Team Colors

Lynx officials say they want all their fans to feel welcome. Then why are the Target Center crowds so pale?

"Let's hear it for the Lynx Hip-Hop Team!" A bass-heavy urban beat starts pounding through the Target Center, and a gaggle of ponytailed adolescent girls skip out onto the Lynx basketball court, grinning and waving. Quickly, the performers move into some modern dance-cum-rap video prancing and posturing. They're spirited, they're fresh, they're endearingly amateurish. And they're white. Every last one of them.

"This is wrong," a voice mutters beside me at the press table. KMOJ DJ Tony Queen is shaking his head. "I've got to talk about this on my show." I have to write about this, I think. But neither of us does. It's the first game of the first Lynx season, and each of us decides to give the franchise time to correct unfortunate first impressions.

Maybe it's just a fluke that every one of the girls receiving basketballs from Lynx players--a sweet pregame tradition--is white. Maybe other "hip-hop" dance teams will get a chance to entertain the crowd. Surely someone in the front office is sensitive to how this looks.

At the third game, I spy three black girls lined up for the ball exchange. They will remain the only kids of color I ever see standing in that line (that's three out of 55) during five of the team's six home games, a third of the season. The complexion of the dance team never changes, though the personnel sometimes does. At halftime during the Sacramento and Phoenix games, girl teams match off in minigames. They're all white.

So what? you sigh. It's all just a sideshow to the real entertainment, the basketball game--and there African Americans (Swoopes, Cooper, Griffith, the Lynx's Tonya Edwards, Sonja Tate, and Brandy Reed) shine, if not dominate. But the sideshows, I say, tell you who owns the circus, and whom they're inviting inside.

And invitations are important. Cast your eye over a typical Lynx crowd, and you'll be blinded by the white. Granted, the black population in Hennepin County is only 7.9 percent, and 6.4 in Ramsey. A gathering with one black for every 12 whites would look pretty pale. But not as pale as these Target Center audiences: I'm counting maybe one black person for every 20 or 30 whites. Roughly the same ratio can be found at Timberwolves games; the WNBA, however, has deliberately priced tickets much lower than the NBA in an effort to be more friendly to families and lower-income fans.

"Right now you just have the hard-core minority people who love basketball [attending games]," observes Queen. "If you want the Lynx to be welcome throughout the community, you have to generate curiosity. You have to make people realize that there is another form of entertainment in town. I doubt if the majority of the black community even knows that the Lynx exist."

If they don't, there's a reason. The Lynx's director of ticket sales, Jeff Munneke, can only think of one distinctly minority-related event around which the Lynx organized a promotion--the "Women of Color: The Gathering" conference this spring. "We market exclusively across the board," he says. "We're not very specific in regards to where we would market to the different demographics, but basically we try to get the word out to everybody."

Lynx players Edwards and Tate understand that such marketing schemes--communicated via KFAN, the Star Tribune, and competitions like the Lynx/Allina Hospitals Great Basketball Dribble breast-cancer benefit--don't always connect with communities of color. While the Lynx have sent players to Powderhorn Park (Trish Fallon and Annie LaFleur), the 38th and Blaisdell YMCA (Kristin Folkl), and radio station KSGS-AM 950 (Tate), their summer schedule has prevented them from visiting schools, as the Timberwolves regularly do.

Edwards suggests players be sent to "different rec centers and the churches--especially the churches. Hopefully, we will be able to get out and visit at least once while we're here." The two players admit that between practice, games, and the community events already scheduled, they haven't had much time to set anything up themselves. "And we don't know the people to talk to, I guess," comments Tate. "In the future, we need to ask the people in the office about getting us more out into the [black] community."

Edwards, who starred at Tennessee before moving to the ABL's Columbus Quest, has been playing in front of crowds "of the Caucasian persuasion," she jokes, ever since she left high school. "Yeah, I would like to see more African Americans out and supporting the team--all the teams. It's a shame they don't come out. The reason why, I don't know. A lot of people can't afford to bring their kids out on a regular basis. Hopefully, the Lynx here will do some targeting. I think that's one step in the right direction--to let people know we are inviting them into the Target Center. It's probably not that they don't want to be here, it's just a lack of knowledge."

