After years of interviewing and studying women in sports, I’ve learned one commonality exists among female athletes – they do not want to be treated any differently than their male counterparts.
And if you were to ask Nneka Ogwumike, President of the WNBA Player’s Association and 2016 MVP, she would prefer that you drop “female” from her professional athlete title altogether. For Ogwumike and her 143 WNBA colleagues, their gender does not define who they as basketball players.
A professional athlete is and will always be a professional athlete. And they are sorry, not sorry for demanding to be treated as such.
Consider the professionalism that sets WNBA players apart from the rest of the field. Their tenacity allows them to play a full season of basketball in the United States, then relocate to a foreign country only to play another entire season all over again. And for those players who don’t play overseas, their offseason includes building small businesses, establishing coaching careers, or training in the broadcast booth. All because they know there are more years of basketball behind them, than ahead them.
Not to mention, the laundry list of topics that WNBA players could spend their time complaining about – media and television coverage, sponsorship deals, or travel accommodations.
Yet, cooperatively, they do not to use their public platforms purely for personal gain. Rather, their civic engagement projects one unified voice that advocates for community social change.
As the league enters the 2017 WNBA Finals with the much-anticipated rematch of the 2016 championship series between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx, looking back at the 21st season, collectively the WNBA and its players are hitting their stride.
“So recognizing that women still appear to be a disenfranchised group where folks think they have the right to tell us what to do with our bodies and whom we should love. That’s not happening here in Seattle, and that’s not happening in the WNBA,” said WNBA President Lisa Borders during the All-Star weekend while reflecting on the age and maturity of the league.
Borders’ powerful statement is in contrast to seasons past where the league drew outspoken criticism for failing to market its players and the game to a wider audience.
In its maturity, the WNBA has established partnerships that allow the league to amplify its standing in professional sports. Specifically, the live streaming partnerships with Twitter and TIDAL, fantasy gaming with FanDuel and DraftKings, as well as the NBA Live 18 video game debut.
“When Jay Parry, our chief operating officer, and I arrived last year, we talked about gaining new fans, new audiences, folks that were unfamiliar with our game who were unenlightened. And we said, ‘we’re going to change that,’” Borders said.
Studying the season-ending metrics, the league’s efforts have likely paid off. Game attendance is at the highest average (7,716) and total (1,574,078) since 2011, merchandise sales increased 18% over last year, viewership is up 7%, and social media engagement grew by 15% with the addition of two million followers from the previous season.
“I think it took us a while to find our voice. We have found our voice,” said WNBA President Lisa Borders. “We’re clear on who we are, and we are articulating our positions every day.”
The WNBA is consciously framing how the world views women who play professional basketball – and they are sorry, not sorry.
Their upcoming matchup will once again place June 21st in the record books as it is the first time in the WNBA, NBA, NFL, MLB or NHL that two teams with ten or more wins, no losses, and no ties will meet during the regular season.
In addition to being two of 20 most influential WNBA players on the court, Moore and Parker have also cemented themselves as vocal off the court leaders who are championing increased exposure for the league.
In 2015, Moore penned the Players’ Tribune essay – (In)Visibility – where she called for celebrating the female athlete and the WNBA product. Moore described growing up without a local WNBA team, so instead she chose to admire the Houston Comets – the dominant team at that time – and WNBA pioneers Tina Thompson, Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes.
Women whom she said, “I saw myself in them and them in me.” Today, Moore stands next to them as one of the league’s greatest players.
When asked what changes she has seen since writing her essay, Moore said, “In general media coverage has improved. This a good year for women’s basketball with the Olympics coming around and our 20th season. I am confident that the piece that I wrote was a good part of the conversation that has led to more conversations. I think we are heading in the right direction so far in 2016.”
While a lot of sports fans still wonder where the league is headed, the consensus among WNBA players and coaches is that in its 20th season the league is on an upward trajectory.
For more information on the WNBA’s Top20@20 presented by Verizon visit WNBA.com.
The full list includes nine current players: Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tamika Catchings, Cappie Pondexter, Diana Taurasi and Lindsay Whalen. Eleven former players are also among the honorees: Cynthia Cooper, Yolanda Griffith, Becky Hammon, Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, Deanna Nolan, Ticha Penicheiro, Katie Smith, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Teresa Weatherspoon.
As women’s collegiate basketball is on the verge of crowning its 2016 national champion, the NCAA Tournament does not end the basketball conversation; rather it shifts toward the professional level – the WNBA.
Borders joins the WNBA after serving as chair of The Coca-Cola Foundation and vice president of Global Community Affairs. In that position, she articulated the values of the company by virtue of its charitable giving and heightened Coca-Cola’s brand by strengthening communities in 207 countries around the globe. Now, Borders is charged with an almost identical task in elevating the WNBA’s brand in its current 12 markets and future markets.
