Reporter’s Notebook: What it’s like covering WNBA basketball in a pandemic

Ivy Hoops Online’s Erica Denhoff covered the Dallas Wings’ trip to take on the Connecticut Sun in Uncasville on June 22. Here are her thoughts on the experience:

The last time I covered a sporting event was March 6, 2020. With my cameras and my spot on the baseline, I captured Brown men’s basketball claiming victory against Harvard to keep Bruno’s Ivy Madness hopes alive. Early the next morning, I boarded a plane to go on vacation to watch MLB’s Grapefruit League spring training games in Florida. The plan was to return back to Boston in time to cover Ivy Madness.

But on March 12, while I was sitting in the first row behind home plate, taking in a glorious day game pitting the Philadelphia Phillies against the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte, Fla., word quickly spread that the sporting world came to an indefinite halt. As of June 22, I had not worked a sporting event or attended one as a fan since.

My day job as clinical research education and communication manager and project manager at Boston Children’s Hospital kept me busy as ever and I put my Master’s of Public Health in epidemiology degree to good use during the COVID-19 pandemic. I contributed to COVID-19 research efforts as a project manager and data manager and worked tirelessly to help keep the clinical research community at the hospital afloat as we changed how we worked with our patients and their families. As the chair of the Boston chapter of the Society of Clinical Research Associates, I kept our chapter active with remote continuing education events and networking.

Given the struggles I witnessed in my hospital and others, I wondered if there was light at the end of the tunnel. When I saw a glimpse of light it seemed like it was actually just another train in the tunnel. Most days, I was too overwhelmed with my hospital work to reflect on how much I missed working basketball games. During my outdoor jogs, I regularly listened to the recorded press conferences of my two favorite women’s basketball coaches, Dawn Staley and Geno Auriemma, so I could keep up with their teams. I gained a tremendous amount of insight on just how challenging the daily grind had become for college basketball. As Coach Auriemma said during one of his press conferences, “If someone tells you the mental health of a college student is good right now, they are lying to you.”

On June 22, I reentered the live sporting world when I attended the Dallas Wings at Connecticut Sun WNBA game as a member of the media. I participated in the careful dance that one engages in when some restrictions have been lifted but certain health and safety protocols, whether imposed by the state or the league, remain in place.

The Connecticut Sun mascot, Blaze, welcomed everyone into the arena. Though the mask, you can tell how excited Blaze is to have attendees at the game. (Photo by Joe Denhoff)

Receiving approval for a credential was a challenging process due to the WNBA’s health and safety protocols. It turns out that purchasing a ticket to the game wasn’t so easy either.

My dad, a longtime supporter of women’s hoops, who also took me to the inaugural Connecticut Sun game in 2003, wanted to attend the game as a fan. Tickets were available only to season ticketholders with some verified resale tickets available on Ticketmaster.com. It was only until two days before the game that we found him a ticket because the Sun opened some seats (in the upper deck only) to non-season ticket holders. A ticket with a face value of $12 in the second to last row of section 112 in the upper deck became a $38 ticket with fees totaling $26 included. This was a purchase directly from the team, not from a resale service.

This was very different from the days when my family would show up at the box office and purchase courtside or lower level seats for Connecticut Sun games, including the playoffs, at reasonable prices and without fees that cost more than the ticket.

This season, due to the league’s health and safety protocols, media attending a Connecticut Sun game are assigned to the Earth Skybox in the upper echelon of the arena. Large-framed photos of Michael Jordan playing for the Wizards adorn the walls.

A handful of media attended the game, and I was told there are usually three to 12 media members per game, and it is typically on the lower end of that range. Why do only a few members of the media attend the games? I was told that many media members watch the game on NESN+ from the comfort of their home and because they have the press conference Zoom link, they attend that and ask their questions from their home.

