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Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese arrive in Washington to play the Mystics

Capital One Arena has been Washington’s basketball hub for nearly three decades, but its anchor tenants, the rebuilding Washington Wizards and Georgetown Hoyas, have struggled to generate much excitement in recent seasons.

This week the WNBA returns to the building, and the DC debut of two of the biggest names in the sport brings with it some rare buzz.

On Thursday, the Washington Mystics host the Chicago Sky, which is led by Angel Reese. Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever come into town on Friday. Both games were moved from the Mystics’ main home, the 4,200-seat Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast Washington, to the 20,000-seat downtown venue in anticipation of increased interest in the WNBA in general, which features two budding stars in particular and the gigantic accompanying crowds.

Excluding promotional “camp games” that bring in dozens of college kids, these are the first Mystics games to be held at their old home since moving to their smaller location after the 2018 season. The Mystics said they were still waiting for final sales figures Thursday afternoon, but some tickets for both games were selling for more than $300 on secondary sites.

The Mystics issued 140 media credentials over the two nights, and celebrities expected to attend include singer Bootsy Collins, former Washington Nationals cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman, multiple Baltimore Ravens and Wizards players and other local personalities.

“I think overall it’s great, with some drawbacks that we have to deal with as a league and that the women’s basketball community has to work through,” Mystics coach Eric Thibault said. “I’ve been very impressed with the rookie class: one, how they’ve played, and two, how they’ve handled themselves.

“They almost seem more ready for all this craziness than anyone else. It seems like sometimes they deal with it almost like the adults in the room. So it’s a great honor for them.”

Clark arrives as the most talked about rookie to ever enter the league after a record-breaking college career at Iowa. She and Reese were part of the movement that brought record viewership to the NCAA Tournament the past two years, and Clark regularly performed to sold-out arenas as a senior. Fever matches have been moved to larger venues around the league as teams try to provide as many seats as possible to those hoping to catch a glimpse of her.

“There have been steadily rising statistics for years that have made us all hopeful and excited about where the league was going,” ESPN play-by-play announcer Ryan Ruocco said. “The fire was burning and Caitlin and this rookie class were the accelerant.”

The Fever’s season-opening game against the Connecticut Sun last month was the most-watched WNBA game ever on ESPN platforms. Indiana’s home opener against the New York Liberty on ABC was the network’s most-watched WNBA game ever. ESPN2, Ion and NBA TV have also had their most-watched WNBA games this season.

“The buzz we felt in every arena has been incredible,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said.

With that buzz, attention has increased and media coverage has increased – with varying levels of discourse. ESPN’s Pat McAfee apologized this week after calling Clark a “White b—- for the Indiana team.” LeBron James and Charles Barkley insinuated that veteran players should be grateful that Clark has increased interest in the league. Reese and Clark have faced harsh fouls in recent days that increased the intensity of the conversation even as they tried to remain calm about it.

“Everything I’ve experienced so far has been expected,” Reese said. “I knew this was a super competitive league. Especially for me, nothing would be easy. One, coming in as a rookie, two, who I am. So of course people will try harder, but this is what I wanted.”

“Absolutely, I’m having a lot of fun,” Clark said. “This is my childhood dream. If I’m not enjoying this, there’s probably a bigger problem. Of course there are times when I’m frustrated and upset… but there are so many people who would love to be in my position or have this opportunity.”

At times the buzz has veered toward the absurd. Congressman Jim Banks (R-Ind.) wrote a letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert on Tuesday saying, “Clark’s exceptionalism was met with resentment and repeated attacks from fellow players,” and asking what the league was going to do about it. As the Sky got off the bus at the team hotel in Washington on Wednesday, a person reportedly approached guard Chennedy Carter – her teammates said she had been “harassed” – to confront her about insulting Clark.

This is the WNBA’s new, wild environment. Players like Clark and Reese entered the league with significant individual followings built in college and thanks to their name, image and likeness (NIL). There are many layers to the discussions surrounding the league, and they are often mischaracterized. But that’s what the WNBA is looking for when the stars of the show arrive in Washington.

“We want a big tent. We want to welcome everyone,” said Thibault. “I think there’s a responsibility on those who are new to the league, new to the league, to not always be the loudest people. I think that would go a long way. If you want to take a moment to ask some questions, ask some questions of the people who have been in the league for a long time and we can give you some context for some of these different things. To watch the matches and get to know the players and the teams.

“WNBA news becomes mainstream news, and it’s been a lot of fun. We had the drama with Chennedy and Caitlin and all that, and I didn’t think the discourse around that was very healthy. But I think we’ve seen even more since then, different voices getting a chance to express some of the (more positive) things in the league.”

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