The WNBA is Not a Lost Cause

By Kevin York

I haven’t written in a while (I’m sorry to all of you that have been walking around with an empty feeling in the pit of your stomach over the past few weeks…ok, the past month…) and imagine my surprise at the topic that finally caused me to sit down and write. It’s not something I ever would’ve guessed. The WNBA. Yes, the Women’s National Basketball Association (that is what it stands for, right? I don’t think I’ve ever seen it completely spelled out). You can all thank Ryan for this.

I don’t remember exactly how this came up, but the WNBA came up in a conversation the other day with Ryan. I think it was him talking about what a failure the league is and how it’s yet to deliver on the hype that came with it 17 years ago when it was established. Yes, you read that right. The WNBA has been around for 17 years.

Ryan is actually fairly accurate in his assessment (it happens from time to time and when it does, it shocks us all). All things considered, the league has been a flop. For nearly the entirety of its life, the league has needed cash flow from the NBA to stay alive. Most years, the WNBA has lost between one and a half and two million dollars a year. In 2011, the first team reported positive cash flow (the small market Connecticut Sun of all teams; maybe those UConn Huskies fans really, really, really just love women’s basketball). You can thank your friends at Wikipedia for that WNBA financial education.

Now I didn’t really return from my absence (if you opened that link I fully expect that my returning post resulted in the same reaction as the fans in that video) just to acknowledge that Ryan’s thoughts on on the WNBA were right. No, no, no. I have more to offer than that. Instead I’m going to give you some of my thoughts on what the WNBA needs to do to reverse its fortunes. In giving those thoughts, this will end up touching on areas where the WNBA made mistakes as well.

First and foremost the NBA and senior leadership of the WNBA needs to let the league make its own mark. Stop trying to ride so much off the NBA. A number of my points below come back to this larger issue. The demographic that watches the WNBA is different than the one that watches the NBA. You must treat them differently. That’s a basic philosophy or marketing. Tailor your efforts to your audience.

The vast majority of WNBA teams share an arena with their male counterparts. What’s wrong with that? The arenas are too big. The WNBA doesn’t have the audience that the NBA does right now. Let them play in smaller arenas where they can play off that more. Smaller arena = lower rent = lower ticket prices = higher attendance. That doesn’t necessarily mean more fans in total will attend in person. However, it will seem like more fans because they’ll all be closer to the court, closer the players, closer to the action, rather than spread out in a cavernous arena that’s just way too big.

Why did so many teams have a similar name or color scheme to their NBA counterpart in the same city? Color scheme I can sort of see because of shared arenas. But do the teams from San Antonio, Phoenix or Minnesota really need team names that are so reminiscent of their NBA counterparts? We get it…same city…maybe same owner. Give the WNBA team its own identity. It’s a new fan base. The fans of that city’s NBA team aren’t necessarily going to be the fan base of the WNBA team.

The WNBA needs to stop spending its marketing money on marketing the league. A person in Indianapolis isn’t going to see an ad for the WNBA and say, “I’m going to start following that league.” They’re going to see an ad for the Fever and say, “Maybe I should go to one of those games.” Instead of spending money marketing the league, distribute that money evenly among all the teams and do co-marketing activities with them to market their teams regionally.

That point on marketing spend is a nice foray into my next point…

Find stars and market them. When I say stars, I don’t mean strictly the very best players. The NBA existed for a long time before it really took off in the 1980s. The Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s, Moses Malone’s and Julius Erving’s of the 70s and early 80s didn’t seem to do a lot to increase the popularity of the game. It wasn’t until Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came along that the NBA soared. Those two were great players, but it wasn’t just their ability on the court that helped the league. It was their personalities. Magic had a charisma about him. The smile, the laugh, the ability to get everyone to like him. Bird had a different kind of mainstream charm. His small town tell-it-like-it-is bluntness appealed to the public. If those two didn’t have the personalities they did, they may have not done as much to progress the game.

The WNBA needs to find its stars. Those women with on court skills, but just as important, off-court personality. And then, market the hell out of those women. Make us know them, make us see their personalities, make us unable to get enough of them.

The WNBA is not a lost cause (that’s where I disagree with Ryan). The league could be successful, but they need to change some things, a number of things to better form relationships with the people who are really their audience. I hope they succeed.

By Kevin York
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