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The WNBA will soon call the Bay Area home, but where will their fans go?

OAKLAND — If you’re a Golden State Warriors diehard, finding a sports bar packed with likeminded NBA fans is as easy as asking a friend or hopping on Yelp. Not so for the Bay Area’s committed WNBA watchers.

The small handful of fans that carved out a corner on the Athletic Club’s second-floor balcony in downtown Oakland Sunday afternoon called several different bars, emailed a few others, scoured Reddit community boards and even scrolled through a queer LGBTQ dating app in their search — desperate for a space to watch the Las Vegas Aces defend their Championship title in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals against the New York Liberty.

While Elyse Widin was frustrated that the community was having to organize itself, they were by no means flabbergasted.

“I’m used to it,” Widin said, adding that they had to ask bar management to turn on closed captions so they could follow the action through the din of 30 other screens dominated by the NFL. “That’s just how it goes when you’re not a majority in the population.”

Without a home team to rally behind, Bay Area fans have lacked a specific “hub” where they can gather a community that supports women’s basketball.

But following last week’s announcement that an expansion team will officially make its way to the region by 2025, Widin, a 37-year-old engineer based in Berkeley, and other fans hope that lack of space changes — sooner than later.

“People are coming out of the woodwork, but it’s unfortunate that it took so long,” Widin said. “I hope more people feel comfortable vocalizing their interest in women’s sports. I’ll try to lift up whatever I can — I’m hopefully for the Bay Area.”

Two of the hottest stars on the WNBA’s top teams are from the region: the New York Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu was born in Walnut Creek, while Chelsea Gray with the Las Vegas Aces hails from Hayward.

The Warriors’ WNBA team is slated to begin playing at the Chase Center in San Francisco in two years, and will practice in Oakland. The move comes just months after the National Women’s Soccer League announced a new team, Bay FC, will begin playing at San Jose’s PayPal Park next summer.

A small handful of hubs dedicated specifically to women’s sports have already taken off across the country.

Fans in Portland, Oregon, often gather at The Sports Bra, which became the nation’s first dedicated women’s sports bar in 2022. Rough & Tumble has since emerged as a hotspot in Seattle, Washington, and the Twin Cities will soon offer space at A Bar of Their Own, which is still pinning down a hub in Minneapolis.

For now, some Bay Area sports bars are stepping in to fill the local void.

Ramonn Smith, the new owner of Rickey’s Sports Lounge in San Leandro, said patrons have already started calling to ensure that TVs could be reserved to broadcast WNBA games — a welcome sign for the legendary Raider Nation sports bar that has recently made a comeback as a home for all fans.

“Once the expansion team inaugural season starts, (that) would draw more fans because we have a team to root for,” Smith said. “Hopefully, Rickey’s can be the place to watch the WNBA games in the East Bay, for those that don’t attend the games at the Chase Center.”

Before Dana Harrell became a regular at Rickey’s, the 53-year-old from Oakland spent a few years playing basketball overseas. With dreams that his 4-year-old daughter will one day follow in his basketball shoes, he’s glad that the WNBA’s upcoming Bay Area team may provide a deeper sense of homegrown motivation that she can tap into. “Kids look up to the people that play sports in their area as role models, so this will benefit any young girl in any Bay Area city that’s interested in playing basketball.”

Elisabeth Long, a 36-year-old from Oakland, only started following women’s basketball after watching Team USA play in the Olympics during the pandemic. But despite getting involved during a recent upswell of investment in women’s sports — regionally and across the country — she said scores of different streaming apps and subscription services have created barriers that extend beyond a lack of physical space to watch games.

Long questioned whether one reason that WNBA fans are often left without many resources is because the league is largely made up of Black and queer women. However, as support and excitement continues to grow around the team that will eventually call the Bay Area home, she said she hopes a city like Oakland will start opening its arms and welcoming the community — benefiting everyone involved.

Imagining what a Bay Area hub for WNBA fans could one day look like, Long said she hopes a common space emerges that can serve that community — especially its LGBTQ fans — before and after the clock runs out for any one game.

“If you build it, people will come,” Long said. “If they’re investing in a Bay Area team, they should also be investing in a street team or some other effort to make sure that these things happen.”

https://www.mercurynews.com/2023/10/08/the-wnba-will-soon-call-the-bay-area-home-but-where-will-their-fans-go/ The WNBA will soon call the Bay Area home, but where will their fans go?

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