Handpicked by NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, to lead the league, Borders is certainly no stranger to the WNBA. She was instrumental in its expansion to Atlanta in 2008 and has been on the sidelines as a long-time Dream season ticket holder ever since.
And if anyone doubted whether championing female athletes is her top priority, on Borders’ first day on the job, she released a statement on behalf of the WNBA regarding comments made by former Indian Wells CEO, Raymond Moore, about the women of the WTA.
Borders said: “At a time when the physical and emotional benefits of athletic participation have never been more clear, we need to empower female athletes and promote opportunities for girls and women to play sports, rather than promote outdated, offensive and uninformed opinions.”
I spoke with Borders shortly after the WNBA presidency announcement. We discussed her passion for women’s basketball, what she sees for the future of the league, and how she plans to collaborate with Commissioner Silver. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Glass: You’re adding to a trend that I’ve seen where fans, female fans, have moved from the sidelines and have stepped up and taken leadership positions within the WNBA. We saw that in Los Angeles with its former ownership group and the current owners in Seattle who were season ticket holders. Now, you’re moving from the Dream sidelines to the league office. What was it about the WNBA that attracted you to the presidency position?
Borders: I do things that make me happy, that are important to me. And passion is my barometer for that; how excited do I get when I go to a game or talk about it or read about the WNBA. And I get incredibly excited about it.
That passion was turned up in 2007 when Donna Orender, my predecessor, came to Atlanta to invite us to consider having a team here. I was a bit by the bug, but it was cemented when I went to a luncheon in New York where she and her team then were launching a program called Inspiring Women. And Madeleine Albright was the keynote speaker. What stood out to me most was she made a statement that, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” I picked up my phone and said we’re bringing a team to Atlanta. We put together a group to do just that. So my passion was as a season ticket holder yesterday and today as an appointed president of the WNBA.
Glass: You’re moving from a consumer products company, Coca-Cola, to professional sports. How do you view your background in leading within a global brand? How will it translate to your new role in leading the WNBA brand?
Borders: There are great skills at the league office, and they are very deep in sports management and organizational management. I view my skills as complimentary to what’s already there. We’ve got people who are marketing experts. We’ve got those who are business operations experts. I see myself as the tip of the spear but as a part of a much larger organization, not just the league office, but the 12 teams in the markets that they play in today. Everybody has a role to play, and mine is to be out front and make sure that we are getting it right. Listening to all the voices, being as inclusive as we can be, being as transparent as we can be, and being as accountable as we can be. I see my skills as completely complimentary to those that are already present to help elevate the WNBA to its next level of maturity.
Glass: WNBA fans are excited about the 20th season. Fans who have been following the league are asking questions wanting to know about increased attendance, viewership, and marketing. And wanting to know what those strategies look like moving into Season 20. What can you share about the league’s strategies in those areas?
Borders: Certainly, the 20th year is an opportunity for us to reevaluate what’s working, what’s not working, and are there new things that we should be doing. All of our stakeholders have a point of view on what we could be doing to make the experience even better and to make it even more attractive to current fans and fans that we are hopeful will come and join us.
My first thought is fans need an opportunity to experience a game. If they can come to a game, it’s fantastic. The deal that we’ve struck with ESPN where they are broadcasting live all of the playoff games, that’s a new and improved opportunity for people to get a front-row seat at the WNBA. NBA TV has 40 games going, and we’ve got Live Access. I hear the fans loud and clear, but I don’t want to get out too far in front of my colleagues who have done great work thus far.
Glass: You mentioned earlier about stakeholders and individuals with whom you’ll be working with. The Associated Press reported that Commissioner Adam Silver asked you if you’d be interested in the position. And we all know that no one is more important to the future of the WNBA than Commissioner Silver, who was very instrumental in the league being launched in 1997. How will you and the WNBA collaborate with Commissioner Silver?
Borders: Adam and I are joined at the hip on this one. I asked him initially when we had a conversation about the WNBA and this role if he was committed. I didn’t ask him if he wrote the business plan. I didn’t ask him how he did it. I asked him if he believed in this league. And he assured me unequivocally that he was 1,000 percent committed. Because in the absence of commitment, it doesn’t matter who wrote the business plan. If you don’t have belief at the very top of the organization, it’s not going to work. And so I agree with you 100 percent that without Adam’s full stamp of approval or his fingerprints on this, it doesn’t work.