“Please only touch the food you will eat.” I was taken aback by a sign saying this next to the table of boxed dinners for the media. As someone who attended a handful of lectures on the epidemiology of foodborne illness while an epidemiology graduate student, my eyes lit up at that sign. The food was covered in clear boxes and the scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have determined that COVID-19 is unlikely to be spread by contaminated surfaces. However, as a self-proclaimed germophobe afraid of foodborne illness, I did appreciate the sentiment behind the sign. The dinner was delicious and far superior to images of food I saw on social media last year of meals the WNBA players were served in the 2020 season in the “wubble.”

The Sun’s court has a sign that reads “WNBA Changemakers.” The WNBA and its players have paved the way for calling attention to social and racial injustice. During the national anthem, all players and coaches kneeled. Feeling the power of that is much different in person from watching it on television.

WNBA players and coaches show solidarity by kneeling and locking arms during the national anthem. (Photo by Erica Denhoff)

It was exciting to watch former Princeton standout Bella Alarie suit up for the Dallas Wings. She is an integral part of the team, someone who does all the little things to make the team better. During starting lineups, she was right at the front of the line high-fiving her teammates.

Multiple attempts to interview Alarie through the Dallas Wings were unsuccessful.

The Connecticut Sun came out on fire with momentum from the tip-off. When Alarie checked in with 5:46 remaining in the first quarter, she was on the floor fighting for loose balls, of which there were many due to some sloppy ballhandling by the Wings.

Alarie possesses several intangible qualities such as attitude, effort and being a good teammate. Her on–the-ball pressure defense on the top of the key on the ballhandler was stifling.

Of course, she scores points as well. She hit a fadeaway jumper to extend the lead to five and she made it look easy. When Alarie was substituted out with five minutes left in the second quarter, Wings assistant coach Kelly Schumacher-Raimon applauded so loudly that it could be heard from the media suite in the upper deck. While resting on the bench, Alarie sat at the end, barking at the official for a bad call against her teammate and intensely cheering her team’s successes.

Arike Ogunbowale, known in Connecticut as the Notre Dame player who hit the game-winning shot to beat UConn in the 2018 NCAA national semifinal game now plays for the Dallas Wings. She attempted to take the game into her own hands and no one cheered louder than Alarie for Ogunbowale’s efforts. Then around 5:50 remaining in the third quarter, Alarie reentered the game and immediately committed her second foul, and then with 5:11 remaining, she committed her third foul. The call was questionable, but Alarie didn’t get visibly angry. Perhaps she took it as a teachable moment.

In the fourth quarter, she returned to the game, missed a shot, got a tough rebound, but then missed her second attempt. She was tenacious on defense, snaring a rebound and then on the offensive end, nabbing another board and taking a turnaround jumper. But she got in a collision and hit her head on the court. She came out of the game with assistance and walked back into the tunnel with the trainer to enter the concussion protocol.

When she came back to the bench, she appeared upset and had a towel over her head. At the end, Ogunbowale’s circus-shot heroics couldn’t save the Wings, and Jasmine Thomas’s shot at 57 seconds sealed an 80-70 win for the Sun.

Brionna Jones got on the microphone to show appreciation to attendees. Boston Celtic Grant Williams attended the game and wore a shirt reading, “It won’t fail because of me.”

The same could be said about Alarie’s play for the Wings, whether that included hustling in the game or cheering loudly and encouraging her teammates while on the sidelines. She’s an integral member of the team. Even though she exited the game early after hitting her head, I am glad to report that she was OK and played in the following game.

The WNBA provides a safe atmosphere for media members covering games. Likewise, the league takes precautions to protect players from media and fans. (Photo by Dani Rafuse)

2 thoughts on “Reporter’s Notebook: What it’s like covering WNBA basketball in a pandemic”

  1. Erica,

    It’s wonderful to read all your great hoops and healthcare insights!

    I’m glad to hear about your recent WNBA experience (except, of course, for the added costs). As the Ivy League returns to action in the fall, I hope that conference & school officials use that league as a role model for how to work with athletes, fans and media with regards to health, safety & social justice issues.

    Alarie seems to be an important role player on an improving Wings team. Hopefully, she will continue to develop and get more playing time. With only 144 available WNBA spots and no developmental league, it’s always a challenge for role players to stay in the league.

    Reply

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