Amid a dismal year for Minnesota sports, hometown point guard and former Gopher Lindsay Whalen will lead her championship-favorite Minnesota Lynx into the Conference Finals on Thursday.
With the Twins in danger of losing 100 games, the Vikings starting 0-2 and the Timberwolves locked out, the Lynx are the lone bright spot in the Minnesota sports market.
In fact, the 27-7 season led by two MVP candidates — Whalen and Seimone Augustus — has brought ticket sales up 11 percent since last year, according to the Lynx’s Chief Operating Officer Conrad Smith.
A huge part of the equation in increased ticket sales is the Lynx fulfilling Minnesota sports fans’ desire for a winning team while the rest of the market is losing.
Since Whalen came to the Lynx in early 2010, ticket sales have increased nearly 20 percent.
The Lynx are averaging a crowd of 8,447 fans per game which is the best since the team’s inaugural season in 1999.
While Whalen is a big part of that, in her first season with the team in2010, the Lynx averaged 7,622 fans. Now Whalen’s presence coupled with winning ways have been a boon at the ticket office.
She hails from Hutchinson, Minn., and has a supporting cast of family members that Smith says is massive.
“We saw a significant sales spike just to the Hutchinson community alone,” Smith said. “It seems like the town empties every time the Lynx are playing at home.”
She will continue to lead the Lynx’s postseason run Thursday at the Target Center as they open their Western Conference Finals series against Phoenix. The game will be broadcast on ESPN 2 at 8 p.m.
Smith said that this magical year for the Lynx compares to the classic 2004 Gophers women’s basketball team that Whalen led to their first-ever Final Four appearance.
“I know exactly what they are experiencing,” Gophers women’s basketball coach Pam Borton said. “I’ve been through that with Lindsay and, as I watch, I just sit back and smile and say ‘Lindsay’s at it again’.”
Borton has coached the Gophers women’s basketball team since 2002 and led the team to three consecutive Sweet-16 appearances in her first three years, all with Whalen as her star point guard.
“Lindsay has everything to do with what that team does,” Borton said. “Winning brings fans in and that’s what she does: wins.”
Whalen did similar things for the Gophers back in her college playing days.
The women’s basketball team saw attendance rise from 4,360 fans per game her sophomore season to nearly 10,000 her senior year at Williams Arena.
It took the Lynx eight years to bring Whalen back to Minnesota.
Their first attempt was unsuccessful. The Lynx traded up to the sixthspot in the 2004 WNBA draft in hopes of grabbing Whalen, but she was taken fourth by the Connecticut Sun.
In January of 2010, Whalen was traded to the Lynx. Although the team struggled last year, she just finished her 2011 regular season campaign in which she’s an MVP candidate, topping the WNBA with 5.9 assists per game.
She earned the WNBA’s Peak Performer Honors for assists this year, finishing with 199.
The WNBA bestows the Peak Performer Honor upon the league leaders in scoring, rebounds and assists.
She was also one of three Lynx players — with Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson — to earn Western Conference player of the month; Whalen received the award for her play in August.
On Sept. 8, Whalen recorded 20 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and zero turnovers against the Chicago Sky — the first time that’s happened ever for a WNBA player.
In her eight seasons in the WNBA, Whalen has served as the MVP runner-up to Candace Parker in 2008 and was selected to the First Team All-WNBA for her first time that season.
Perhaps most important for this team marching through the playoffs: she’s been to the Finals twice, in 2004 and 2005 while with Connecticut.
Smith said, “Lindsay is the most popular female athlete this state has ever produced.