We are joined at the hip, and I recognize that the NBA and the WNBA are joined at the hip. There are things that we do; we leverage inside the business because there are economies of scale that can be garnered by the two leagues working together. So at a minimum, we are operating as efficiently as we can by leveraging resources. If we are not philosophically aligned, it doesn’t matter how many resources are leveraged.
Glass: As you move into the start of the season, tell me, what are you most excited about? What successes from the previous 19 seasons are you hoping to build on?
Borders: I want to celebrate where we’ve come from. We tend, I think, as human beings, not to celebrate the successes. We tend to look at what there is yet to be done. I think there’s an opportunity to build on the folks that have come before us. We’ve got an extraordinary group of women, past, present and, ultimately, those that we will have in the future who will have the opportunity to live out their dreams and the full potential of their lives.
On June 21, 1997, the WNBA started its inaugural season by declaring “We Got Next.” The slogan – an ode to playground basketball – symbolically announced that the fledgling league was taking the court. It featured Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes who were one-year removed from capturing Olympic gold and turning our attention to the future of women’s professional basketball.
Speaking of the future, season-after-season we knew that the next generation was watching the WNBA on television, cheering in the stands, and practicing in their driveways. We knew that more players would eventually play above the rim, the competition would get tougher, and countless girls would dream of winning a WNBA championship.
As the WNBA enters its 20th season, those once nameless girls are now professional basketball players with the likes of Sue Bird, Skylar Diggins and Candace Parker.
In the league’s newest marketing campaign – Watch Me Work – it highlights the legacy of its past while reminding fans just how far the W has come.
“20 years ago, players like Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper and Rebecca Lobo broke barriers with the founding of this league,” said Pam EL, Executive Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer for the WNBA, NBA and NBDL.
“And 20 years later we have these amazing players, like Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Brittney Griner, who are doing what they do on the court because of the inspiration that they found in those players 20 years ago.”
As El directs the WNBA’s brand development, overall marketing and advertising, she notes that it was during her time while serving as a marketing VP at State Farm Insurance – a WNBA sponsor – when she developed her appreciation for the players and fans of the league.
“When you think about our amazing athletes, their skill and the intensity and passion that they have for the game – we are simply trying to showcase that. They are very talented and dynamic athletes. This idea of ‘Watch Me Work’ is to celebrate that skill and intensity and passion that we all see in the game.”
WNBA veteran, Tamika Catchings, who is retiring at the end of this upcoming season and known throughout the league for her passionate play, applauds the Watch Me Work campaign for focusing squarely on what it takes to become an accomplished professional basketball player.
“For so long when you look at women’s professional sports, we’ve been tagged that everything needs to have a sex appeal to it and be sexy,” said the 2011 league MVP and 2012 WNBA Champion. “The Watch Me Work campaign shows what we do behind-the-scenes to get to where we are on the court. It shows what we do to become complete basketball players.”
Along with launching its 20th season campaign, the league is championing the 30th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day. On February 3, Catchings and players throughout the WNBA will promote opportunities for girls and women to play sports.
“Watch Me Work” will premiere on January 30 during NBA Saturday Primetime game between the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC. Additional spots will roll out at start of season, and air on TV and digital platforms.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com SportsMoney (May 8, 2015)
I grew up as an Isiah Thomas fan. He was the hard-nosed leader of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. Thomas was an example of what it meant to fight as the underdog. His competitiveness brought pride to the City of Detroit, and we collectively cheered “Bad Boys” as they won back-to-back NBA Championships. To this day, I applaud his accomplishments on the basketball court.
But I cannot use his championship banners and basketball legacy as justification for overlooking his participation in gender-based harassment – neither should the WNBA.
In 2007, a federal jury found that Thomas, then the New York Knicks’ coach and president of basketball operations, sexually harassed Anucha Browne Sanders, the Knicks’ former vice president of marketing and business operations.
The jury ruled that Brown Sanders was entitled to $11.6 million in punitive damages from Madison Square Garden and James L. Dolan, chairman of Cablevision, parent company of the Garden and the Knicks. $6 million of the award was for the hostile work environment created by Thomas and $5.6 million for the retaliation. The parties eventually settled for $11.5 million.
In a surprising and questionable move, Dolan recently appointed Thomas as the president and part-owner (pending approval) of the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
“What is even more concerning, in a time when the sports world is coming to terms with the level of misogyny and sexism in our society, you would think there would be a sense understanding of the optics of this.”
Being a leader in the WNBA – a league that worked tirelessly to rebrand its image, while maintaining a foothold as the premier destination for elite women’sbasketball players – is a privilege not a right.
From the 2011 hiring ofLaurel J. Richie, former senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Girls Scouts USA, as its president, to the 2014 WNBA Pride initiative, the WNBA’s resounding message is that woman’s voices and gender equality in sports matters.
