WASHINGTON, D.C. — There are still 90 minutes to go before the Washington Mystics tip off against the Minnesota Lynx, but the sidewalk outside Capital One Arena is choked with fans. Many of them have been there for hours, waiting in a line that snakes its way around an entire city block and then some.
At the front of that line is Greg Epstein, who has never been to a Mystics game before. He showed up to the arena bright and early for his first one, though—at 9:30 a.m., more than six hours before tip-off.
Extreme? Maybe. But the 30-year-old D.C. fan wanted to make sure that he had a good seat for the event that really drew his desire: the stadium viewing party for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, which would take over the building directly after the Mystics’ game. In order to accommodate fans who wanted to see their Washington Capitals attempt to finish off a 3-1 series lead on the road in Las Vegas, the WNBA tip-off had been bumped to that afternoon. Instead of playing that evening as originally scheduled, the Mystics would start at 4:00 p.m., with a guarantee that anyone in attendance could stay in the arena for the subsequent watch party.
That announcement sent ticket prices soaring, with Capitals fans paying as much as $700 per seat for the Mystics game to ensure that they’d have a spot to watch Game 5 on the Jumbotron afterward. Two days before the game, however, it was clear that the situation was getting out of hand. The Mystics intervened—fans who had already purchased tickets got a refund, and the game was made free instead. The blank “tickets” were put online for no cost, with the agreement that individual seats would be open on a first-come-first-served basis to those who snagged a space, all of whom could stick around for the viewing party to follow.
The tickets were gone within minutes. (Some fans, frozen out and frustrated by the online portal, claimed that it was really more like seconds.) Epstein got one, and so the next morning, he became one of the very first people to line up on the sidewalk outside the arena for a prime seat. Before the doors open, he says that all the waiting is a small price to pay after, quite literally, a lifetime of rooting for the Capitals. He went to his first game when he was just 11 months old—“I don’t remember it, but they beat the Penguins, 7-0”—and he’s been obsessed ever since.
The crowd behind him is packed with thousands of similarly passionate Capitals fans, many of them newly friendly with one another after hours parked on the sidewalk together. One man says that he paid $1,300 for a pair of Mystics tickets before the refund was announced, and that he’d do it again in a heartbeat. Another says that he’s missing his daughter’s third birthday to be there. (His wife, who’s eight months pregnant, is “super supportive,” though he admits that she required a bit of “convincing” when he told her that he wanted to attend.)
Nearly the entire crowd is in Capitals gear; their nervous energy is palpable, and it’s all directed toward that evening’s viewing party. But the name on their tickets is that of the Mystics, who have a serious game in front of them. The team is holding on to second place in the Eastern Conference and facing the reigning champions, who swept them out of the playoffs last year. Still, the situation seems like it might easily give way to a dynamic that could be, at the least, uncomfortable—fans who are restless or unconcerned with the game in front of them, or treating it like a warm-up for what’s to come.
That doesn’t happen. The Capitals crowd makes their investment clear from the start, and they never let up. The Mystics ultimately fall to the Lynx, 88-80, but the arena is electric throughout. Afterward, head coach and general manager Mike Theriault compares it to a playoff game.
“The atmosphere was great, I’d like to have that every night,” he said. “I hope we made some new fans tonight… If you didn’t enjoy that game, then you’re probably not going to be a basketball fan anyway.”
An early Mystics lead dissolved to a six-point deficit by halftime, but Washington fought back to make the game close down to the end. With five minutes to play in the third quarter, a slick reverse layup from guard Natasha Cloud put Washington up by one to give them their first lead of the second half. The teams batted the lead back and forth from there, until the Lynx pulled away in the final minute—an outcome that stemmed in large part from their rebounding. Minnesota finished with 34 boards to Washington’s 20, and the Lynx scored 20 second-chance points to the Mystics’ zero.
The crowd was made possible by timing and motivated to take their seats by the Stanley Cup, but for two hours, they were enraptured by the Mystics’ basketball. The team only hopes that for some of them, the spell will last longer than the afternoon.
“How can you not have a blast in an environment like that? That goes to the Caps fans—they were phenomenal. We know they’re here for the Caps game afterwards, but exposure is exposure for us,” said Cloud, who finished with a team-high 17 points. “They were in it from start to finish, so we really appreciate them… Obviously not the finish that we wanted, but we’re a team that’s going to fight our asses off, and we’re a likeable team. Hopefully, we won some fans over.”