Before general manager and coach James Wade’s first season with the Sky, he acknowledged the importance of growing the team’s fan base.
“Winning puts people in the seats,” he said in 2019.
After two seasons, Wade has a 32-24 record, giving him the highest winning percentage (.571) of any Sky coach, and has led the team to back-to-back postseasons for the first time since 2015-16.
A global pandemic kept fans out of WNBA venues in 2020, but the league saw TV viewership increase by an average of 68% across all networks. The Sky also have seen their fan interaction on social media grow at an unprecedented rate, too, with engagement up more than 500% on Instagram and 275% across all social platforms since 2018.
One the eve of free agency, owner Michael Alter further expressed his trust in Wade by extending Wade’s contract through 2025.
“He is an excellent teacher and coach,’’ Alter said Jan. 15. ‘‘This well-deserved extension represents continuity for our team, and we are proud to have James lead us forward.”
The move to reward Wade with four additional years comes as the Sky are in the midst of a pivotal offseason. There’s no denying their championship window is open now, especially with the majority of their players on expiring contracts.
“There is definitely a win-now mentality,” Alter said in December. “I’m not sure if I [view] it as a pressure or as an urgency. But we feel we’re not rebuilding. We feel how we felt last year, like we were in a position to win a championship, and we were very focused on that.”
Wade needs to be aggressive in free agency to put the Sky in the best possible position going forward. Re-signing forward Cheyenne Parker is a priority, but adding a defensive player and a backup point guard for Courtney Vandersloot are important, too.
“We have to win,” Wade said. “I’m always trying to find ways to make our team better. That’s the part about being competitive and trying to make a winning program. If you don’t win, that means you’re not good enough.”
While the Sky have been slowly carving out their place in Chicago’s crowded sports landscape — especially over the last two years — winning a title would help cement their standing.
They have a shot at being the first Chicago team to capture a championship since the Cubs won it all in 2016. Better yet, there’s perhaps no better year for the Sky to do just that than this year.
Let’s face it: With the exceptions of the Red Stars, Sky and White Sox, the outlook for Chicago sports in 2021 is bleak. The Bulls and Blackhawks are years away from being serious contenders again. The Cubs have repeatedly embarrassed themselves this offseason. The Bears are mired in mediocrity. And the Fire are just OK.
A deep postseason run could generate buzz around the Sky in a way the organization has never seen. The increased exposure could help attract more fans and fill more seats in the future.
That said, Wade says he doesn’t feel pressure. He believes the Sky have a good foundation but that players such as guard Diamond DeShields need to show progress this season.
“We’re trying to build step-by-step where we get better and better every day, and you would hope that that eventually ends up in a championship,” he said. “But I think this year we have to focus on getting better, getting better, getting better, and the championships take care of themselves.”