Without question, the league’s leadership from the top down must inwardly and outwardly reflect these values as well. Therefore, Thomas’ ties to creating a hostile work environment cannot be ignored.
At this stage, whether he will have a role in the New York Liberty’s future – as an owner – is in the hands of the WNBA’s Board of Governors. President Richie released the following statement:
“The Madison Square Garden organization announced that Isiah Thomas has been named president of the New York Liberty and that he will take an ownership interest in the team, pending WNBA approval. New owners are approved by our WNBA Board of Governors, and this process has not yet begun.”
While the voting standards set forth by the Board of Governors are not a matter of public record, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Esq., CEO of Champion Women, notes that sex discrimination must be viewed as seriously as race discrimination, which the NBA Board of Governors recently used as cause for terminating an ownership interest.
“Isiah Thomas’ appointment as president and potential owner of the New York Liberty just shows how differently people perceive race discrimination and sex discrimination,” said Hogshead-Makar in an email to Forbes.com.
“Donald Sterling merely had a recording leaked where he made racist comments, and he was forced to sell the Clippers. Yet a jury found, after an extensive, well-covered trial, that Isiah Thomas sexually harassed Anucha Browne Sanders, and awarded her $11.6 million in damages against the Knicks enterprise. Sterling made racist remarks to his girlfriend, whereas Thomas sexually harassed Browne Sanders repeatedly. Sterling made racist remarks in the privacy of his own home, while Thomas sexually harassed Browne Sanders publicly. If Thomas had made equally as racist remarks, he would never be considered for a position in professional sports, anywhere.”
As Thomas continues to refute any wrongdoing, San Francisco-based civil rights attorney, Deborah England, wonders, “What has he learned?”
She notes that along with awarding damages, courts quite often require additional measures that call for training. But in this instance, England expresses concern for Thomas’ continued denial of what happened. Moreover, she questions Dolan’s decision not to hire a qualified woman to fill the presidency and ownership role, but rather chose Thomas, who professionally has this dark mark in his past.
In the end, sexual harassment is tied to the larger conversation of leadership.
Rha Goddess, founder & CEO of Move The Crowd an entrepreneurial training company dedicated to the next generation of Change Makers, recognizes that too often personal growth and development is a not a perquisite for leadership.
Goddess suggests that if Thomas – or any individual for that matter – wants a role within the WNBA, a question that should be asked is, “Have they done their gender work?”
This includes exploring: How does this executive perceive women? What do they see women being capable of in the context of growth and innovation? How are they speaking and interacting with women in a professional setting? What are their perceptions – unconsciously or consciously – that would cause them to treat women differently than men?
The New York Liberty and its fans deserve a leader who has answers to these questions, and someone who is prepared to champion and advance the needs of women – not belittle them.
In a statement released by MSG, Thomas and the Garden continue to vehemently disagree with the verdict in the sexual harassment case. It appears as though they have not considered what behavior had them embroiled in a sex discrimination lawsuit or acknowledged the fact that harassment can occur whether the harasser intends to harm or not.
“We did not believe the allegations then, and we don’t believe them now. We feel strongly that the jury improperly and unfairly held Isiah Thomas responsible for sordid allegations that were completely unrelated to him, and for which MSG bore responsibility. In fact, when given the opportunity, the jury did not find Isiah liable for punitive damages, confirming he did not act maliciously or in bad faith. We believe Isiah belongs in basketball, and are grateful that he has committed his considerable talent to help the Liberty succeed.”
As the WNBA enters its 19th season, the league must remain true to its core identity. All current and potential leaders should be held accountable for their actions. A generation of young girls and women are closely watching how the WNBA responds to its Isiah Thomas problem.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com SportsMoney (February 9, 2015)
Last September, I sat courtside at the 2014 WNBA Finals and watched Diana Taurasi lead the Phoenix Mercury to its third WNBA Championship (2007, 2009, and 2014). While Taurasi was named the 2014 Finals MVP, in true leader form, she gave equal credit for the Mercury’s regular season and playoff success to her teammates. At that moment, I was sure Taurasi would be motivated and ready to lead the Mercury to a back-to-back championship in 2015.
However, when you are a seasoned professional athlete, sometimes other factors take priority over winning. For Taurasi, in 2015 her health will take precedence. For this reason, she is choosing to sit out the 19th WNBA season.
There is no question that she made one of the most difficult decisions of her professional career. No one enjoys winning – or hating to lose – more than Taurasi. Do not forget, prior to the WNBA she amassed a 139-8 winning record at UConn and won three NCAA Championships.
