- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Washington Mystics’ new home facility is not that new anymore. The Entertainment and Sports Arena (ESA) opened last September, hosted an entire season of a new G League franchise and housed Wizards practices.

For several weeks, Mystics coach Mike Thibault had gone to work at the new building in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Ward 8. When it came time for Saturday’s home opener, he had almost forgotten the significance of the day — save for one big detail. It was time to move off the facility’s practice court and on to the main event.

“We had never been on our court until this morning,” Thibault said, “so it was kind of fun for our players to see it, get out there and get going.”

The team announced a sellout crowd of 4,200 for its ESA debut, and although there were a few empty seats scattered around the floor, the energy and noise level couldn’t go unnoticed. The Mystics led the Atlanta Dream wire to wire, building a lead as large as 32 points before sealing a 96-75 win.

“It was great. It truly will be a home-court advantage for us,” Kristi Toliver said. “It was a lot of fun. Everybody was energized going into it, and that helps. When you’re out there playing, you feed off the crowd. For us, we were able to maintain high energy for the majority of the game. A lot of that was due to our fans.”

The Mystics were once the “WNBA Attendance Champions,” a distinction Monumental Sports and Entertainment marked with a banner in the Capital One Arena rafters that made them the butt of a joke until it was removed. But from 2017 to 2018, they saw a 21% drop in attendance to an average of 6,136 fans per game, according to data published by the Sports Business Journal.

The irony about the ESA, with its lower capacity, is that the Mystics’ average attendance can only drop again. But to the organization and its players, the number is less important than the impact of a tightly-packed gym.

Nobody around the team is shy about using the phrase “home-court advantage” when comparing the ESA with the cavernous Capital One. Between the national anthem and tipoff, ebullient Mystics guard Natasha Cloud was given a microphone and the task of firing up the fans.

“That’s what I call a home-court advantage,” Cloud said. “Thank you for continuing to support us, being here with us all season. We’re trying to ‘run it back.’ Thank you for your continued support and being the best fans in the WNBA.”

The scoreboard operation got off to a bumpy start, but it caught up after the first few baskets and there were no further technical glitches. Meanwhile, the crowd’s enthusiasm only grew as the beatdown wore on — it was perhaps at its loudest in the second half, as fans booed referees with vigor the couple of times they disagreed with a call that went against Washington.

Wizards star Bradley Beal had a courtside seat. Former Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who’s been known to support the Mystics, was spotted in the crowd. And Monumental CEO Ted Leonsis was seen here and there, first in a seat behind one baseline before joining Beal in the second half.

Leonsis didn’t seek the spotlight Saturday, but he made some remarks the previous Thursday at a Mystics-hosted panel called “Athletes+Activism.”

“We want to make the Washington Mystics the best franchise in the WNBA and recruit women who are excellent athletes but even better human beings,” he said. “I hope the entire city will embrace this Ward 8 community and embrace women’s sports.”

For maximum effect, the Mystics celebrated their first game at the ESA with a block party outside the building, which included live music, game stations and autograph sessions with former players.

Elena Delle Donne compared the atmosphere to the feeling of last August and September, when the Mystics made a run to the WNBA Finals.

“I was saying it felt like playoffs,” Delle Donne said. “We just got right back to where we were (last year). It was a crazy energy. This place feels so much like home already. It’s such an advantage, so it was huge for us.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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