The WNBA Finals are here, and I haven’t written about the League all season long. Shame on me. Thankfully, others have been doing a great deal of talking about the WNBA this season. A couple of weeks ago NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, for example, had a few things to say. As he sat on a panel at the Sports Business Journal Game Changers Conference he admitted of the WNBA that, “It’s not where we hoped it would be. We thought it would have broken through by now.” Silver made these comments during discussions about WNBA player salaries. It’s no secret that the players are grossly underpaid. In efforts to subsidize their incomes and continue to play the sport they love, many players play on teams in Europe and Australia. As frustration mounts with this method of operating, players may begin to abandon the league for those more lucrative leagues overseas. This year, for instance, star Diana Taurasi announced that she would forgo this WNBA season and her League high salary of $107,000 to solely play in the Russian Premier League where she would make $1.5 million. To prevent more attrition, many are calling for increased salaries. But the issue with that approach is that the League can’t afford it. While a number of teams have finally become profitable, the profit margins have not been large or consistent enough for teams to afford larger salaries. The obvious next question is what needs to be done to make the teams more profitable and therefore able to pay the athletes more? Well, I’ve got two answers, marketing and endorsements. Follow me for a spell.
The old adage that it takes money to make money is true. Marketing an idea or a particular venture costs money, but the return on the expense will be worthwhile if the target audience is impressed by your product and becomes a group of paying consumers. Many (myself included) believe that the WNBA should increase and diversify its marketing if it wants to become more profitable. The League’s core groups are families, women over 35 and followers of college basketball. While those groups are obviously important and not to be overlooked; the League has to focus on broadening its fan base because dollars from those groups simply aren’t enough. In fact, stagnant attendance that has yet to average over 10,000 people per game since 1999 is a clear sign that the League must market itself to new groups. The League needs men, young, old and single too, to support and attend. Perhaps they aren’t reaching out to enough adolescence and young professionals. Being the non-marketing strategist that I am, it seems to me that the League might want to reach out to groups that are on their way to making their own money and decisions on how to spend that money; and the groups that have just started making money and are looking for ways to spend it. The League just has to get creative about attracting them.
To be fair, the League is trying. Last year it launched WNBA Pride in an effort to reach out to the LGBT community. It was an interesting approach that had many doubters and supporters. It’s no secret that the stereotype about female basketball players skewing lesbian exists and that many fans and players of the sport are openly lesbian. So, the idea to embrace and welcome the entire LGBT community seemed to be well-placed and likely to broaden the League’s reach. One concern that WNBA Pride raises, however, is that it places the League in the precarious position of confusing its potential audience and sponsors. Is the WNBA a cause or entertainment? For a League that finds itself in middle of efforts to increase participation in and awareness about women’s sports, WNBA Pride might suggest to the public that we should support the WNBA because it, like fighting for the rights of the LGBT community, is a worthy cause. If the League is to be viewed a cause worth championing many potential supporters might easily decide that there are other causes, like cancer, HIV/AIDS and childhood hunger (for example), that are more worth their efforts and dollars and less controversial. However, if the League positions itself as a source of sport entertainment, it opens the door for new audience members and sponsors who just want to see a good show and just want their brands to be associated with good competition. So while WNBA Pride may be a worthwhile cause, the League must be careful not to confuse its potential market base and sell itself as good old fashioned, entertaining sports.
Speaking of sponsors, the WNBA has to get creative with attracting new sponsors and even broadcasting sources. While it’s great to have the big sponsors like Coca-Cola, American Express and State Farm, the League should seek out some non-traditional athletic sponsors. If I put my marketing hat on again, I might suggest partnerships and sponsorships with companies like Nordstrom, the Gap and Macy’s to attract those young professionals I mentioned earlier. And for the adolescences, maybe getting sponsorship and ad space from new social media outlets might be a good idea. The same holds true for broadcasting. Having a broadcasting deal with ESPN through 2022 is great, but what about hitting local networks and other major networks like Lifetime* and Fox for TV time? The more we see the WNBA, the better.
Beyond the League increasing and broadening its marketing strategies, individual endorsement packages can also help bring revenue to the WNBA and its teams. While individual endorsement money goes straight into the athletes’ (and their agents’ and attorneys’) pockets, increased player visibility indirectly brings attention to the League and teams as a whole. This attention should turn into dollars. It worked in tennis and is already showing signs that it could work in basketball. If you take a look at the landscape of tennis in the United States prior to Venus and Serena Williams stepping on the stage, you will see that there was a presence and interest in the sport, but not a buzz. Their undeniable talent, knack for winning, unique looks and monstrous endorsement deals really caused a boon in the sport of women’s tennis nationally and internationally. Pop culture is now invested in them and the sport. They grabbed everyone’s attention and in doing so helped to grow women’s tennis.
The same can happen for women’s basketball and the WNBA. Winning stars who have a pop culture presence through broad endorsement deals can increase attention on and revenue for the League. Skylar Diggins, for example, has the potential to bring in the attention and the revenue. Before even leaving college the public took notice of her and women’s basketball. She has since become the first female athlete to sign with Roc Nation and has garnered numerous endorsement deals. While injury stopped her rise this season, the ingredients are there. She’s got the skill, presence and deals. When she starts winning big she really can take the League to higher heights. And she’s not the only one. If agents can begin to secure more endorsement deals for players in the WNBA, their pop culture presence can propel the League into new interest and revenue streams.
So there you have Cecelia’s recipe for future WNBA success. It really all boils down to money. The League has to spend it in order to make it, and players have to secure it from outside sources to increase their and the League’s visibility. It is all very possible. As the League approaches its 20 year anniversary, I hope it takes advantage of the climate that is ripe for the growth of women’s sports and puts its franchise out to the public in full force to draw attention to the great athletes it has to offer.
*The WNBA once had a broadcasting deal with Lifetime.
WNBA’s Skylar Diggins has had busy offseason building brand, working on her basketball game, FoxNews.com http://www.foxnews.com/sports/2014/02/13/wnba-skylar-diggins-has-had-busy-offseason-building-brand-working-on-her/