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.
WNBA players are not sorry for being strong women who fight for gender equality, reproductive rights and LGBTQ inclusiveness, all while standing undivided in the midst of the current socio-political climate.
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.