The Chicago Sky are your 2021 WNBA Champions.
It feels weird to type that. It feels weird to read it. It’s almost as if I’m waiting for someone to interject and tell me it didn’t actually happen, that I’m imagining things or that I just awoke from a months-long slumber.
But there are photos and videos on my phone of Game 4 of the 2021 WNBA Finals, the ensuing celebration and the championship rally at Millennium Park that remind me that no, it’s not just a dream.
I’ve been a Sky season ticket holder since late 2012. I wrote about the experience last year as part of Swish Appeal’s “My First Basketball Love” series, focusing on my journey to Sky fandom and how the team (and the WNBA itself) welcomed me with open arms during a time of great inner turmoil.
Much has happened since then, of course, and I’ve once again been invited to share my thoughts on Chicago’s WNBA team from a personal perspective.
It should go without saying that 2020 was a rough year for many people. Looking back on things, it was miraculous that the WNBA was able to patch together a season at all, let alone one as successful as 2020’s “wubble.” While I missed watching the Sky in person, the WNBA’s immense contributions to social justice movements in America during that summer ensured that their off-court impact was still felt. The Sky flamed out towards the end of the season, but I was as proud as I’d ever been to be a fan.
As the 2021 season approached, we were told that while we’d be able to return to Wintrust Arena to watch the team, attendance would be greatly limited and many precautions would be taken to ensure a safe environment during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Masks were to be worn in the arena at all times and a negative COVID test was required to even get into the building. Concessions were nowhere to be found. My usual courtside seats were spread out and essentially blocked off from the rest of the arena, which meant there could be no socializing with fellow fans.
While the bare-bones environment had its perks — I greatly enjoyed listening to the in-game banter between players and referees — it felt more like I was watching open practices or scrimmages than actual WNBA games, with music from the arena PA system echoing through the empty concourse and the ushers continuously reminding us to stay distanced from one another.
These restrictions were relaxed as the season went on, and as the Sky’s arena came back to life, so did the team’s play. Chicago’s early-season struggles were definitely disappointing (especially given the hype surrounding the team entering the 2021 season), so it was nice to see the Sky get things together as the summer went on, though their most successful stretch actually came when they were playing on the road. To me, it didn’t matter much, as the change in mood as more fans were allowed into the arena reinforced what I already knew: simply being at Sky games is enough to make me feel like I’m a part of something special. Wins are icing on the cake.
If those wins lead to a WNBA title, though? That was uncharted territory, and it’s something I still find myself trying to process.
The 2021 WNBA postseason was, in a word, incredible. I was used to the Sky getting a relatively lukewarm reception whenever the stakes were raised, so seeing the Wintrust Arena crowds grow in both size and intensity as the playoffs rolled on was a nice surprise. But it wasn’t until Game 3 of the WNBA Finals that it hit me: Chicago was getting legitimately invested in the Sky.
Games 3 and 4 were sellouts, which included the arena’s upper level. That has never happened since the Sky moved back into the city proper prior to the 2018 season. There were lines to get into the arena for both games, which I don’t ever recall happening either (and no, camp days don’t count — those are more like mosh pits, anyway). Resale prices were so gaudy that I joked to friends that I could have sold my Finals seats and bought a new car with the payout.
I’d never have actually done that, of course.
The Finals games themselves had an atmosphere unlike any I had previously experienced. Yes, the seats were sold out, but there was something different about those crowds. They weren’t just at the games because they had nothing else to do; every single person (except the Phoenix Mercury fans who made the trip, maybe) was there because they wanted to see the Sky win a championship. It’s hard to put the difference into words, but anyone who has been in attendance to see their own team win a championship knows exactly what I’m talking about.
And when the final buzzer sounded? It was surreal. I can’t put it any other way.
The one thing that I’d like to mention before wrapping this up is that the Sky’s 2021 championship run has the potential to be a major building block in terms of both local and national popularity. There was tepid interest among local media when the team last went to the Finals in 2014, but that quickly evaporated, and when Elena Delle Donne was traded prior to the 2017 season, it seemed in some ways like the Sky were back to square one.
I don’t think that’s going to happen again. The city loves a winner, yes, but that alone isn’t going to drive attendance — it’s the fans who will be the deciding factor. The WNBA has been gaining steam on social media (which itself is a considerably larger part of everyday life than it was even a few years ago), which in turn has turned even more fans onto the league and even pressured retail outlets to begin carrying WNBA merchandise. The WNBA wave is growing, slowly but surely, and the Sky are currently riding atop it.
Granted, no matter which team won the 2021 WNBA Finals, I’d have been fiercely proud of what the Sky accomplished this season. They just happened to be the ones who came out on top this time around, and as grateful as I am to have witnessed it in person, I’m even more excited for what the future holds — not only for the Sky, but for the WNBA as a whole. Chicago may have reached the promised land, but in a way, it’s only the beginning, and I’m indescribably happy to be a part of it.