It’s All About Dollars and Cents

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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.  

League Marketing

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.  

Individual Endorsements

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.  

Sources:

Associated Press,

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/

SportsBusinessDaily, http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2011/05/30/Leagues-and-Governing-Bodies/WNBA.aspx

WNBA http://origin.wnba.com/news/sponsors.html

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