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Natasha Cloud missed the feeling of having thousands of screaming fans on top of her. Going from playing in the intimate, 4,200-seat setting of Michael J. Hagan Arena at St. Joseph’s University to the 20,000-plus capacity arena in downtown D.C. required an adjustment for the Washington Mystics guard. During her rookie season in 2015, Cloud remembers coach Mike Thibault telling her that she played better on the road.
“I was like, ‘Yeah. We have a big arena.’ Like it’s hard to get used to, especially when you can’t fill it out when you want to,” says Cloud. “We were getting fans, but I feel like I could still hear myself over the crowd at times. I’m loud. I know that, but shoot, we’re talking about a game.”
From 1998 until last season, the Mystics called the vast indoor stadium now known as Capital One Arena their home. They shared it with the Capitals and Wizards. The team once had the highest attendance in the WNBA—a fact it displayed proudly with roundly mocked “WNBA Attendance Champions” banners in the rafters before taking them down in 2010—but the Mystics only averaged 6,136 regular-season fans last year.
Starting this spring, the reigning WNBA Finals runner-up Mystics have their own home at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast. With a capacity of just 4,200, coaches and players are hopeful that the team will finally be able to feel the crowd behind them and make it a hostile environment for opposing players. They’ll also have a practice court nearby and their own locker rooms, plus other amenities like a weight room and rehab facilities.
More importantly, the Mystics believe this will translate to more home wins.
“We haven’t really ever had at Capital One Arena a home court advantage that some teams in our league have. It’s just too big of an arena,” Thibault says. “Now we can have the teams on top of us, try to intimidate the opponents a little bit, knowing that we’re going to be in our building all the time.”
Playing in the George Washington University’s 5,000-seat Charles E. Smith Center during last season’s playoffs gave the Mystics a taste of what would come. Construction at Capital One Arena forced the Mystics to play their postseason games elsewhere.
Such is the life of a WNBA player. You can get kicked out of your own arena. Five of the 12 WNBA teams play in the same venue as an NBA team.
At Capital One Arena, the Mystics used the NBA visiting team’s locker room, and Cloud mentions that occasionally the team couldn’t practice when it wanted because of events going on at the facility.
So the Mystics didn’t mind when they got moved to the Smith Center, and later to George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena. It beat playing in their actual home.
“It was a good feeling,” says forward LaToya Sanders. “If [Cloud] hit a big play, she could go in and high-five people on the sidelines. You know, something we really couldn’t do in Capital One.”
It reminded Sanders of her college days. She competed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the team typically played its games at William Donald Carmichael, Jr. Arena (capacity: 6,822). Occasionally, games against rivals like Duke or Maryland were moved to the much larger Dean E. Smith Center to accommodate the demand for tickets.
Sanders preferred Carmichael.
“Because the gym is too big,” she says. “It wasn’t something we were used to.”
According to Dale Zimmerman, a professor of statistics and actuarial science at the University of Iowa, the numbers back up the players’ vision of home court advantage. While he hasn’t seen data for the effect that attendance would have, he says that crowd noise could make a difference.
“For instance, in baseball, in stadiums that are the same size, same number of seats, domed versus non-domed, there’s evidence of stronger home court advantage in domed than non-domed stadiums, even with the same attendance,” Zimmerman says. “That’s not necessarily a smaller place, but it would have the same effect. A smaller place would have louder noise than a larger place with same number of fans.”
In addition to crowd noise, studies have shown that referees exhibit favor toward the home team. Then there’s the factor of familiarity. Professional athletes treasure routine.
“I’ve learned in analytics, it’s a little bit of everything,” Zimmerman says. “Familiarity is important, moral support from the crowd, impact on the referees, who are more likely to make favorable calls, all those things seem to have an impact. Together, they make for substantial home court advantage.”
Kristi Toliver enjoys playing on the road. The veteran point guard has always embraced silencing the opposing team’s fans. She thrives off the energy of competing in places like Seattle Storm’s KeyArena and Connecticut Sun’s Mohegan Sun Arena—two stadiums known for their rowdy atmosphere.
In recent years, the Mystics have performed slightly better at home than away, except for in 2016, when they won eight away games, compared to five on their home court.
“Capital One is an NHL and NBA arena,” says Toliver. “I think this [new] type of arena, this style of arena suits the WNBA a little bit more. Just like [Major League Soccer] back in the day, playing in those huge arenas, they changed their format and got smaller arenas, and MLS is awesome. I think that’s kinda what we’re doing and the vision that we have.”
Without Elena Delle Donne, who is out with a knee injury, the Mystics lost their season opener in Connecticut to the Sun, 84-69, last weekend. They will return to D.C. for their home opener on Saturday, June 1 against the Atlanta Dream.
After a recent practice, Toliver stayed after to put up extra shots at the new gym’s main court. Her teammates walked a few dozen yards away to the practice court to continue their shooting, while others rehabbing from injury gathered their belongings. Lunch had been set up inside the players’ lounge, where coaches and players took their turns eating and relaxing on the couches. They had peace of mind knowing that they wouldn’t need to drive through downtown D.C. traffic afterward.
All of that matters.
“Things we’re getting now are the things that NBA teams get,” Toliver says. “That’s what it should be. We’re not asking for the world. Little things like having breakfast before practice, having lunch after practice, those are just things you don’t have to worry about … It’s something I wish that more teams in the league had, because that’s what every team deserves.”
Ella Feldman contributed to this report.