Since 2004, the first overall draft pick, seven-time WNBA all-star, and three-time Olympic gold medalist (2004, 2008, and 2012) has been playing basketball year-round.
She deserves a break.
The WNBA and its President, Laurel J. Richie, respect Taurasi’s decision to rest in 2015.
“She has been playing competitively for ten years, year-round, with very little downtime. She is taking this opportunity to rest, and I completely understand that,” said Richie during a phone interview with FORBES.com. “She deserves to rest, and I think she will come back terrific in 2016.”
Resting is not a new phenomenon for the WNBA. In 2012, Taurasi played only eight games. Other current and former players, such as Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie, have also rested for personal reasons, such as maternity leaves.
Although, Taurasi’s decision to rest adds a financial element to the equation, which women’s basketball has not experienced before.
In her letter to the fans, she stated, “The year-round nature of women’s basketball takes its toll and the financial opportunity with my team in Russia would have been irresponsible to turn down.”
She went on to say, “They offered to pay me to rest and I’ve decided to take them up on it. I want to be able to take care of myself and my family when I am done playing.”
Truthfully, Taurasi probably could have kept the fact that she is being paid to rest as a private matter, but leading has and will always be what she does best.
Whether she meant to or not, Taurasi is guiding the league into a new conversation – the value of a WNBA superstar.
There are plenty of unanswered questions and widespread speculation surrounding the impact that Taurasi’s decision will have in the league, as well as future collective bargaining. Is this situation an exception or is it a new norm? Will other overseas teams offer incentives for WNBA players to sit out and rest? How do we continue to increase the value for athletes to play in the WNBA?
Here is what we know so far:
New Territory Equals Progress. Take a depth breath – the conversation that we are having is actually a good thing. ESPN basketball analyst and former WNBA head coach and general manager, Carolyn Peck, spoke with FORBES.com and offered her insight. She shared that prior discussions about the WNBA primarily centered on how to build a professional women’s basketball league. Additionally, during her tenure the association paid the players and controlled free agency – not the franchises. Further, Peck explained that the WNBA is entering a new territory, and the steady debated surrounding Taurasi’s decision means that it is becoming a legitimate professional sports league.
Yes, we spent many years debating and forecasting whether the WNBA would survive or fold. In 2014, viewership and attendance numbers increased – 2% and 1% respectively, plus five franchises posted a profit. During the off season, HARMAN (audio equipment company) and Kaiser Permanente (health care coverage provider) signed on as new partners. It appears that we have finally buried those old headlines, and moved on to a topic that every other major professional sports league tackles.
Everyone Wants Player Salaries Increased. As it stands, women in the United States earn somewhere between $0.77 to $0.80 cents on the dollar in comparison to men. The theme of women being paid less for equal work carries into professional sports. BBC News recently reported that Cristiano Ronaldoearns 83 times more than top U.S. female soccer player Alex Morgan’s salary of $282,000. And take a breeze through FORBES’ 2014 list of the world’s 100 highest-paid athletes where you will find that only three women made the cut.
While change won’t happen overnight, part of the discussion is, “How do we get there?”
According to Peck, now that the WNBA has its footing with talented players who are sought after all over the world, the league can longer remain focused on paying them enough to live. Now, it must identify their actual value, which she recognizes is a business decision that the owners need to take a hard look at.
Seattle Storm owner, Ginny Gilder, discussed her point-of-view regarding WNBA salaries during a 2011 interview with FORBES.com
Gilder said, “I’d love us to have to get to the point where we have to be on that slippery slope of determining what the right salary is for our top players, and really confront and have a healthy dialogue so we don’t go the route of men’s professional sports.”
“I want our players to stay connected to their community and that means making good money, so they don’t have to play abroad maybe, but not money that ends up disconnecting them from their fans. I don’t necessarily know where that is, but I want us to have the financial stability as a league to be in that conversation.”
Under the current six-year WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (ratified in 2014), in 2015 the minimum player salary for 0-2 years of service is $38,913 and $55,275 for 3+ years of service; the maximum player salary is anywhere between $107,000 – $109,500. Outside of the base salaries, the players also receive year-end bonuses for awards or reaching the post-season, year-round health/dental benefits, tuition reimbursements, and an in-season housing allowance.
Some commentators suggest that one way to increase player salaries is to decrease what the coaches are earning. While the assertion is correct that athletes, such as Taurasi, often contribute more value to an organization than the coaches, Richie notes that the current compensation structure should be viewed in context. Specifically, the coaches, more often than not, are year-round employees who assume additional roles including scouting or being the general manager. Therefore, decreasing front-office wages is not necessarily the answer.
