As WNBA All-Star weekend unfolds, veterans like Sue Bird, Sylvia Fowles can’t help but focus on just how far the league has come, where it can go

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As Sue Bird takes in the sights and scenes in Chicago ahead of her final WNBA All-Star Game, the league’s growth stands out.

“This particular All-Star marks, I think, a big change in terms of the excitement and the events surrounding the game,” Bird said.

The 41-year-old former UConn star is at the forefront of a changing of the guard in the WNBA as she and Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles — the league’s all-time leaders in assists and rebounds, respectively — reach the midway point of their final seasons.

Bird and Fowles will serve as co-captains for teams led by Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson, two stars becoming more prominent faces of the league. Meanwhile four different players — Rhyne Howard (Atlanta Dream), Sabrina Ionescu (New York Liberty), Kelsey Plum (Las Vegas Aces) and Jackie Young (Aces) — are set to make their All-Star Game debuts on Sunday. The event will air on ABC at 1 p.m.

“I think the foundation has been set with a lot of great players,” Fowles said. “Unfortunately you got to see some of those leave at this point, but I think we have a young group of talent that’s willing to do what’s needed to be done that’s not going to shy away from the things that they want and the things that they believe in. And so I’d say just piggyback off these girls, listen to their thoughts, and see how we can make this thing grow in the next 25 years.”

It’s more than just the talent turnover, though. This All-Star weekend, held in Chicago for the first time, stands out to many players for the festivities surrounding the main event. The league launched the inaugural WNBA Live outdoor festival this year, bringing together basketball, music and culture for fans with the involvement of brands like Mountain Dew, Wilson and AT&T.

After walking the orange carpet on Friday night, Chicago Sky All-Star Candace Parker, another older face of the league that’s closer to the end than the start, recalled how much the All-Star format has changed over the years since her first appearance in 2011.

“I remember walking in and there was like one person clicking a picture,” Parker said, “And now we’re here and that’s super special. Even the events surrounding it, now it’s multiple days. Before it was like you arrived and it was practice.

“So just to see the growth and where it’s going, I mean we want to make this big and regardless of whether I’m playing or not, like I’m gonna come to WNBA All Star and this is gonna be the main event for women’s basketball.”

The involvement of prominent brands hosting events across the weekend stood out as a major sign of growth to Bird, who made her first appearance in 2002. Though the league has always had some sort of receptions, she said this is the first year brands have held multiple parties for players, such as Brand Jordan hosting an event with a musical performer on Friday night.

“These are the types of things you see at other All-Star weekends, and that really hasn’t been the case for us,” Bird said. “To me it’s the excitement around the game throughout the community, and I know it sounds silly, but the parties matter. I think they represent something different in the world of cultural capital. That’s kind of exciting to see that happen this year and I hope it continues.”

Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBPA, touched on the importance of the league’s cultural capital as well and she wants to see even more of an investment.

“The cultural aspect of that can only take off if we have investment behind it,” she said. “But the cultural capital is really important, especially as we’re in a time not just in sport but also in the world in which everyone is paying attention to what you eat, what you wear, what you say, what you post, who you’re affiliated with, who you’re voting for. These are all things that are very important and it sways millions, it sways thousands.

“As athletes we are walking advertisements. We’re a walking brand. For us to be able to capitalize that on a collective level is really important, and that’s kind of where the investment backing can shoot that pop culture and that cultural capital where it needs to be for us to be where we know our league can be.”

Connecticut Sun All-Star starter Jonquel Jones, the league’s reigning MVP, had similar sentiments.

“I think we have to continue to just grow and allow it to be better and get more performances, get more things for athletes,” Jones said. “Get it to the point where we have other W players and other people wanting to be a part of All-Star because that’s what it’s about. … The more people we have engaged in this and the more we have people wanting to be a part of this, the better it’s going to be for the league.”

Though there is clearly lots of progress still to be made, Bird feels like the league has “finally in some ways cracked the code a little bit,” in terms of the direction it needs to go.

“I feel like now what we’ve done is able to kind of establish a foundation of who we are as a league, a foundation of how we want to market ourselves, the ways in which we want to represent ourselves,” Bird said, “And so to me it’s just about following the path that we’ve finally figured out. That’s really I think what’s going to push things forward, and of course continue to put pressure on the powers that be.”

As she looks towards the league’s future — one that will no longer involve her as a player after this season — Bird believes the next television rights deal, which will be up for negotiation in two years, will be the major turning point for the WNBA.

“To me, that’s the moment,” Bird said. “I think we just have to continue down this path, keep doing what we’ve been doing, and then when they start negotiations for that, that could really break things open and change the entire trajectory of our league.”

Lila Bromberg can be reached at lbromberg@courant.com and @LilaBBromberg on Twitter.