With less than ten seconds left in the game and the score tied at 76, Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale, dribbled past half-court. She dribbled between her legs a couple times and then nudged forward beyond the three-point line, just enough to put her Indiana Fever defender, Lexie Hull, on her heels. Ogungowale’s juke created just enough space for her to release a step-back three-pointer, which toilet-bowled around the rim before dropping through the net with 4.5 seconds remaining.  

The 6,251 spectators who gathered for the Wings’ preseason opener erupted. And they erupted again seconds later, after Indiana guard Caitlin Clark—the college hoops phenomenon and top overall pick in April’s WNBA draft—launched a three-pointer that clanged off the front rim.

The home fans were pleased to see Dallas win, but the player who drew the sellout crowd was Clark, who was making her professional debut and whose long-range shooting has attracted record audiences at games and on TV. Friday’s animated crowd was just a preview—imagine the enthusiasm and hype that will accompany Clark’s performances at games that actually count in the WNBA record books. Afterward, Clark said, “You couldn’t ask for a better game.”

Actually, Greg Bibb asked for this game. Bibb has been the Wings’ president and CEO since the franchise moved to North Texas from Tulsa in 2016. He approached the Fever soon after Indiana won last December’s WNBA draft lottery (and the right to select Clark, the two-time NCAA women’s player of the year whose scoring binges at the University of Iowa generated record TV numbers for women’s basketball.)

Friday night’s game—a happening—provided the first glimpse of the Caitlin Clark effect in the WNBA. Her presence has resulted in increased ticket sales not only in Indiana but across the league. “The crowd was great all night,” Clark said. “That’s what you expect with a sellout.”

Sellouts have been infrequent for the Wings over the years. The team sold out twice at home last year during its twenty-game regular season, then once more during the playoffs. Dallas ranked ninth out of twelve WNBA franchises in average home attendance at 4,641 per game. “Attendance is computed different ways in different places,” Bibb quickly pointed out. “Oftentimes, attendance includes tickets that were comp tickets. We tend to have a very low ratio of comp to pay tickets.” He said the organization is top four in league revenue thanks to corporate sponsorships.

Bibb said the Wings have already sold out their entire inventory of about 2,500 season tickets for 2024. College Park Center is one of the smaller arenas in the league. Half of the WNBA’s teams play in venues that are also home to NBA and/or NHL teams, though in some cases, not all of the seating is made available in the larger venues.

Bibb said that when the Wings moved to Texas, the UTA building matched the team’s desires for seating capacity and location, roughly equidistant from Dallas and Fort Worth. “Having it central for a team that was new to the market and not sure where the fans would come from made a lot of sense,” Bibb said.

That was then. The Wings began exploring a move within the area about two years ago. College Park Center is an immaculate building, opened in 2012 and located on the eastern edge of UTA’s campus bordering a residential neighborhood. The surrounding area doesn’t have the dining and nightlife options found outside many metropolitan sports arenas. The team also sought a place where it wouldn’t be a guest, with their own practice and training facilities.

A relocation to Dallas, given the team’s name, would make plenty of sense. How convenient then when Dallas mayor Eric Johnson contacted the Wings about occupying a soon-to-be renovated Memorial Auditorium. The auditorium was built in 1957 and home to the old American Basketball Association’s Dallas Chaparrals for six seasons before the franchise moved to San Antonio and became the Spurs in 1973. The Wings were receptive to the city’s pitch, which gives $19 million in incentives to the team, and will relocate on a 15-year deal in 2026 after their lease at UTA expires.

Bibb said the hope is that Memorial can accommodate around 8,500 fans. Plus, the team won’t have to share training space with college athletes. “It wasn’t, for us, about there’s something wrong here,” Bibb said. “The environment for College Park Center, particularly when you fill the building, is second to none because it is a basketball-specific facility. The fans are right on top of the court. There’s a low ceiling that’s a metal ceiling so the sound really bounces around and it gets loud very quickly. It was about we need bigger and, in particular, we need a practice facility that our world-class athletes can call their own.”

Eleven-year WNBA veteran and Wings forward Natasha Howard, added: “It doesn’t really matter what arena you play in at the end of the day if you bring fans into it.”

It’s been quite some time since a WNBA team in Texas has generated buzz like the Wings are this season. The state’s first team in the league, the Houston Comets, won the first four WNBA championships from 1997 through 2000 with a star-studded lineup that featured Cynthia Cooper (league MVP in 1997 and ’98), Sheryl Swoopes (Texas Tech national champion in 1993, three-time WNBA MVP), and Tina Thompson.

The Comets and the other seven original WNBA teams were owned and operated by their cities’ NBA organizations. The Comets first played in the Summit, the Rockets’ former home court, which became the Compaq Center in 1998. They averaged more than 11,000 fans per home game while winning their second, third, and fourth titles.

Craig Ackerman, current Rockets TV play-by-play announcer, attended plenty of Comets games during his early days with the organization. “They sold out for big games and playoff games,” Ackerman said. “Comets games were a lot of fun in those days when they were rolling. It was consistently as loud and crazy as any kind of basketball environment that I’ve ever been around.”

The Comets followed the Rockets into the larger Toyota Center in 2003, and things were never the same for the WNBA team. For one, the core of the roster began to fade. There also was an ownership change in 2007, part of a trend that began a few years earlier when NBA franchises divested themselves of WNBA ownership.

“The move to the Toyota Center ultimately was not originally well received by the fan base,” Ackerman said. “Simultaneously and more importantly, that team started to age out. Cynthia and Sheryl in particular were on the very tail ends of their careers.”

The Comets relocated again in 2008 to the Reliant Center, with about half the seating of the Toyota Center. But Cooper had retired by then and Swoopes was playing for the Seattle Storm. For the second straight season, Houston failed to qualify for the playoffs. That December, the franchise that hung the league’s first four championship banners folded.

Another Texas team preceded the Wings when Spurs owner Peter Holt brought the Utah Starzz franchise to San Antonio in 2003. They played for fifteen seasons as the Silver Stars and then the Stars, reaching the WNBA finals once. Their initial per-game home attendance (10,384) exceeded the league average but dropped to among the lowest in the league toward the end of the Stars’ tenure. The team’s most notable star player was Becky Hammon, who was hired after her playing days ended to join Gregg Popovich’s Spurs staff as the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach. The Stars franchise moved to Las Vegas in 2018 and was renamed the Aces. Hammon became head coach in 2022, and Vegas has won both WNBA titles since.

Last year, the Wings finished with their first winning season since moving to Dallas. This season, they should be led again by Ogunbowale, who finished 2023 ranked fifth in the league in scoring and twelfth in assists. She’s also the only player in the league to film a commercial with Mark Cuban. The Wings led the league last year in points in the paint and second-chance points.

Dallas’s regular season opener on Wednesday, May 15, against the Chicago Sky—featuring another famous rookie, Angel Reese—is sold out. So are both visits from Clark and the Fever.

Said Bibb: “We’re still working to sell every seat possible.”