Information, or the lack of it, does seem to play a role in the selection of some of the Lynx's promotional beneficiaries. According to Scott Coleman, who co-directs game operations, the girl teams performing at halftime first purchased group tickets and were subsequently offered the opportunity to play. The groups involved in the ball exchange are either winners of some Lynx competition--such as the Faribault team that raised the most money in the Great Basketball Dribble--or audience members randomly chosen pregame by a Lynx crew. (I assume the night I saw the three black girls was a crowd-pick night; otherwise, "random" isn't cutting it. Coleman says the home game I missed also included minority participants in the ball exchange.)

Other game rituals like the anthem singers, the family basketball shoot, and the Little Lynx relay have featured regular minority involvement. "Any time we have a situation," says Coleman, "where we can randomly plug contestants, I think you'll see that [minority representation is] definitely an issue we're concerned with. If it's a group of girls that have won the opportunity because of some contribution they've made to the organization, we have no control over what their makeup is. I guess the decision could be made to not allow them in."

A less defensive choice might be to try to balance the "makeup" of these existing, well-connected groups by trying harder to seek out minority participants. Perhaps if the Lynx organization had more widely spread the news of competitions to be entered, more diverse teams would sometimes win. (Although if, as in the Great Basketball Dribble example, winning primarily concerns financial contributions, the game is rigged from the start.) Of course, ignorance is not limited to just one side of this relationship.

The Lynx Hip-Hop Team, Coleman explains, came about because of the organization's desire not to manage or oversee a performance team, as the Timberwolves do. "We were going for more of a fun, youthful, energetic kind of thing," he recalls. "We were looking for a group of young people already together and already performing." The front office was familiar with a dance instructor at the Plymouth Dance Shoppe through Target Center dance competitions; when contacted, she agreed to bring in two groups she was working with, one from the Shoppe and one from Wayzata High School.

There exist, notes KMOJ's Queen, fun, youthful, and energetic dance lines at almost every high school in Minneapolis and St. Paul. (Fact: 43 percent of Minneapolis Public Schools students are African-American.) "Those in the minority community," he says, "are wondering how [the dancers] were selected. It appears that schools such as North, Henry, and other city schools were not contacted."

Did no one at the Lynx even think about the lack of minority representation on the dance line? "This was a unique situation," Coleman responds. "We were prepared to go with that group, I guess, no matter what. But now that they're in place, [diversity] is definitely something we would like to address."

Coleman talks about "adding a couple of different ethnic background performers"--and, he adds, "a couple of male performers"--to the dance team. But, he says, "it may be that we don't get to address that until season number two for the Lynx."

Sounds familiar, says Queen, who remembers the Timberwolves performance team starting out all white (a state they almost returned to in the 1998-99 season). "When you get franchises in, they begin to think about white first," he declares. "Then when somebody makes them aware of their shortcomings, they begin to realize they should deal with minority groups. I think that unconsciously they make an effort to make sure that they are attractive to the majority of the people.

"To some extent, I can understand that. When you look at an organization like the Lynx--particularly in this city--they seem to be very protective at first in terms of who they cater to. If you notice, the impetus [with the Lynx] is basically to show off the white female."

I wouldn't go that far. But I'm not the one feeling shafted. Queen says he's heard black fans citing the predominantly African-American crews of the Los Angeles Sparks and the Orlando Miracle, and questioning whether the Lynx's five white players were chosen to appeal to the hometown crowd. He confesses he's wondered about the same thing himself--especially because Phoenix, another city without a large black population, sports a team with a similar racial balance.

Lynx head coach Brian Agler says he felt no pressure to whiten up his team. "For this year, it happened to work out like that. I think the majority of the quality players in the United States right now are African Americans. I can't promise this--you don't know how things are going to turn out in the draft--but I would have to say that [the Lynx's] makeup will fluctuate as time goes on."

That some minority basketball fans would feel ignored by Lynx marketing and promotions, Agler adds, is "unfortunate. I'm not involved in some of those things. But I can tell you that some of these issues will be addressed in somewhat of an immediate fashion. I can tell you that they've been talked about already."

When I spoke with Tate and Edwards about the lack of minority participation in the ball exchange, they said they'd noticed--and that they would ask what was up. It's those little things, they acknowledged, that encourage people to engage with a team. "Don't you like it when you know somebody on the court?" Tate queries. "You might not know that person, but if someone speaks to you--takes the time, five, six seconds to talk to you--you're more apt to come out and support what they're doing. You feel like a part of their family. I don't know if we are targeting the black community or not. But if you look in the crowd, it doesn't look like it."

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