The WNBA Has Legitimate Superstars. The WNBA’s talent pool is heads and shoulders above where it once was when the league was founded in 1997. The quality of the competition has grown exponentially, and the WNBA now has legitimate superstars. This shift is evidenced by Taurasi’s contract with the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is reportedly valued at $1.5 million. Parker, who plays for the LA Sparks, is her current teammate, and Sue Bird, who plays for the Seattle Storm, was her teammate.
Peck notes, “There are only a few [players] making that kind of money.” She went on to say, “What the league has to look at is there are players that are not Diana Taurasi caliber making Diana Taurasi money in the WNBA…There are players who are making about as much money as the can make in the WNBA and then their supplemental income is of a smaller amount as opposed to the way Diana’s situation is.”
Peck and other analysts recommend that the league consider establishing a system where core players would be paid substantially more than similarly situated veterans; so that making it more valuable for the superstars to play in the league. In return, these players would agree not to sit out WNBA seasons.
Another approach is for the WNBA to adopt a Designated Player Rule, which is a model currently used by Major League Soccer. This exception allows a team to “acquire up to three players whose salaries exceed their budget charges, with the club bearing financial responsibility for the amount of compensation above each player’s budget charge.”
When FORBES.com asked Richie about the WNBA incorporating a similar structure, she explained that the league in partnership with the player’s union recently negotiated a new agreement that goes for the next 6 to 8 years, and not long ago had robust discussions on the topic. The WNBAPA could not be reached for comment.
WNBA Offers Exposure. While women’s professional basketball continues to grow globally, playing in the U.S. and the WNBA is the gold standard. Even though the WNBA is a young league, the caliber of players produced in the U.S. is sought-after overseas.
“I hear all the time from our players the advantages they see in playing in the WNBA. First and foremost as athletes and competitors, it is the notion of playing with and against that very best in the WNBA,” said Richie when discussing the benefits of playing in the league.
“As professional athletes who are interested in reaching the highest level of their game, the competition of the WNBA is critical to their development as an athlete. The second piece I hear very often is the visibility of the WNBA. It is recognized worldwide as attracting the best women’s basketball players in the world.”
Essentially, if the WNBA was not viable option for women’s basketball players, the valuable contracts doled out overseas would not exist. Therefore, the next phase in the league’s evolution is to ensure that its superstars, such as Taurasi, continue to have an incentive to play in the WNBA and it is increasingly valuable for them to do so.
Winning in the world of sports boils down to execution. Make plays. Score points. Win games. Become a champion.
The same can be said for the business of sports. Create a plan. Market the product. Identify sponsors. Sell tickets. Capture fans.
Historically, professional sports franchises and leagues that thrive season after season, on and off the playing field have mastered the art of execution. In the case of the WNBA, the last several seasons under the direction of President Laurel J. Richie, the league refocused its business strategy while placing an emphasis on execution, and it shows.
Richie, who is a seasoned corporate marketer and brand strategist, worked with her team to create a new identity for the WNBA that is more aligned with where the league is today. Gone is the original and outdated red, white, and blue logo, and it is replaced with a modern orange and oatmeal logo featuring an athletic silhouette. The league also extended its television agreement with ESPN an additional six years, taking its partnership through 2022.
On the marketing front, the WNBA highlighted its much anticipated rookie class, including Brittney Griner(Phoenix Mercury),Elena Delle Donne(Chicago Sky), and Skylar Diggins (Tulsa Shock), as the “3 to See”; and the rookies lived up to everyone’s expectations. Delle Donne was the first rookie to lead All-Star voting, and she finished the season with Rookie of the Year honors. Diggins and the Shock did not experience success on the court this season, but the team was one of the most popular teams in terms of merchandise and jersey sales. Griner played above the rim, dunking twice in her WNBA debut and setting the record for most dunks in a single game.
The league also introduced a new partnership with State Farm Insurance, where it served as the presenting partner of the 2013 WNBA Draft and WNBA Community Assist Award, as well as the half-time sponsor of nationally televised games on ABC and ESPN2.
In the end, the WNBA accomplished exactly what it set out to do: capture fans.
The league experienced an increase in television viewership. ESPN2 averaged 231,000 viewers, which is a 28% increase over last season. The opening day telecast featuring Delle Donne and the Chicago Sky versus Griner and the Phoenix Mercury delivered the 455,000 viewers, which was the most-watch game WNBA game on ESPN2 since 2004. Fan attendance jumped in Chicago(+17%), Phoenix(+9%), and Indiana (+8%), and the league as a whole saw a 1% increase.
And those fans who were not utilizing traditional forms of media, they followed the WNBA via digital formats, including WNBA.com and LiveAccess which both experienced double digit growth.
