tournament with the USWNT.

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