As the WNBA continues to execute its plan for growing women’s professional basketball, the league should continue to see its business metrics elevate season-after-season.
My jaw dropped when I read that statement earlier this year. Since 1997, the WNBA’s inaugural season, the same recycled storyline has been printed year after year.
Despite continued criticism and predictions of failure, the longest-running women’s professional basketball league in the U.S. is holding its own and not folding anytime soon.
It’s the WNBA’s 17th season, viewership is up +86% on NBA TV and up +41% on ESPN2. Attendance is up .3% but more importantly gate receipts are up +18%.Merchandise sales are up +36% with the “3 to See” rookies claiming the top three spots on the league’s top-selling jersey list. Additionally, national brands are on board as key sponsors, including State Farm Insurance, Jamba Juice, Boost Mobile, and most recently, Procter & Gamble (P&G).
Announced this week, the new partnership with P&G blends, the world’s largest and most profitable consumer packaged goods company, with the WNBA’s key-markets and its commitment to empowering women and girls. In 2012, P&G amassed $83.6 billion in sales and more than $10 billion in net earnings. Its beauty, grooming, and healthcare household names, such as Secret, Tampax, Cover Girl, and My Black is Beautiful, are focal points of the multi-brand partnership.
It’s the WNBA’s 17th season, and it is time to retire the outdated rhetoric.
“I believe we are going to look back at the 17thseason and say it was a significant summer in the history and development of the WNBA,” said WNBA President Laurel J. Richie.
Forbes.com caught up with President Richie to discuss the league’s business partnerships, the rebranding initiative, and the 2013 All-Star Game; here are highlights from her remarks.
On the Partnership with Procter & Gamble
Richie: I had the opportunity to connect with P&G at an ESPNW summit and we had a great conversation. We spent a couple of days with a larger group talking about women’s sports and the WNBA in particular. I knew that they were a partner of ours, so I wanted to reengage in discussions with them. As they understood more about what we are trying to do and where the WNBA is today, and in thinking of some of the terrific programming that they have with My Black is Beautiful and Imagine the Future, it made sense for us to come together.
On the Marquee Partnership with Boost Mobile
Richie: We continue to be excited about being in partnership with Boost Mobile. It’s All About The Wwas a creative concept that they came up with, and we were thrilled with. My team teases me, in that meeting, they had not even finished presenting, and I said yes. I knew it was such a big and powerful idea. When brands are aligned, it creates a real opportunity for a terrific creative expression.
On the WNBA’s “3 to See” Rookies
Richie: We’re seeing this wonderful combination of great energy and excitement around our rookies, but also I would say significant breakout performances from our veterans. The combination has taken the level of competition to new heights. They’ve garnered a lot of attention, and they have brought additional viewers and fans. Not only did we have high expectations for these rookies, but the broader sports community, as well. I was amazed at the level of discussion taking place between the end of the college season, our draft, which was in primetime for the first time, and then their first games.
On Attendance Figures
Richie: I literally watch the attendance numbers every morning, and there’s some up and down. I think a lot of that has to do with what the schedule looks like. For many teams camp days and school days are big attendance drivers. My guess is our attendance will be solid this year. We’ll have to wait until we get a little bit further and get some of the signature game day events under our belt. But I am encouraged by the renewal rates of our season ticket holders and what we’re seeing as an uptick in individual sales and game day sales.
On Rebranding the WNBA
Richie: The rebranding is both visual and how we talk about the league. It is the total package that has been very well received by fans, players, and our partners. One, they appreciated that the catalyst for the rebranding was to make sure that our visual identity was a true reflection of the athleticism and diversity of today’s players. The second piece was making sure that it felt fresh and contemporary. People have said it is part of the many reasons why fans are feeling a renewed sense of energy and excitement about the WNBA.
On the 2013 All-Star Game
Richie: I think fans are going to see great basketball this weekend. It’s always interesting to see the fan choices for the starting lineup, and I think they did a good job. There’s no one on the list that you’re not excited to see both as an individual player and playing together.
For more about the WNBA, tune into the Boost Mobile 2013 WNBA All-Star Game, hosted by the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, airing on ABC Saturday, July 27, at 3:30 p.m.
By now (unless you’ve momentarily stepped away from the sports landscape) you’ve been introduced to the WNBA’s 3 To See rookies.
But just in case you’re in the (very small) minority, here’s a quick guide to the top three rookies:
Brittney Griner – Center – Phoenix Mercury. Griner stands 6’8” with a 7’4” wingspan. She can dunk a basketball like it’s nobody’s business (her 18 collegiate dunks account for 54.5% of the 33 by college women), and she is expected to dominate the paint just like she did in college (she’s the all-time NCAA blocks leader for women and men).
Elena Delle Donne – Guard/Forward – Chicago Sky. Delle Donne’s game is part power and finesse. When she walked away from UConn and a guaranteed national championship(s), many didn’t think her talent would ever be seen in women’s college basketball again, let alone the WNBA. But after finding her voice, Delle Donne eventually found her way back to basketball. She led the nation in scoring as a junior and finished 5th in NCAA history in career scoring.
Skylar Diggins – Guard – Tulsa Shock.Diggins was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, so it’s safe to say she’s been a Fighting Irish her entire life. As a standout at Notre Dame, she was a four-time All-American and led her team to three straight Final Four appearances. Off the court, Diggins’ popularity has taken social media by storm; she is among the top athletes followed on Twitter (390K+).
Ok, now that you’re up to speed. Here’s something else that you might have overlooked. These world-class rookies have caught the attention of the biggest names in sports and entertainment.
Shortly before the WNBA draft, NBA MVP and All-Star, LeBron James, commented on Griner’s game. He said, “There really isn’t anyone who can match her right now. She’s too big, she’s too strong. It’s not like she’s just catching it and laying it or dunking it every time. She’s shooting turnaround jumpers. She’s drop stepping over her left shoulder, right shoulder. She’s shooting fadeaway jumpers, and she’s dunking the ball too. She’s real.”
These rookies have ignited interest in the WNBA that hasn’t been seen since the leagues’s inception, and the momentum and exposure should pay off in terms of viewership and attendance.
Today the rookies are going head-to-head on ESPN2 during the league’s2013 Tip-off Week (Washington @ Tulsa – 3:00 pm EST; Chicago @ Phoenix – 5:00 pm EST).
UPDATE: After this story originally posted, the WNBA released its 2013 Tip-Off statistics. The league saw its year-to-year attendance jump by 2.7 percent and arenas filled to 85 percent capacity. The second game of the Memorial Day doubleheader featuring the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury was the most-viewed WNBA game on ESPN2 in nine years, delivering 455,000 viewers. The first game of the day – the Washington Mystics vs. Tulsa Shock – attracted 314,000 viewers. Overall, the WNBA experienced a 60 percent increase over last year’s opening telecast. Also, the league saw increased traffic to WNBA.com with more than 2.2 million page views, which is an increase of over 35 percent.
Brittney Griner, the 6’8” center from Baylor University who is a four-time All-American and repeat National Player of the Year, is taking her talents to the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
Griner, the number one pick in the2013 WNBA Draft presented by State Farm, which aired in primetime on ESPN2, has been one of the most talked about women’s basketball players since videos of herdunking in high school turned Griner into a YouTube sensation. Joining Griner in the WNBA are the other two members of the “three to see” – Elena Delle Donne (#2 pick, Chicago Sky) who is 5th in NCAA history in career scoring and Skylar Diggins (#3 pick, Tulsa Shock) a four-time All-American and two-time Big East Player of the Year.
Not since 1997 and the era of Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, and Lisa Leslie has there been this much buzz surrounding a draft class, and much has changed in the last 16 seasons. Other than the iconic orange and oatmeal game ball, which is now the focal point of the WNBA’s new brand identity, the league is hardly recognizable. The players are faster, bigger, and stronger, and in Griner the WNBA now has one of the most dominate players that women’s basketball has ever seen.
In the weeks leading up to the draft, there was speculation that Griner would accept an offer from NBA owner, Mark Cuban, and tryout for the Dallas Mavericks. To date, Ann Meyers Drysdale is the only woman to tryout for and sign a contract with an NBA franchise. Coincidentally, Meyers Drysdale is the Mercury’s current vice president and former president and general manager.
Nonetheless, Griner took the heightened attention in stride and reiterated via social media that the WNBA has and will always be her number one priority. The WNBA also kept its focus on Griner entering the league, and WNBA President, Laurel J. Richie, is now excitedly waiting to see the impact that the NCAA’s all-time blocks leader (for women and men) will have on the game.
“I definitely want to bring it every time I step on the court,” Griner said to Forbes.com. “Anything and everything I can do to help the league and bring more excitement and followers to the game, I will go out there and do it.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Cuban’s comments, 18 career dunks, which accounts for 54.5% of the 33 by collegiate women and 3,283 career points speaks for itself. Through Griner’s talent and athleticism she transformed collegiate basketball, and in the seasons to come she is destined to do the same in the WNBA.
The 2013 WNBA season tips off on May 27 on ESPN2 with a double header featuring Washington vs. Tulsa and Chicago vs. Phoenix. For more 2013 WNBA Draft coverage click here.