Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 at 10:41 am  |  13 responses

A New Direction for the WNBA

If the WNBA is to grow, things need to change…from within.

by Stephen Litel/@stephenlitel

A few months back, SLAM Online brought Ben York into the mix with his blog, “The W,” which focuses on the WNBA. Since that time, my new colleague has been busy, writing and creating a great forum for discussion on the league and is a welcome addition. As someone who covers and loves the women’s league, I want to thank Ben publicly for his enthusiasm and ability to start numerous conversations that have renewed my own zest for the league.

One of the themes that continues to pop up in conversations following Ben’s post are the actions of the fans and league itself actually pushing potential fans away, rather than inviting them in. At first, I could not believe that to be true, as it is difficult to imagine a league still in its infancy not utilizing every opportunity to sell their product. Yet, after further review, discussion and thought, I do believe this claim to be true. With months to go before WNBA players return from destinations all over the globe, the time is now for the league and its supporters to begin to change.

So, what is the league doing wrong?

Quite simply, the advertising is horrible and has been for a long time. While a good We must be able to discuss the bad...majority of already-existing fans of the WNBA enjoy the “Expect Great” commercials, those same ads display the league’s younger sibling, “Hey, look at me” attitude. Although in most senses, that is exactly what the WNBA is doing, begging for attention from those who hold the remote controls, it also comes off as desperate and sad. It is not wise for a league, trying to expand their fanbase to throw the negative ideas of the league from those who do not follow it back in their faces. “Tell me I can’t” acknowledges to non-fans that their thoughts are true, rather than what the advertising was trying to do, which was, of course, the exact opposite.

Another example of what the league itself is doing wrong in attracting new fans is their language. In her recent interview with Ben over at The W, WNBA President Donna Orender stated…

“If you look at the track records of other leagues, we have surpassed what it took the NBA to get to in 30 years. That said, it’s a different world and we have to keep making progress.”

Now, I have met President Orender on a few occasions and have had the opportunity to chat with her. She is a pleasant woman with an unwavering love for the league she leads, but comments such as these can backfire when read or heard by non-fans. This comment could be read quite easily as “we are far ahead of where the NBA was at the same point in their existence.” Well, President Orender, this is the new world–the ESPN, Facebook and Twitter world–and, of course, the WNBA would have more games on television, more corporate sponsorships and a decent fanbase at this time. It should because today’s television and internet world makes it easier to do so.

The league must be careful in their advertising and in their comments. With attendance and television ratings going up each season, no matter how small, the league is slowly reaching more fans. With better advertising coming from the league itself–advertising that doesn’t repel new fans, rather than invite them in–the numbers will continue to go upwards.

So then, what are WNBA fans themselves doing that is actually a detriment to the league they love?

Current fans of the WNBA love their teams, the players and the league. They are season ticket holders, they travel to other cities to follow their squads, they chat on message boards and are the reason the league exists. Without their support, the league would have folded years ago, as any sports leagues needs a diehard core base of people who give their unwavering support. They love this league, no questions asked.

The problem is they do not understand the people out there who do not share their passion.

There is a great contingent of WNBA fans who do not understand that the league remains a niche sport and, more than likely, will remain so for years to come. In all honesty, it may always be a niche sport. That is not a knock on the league, the women who play the game or the fans who love the sport. It is reality at this time. Yet, there are WNBA fans that are not welcoming to those “non-fans” who may be willing to give the league a shot.

When fans hear comments such as, “women aren’t as athletic as men” or any other number of statements that everyone knows, they immediately become defensive. There are WNBA fans who go out of their way to bash the NBA with their own statements, such as the NBA is “all about dunks” or the WNBA has better fundamentals than their male counterparts do.

It is negativity adding to negativity and the problem is simple for those that support the WNBA. Their league is going up against the powerful NBA in this argument and can never “win.” Well, it is not a contest anyway, but if there is a loser…it will be the WNBA.

Therefore, the fans who love the league need to change their ways. It falls into the hands of the fans to return the effort to a grassroots level if this group of non-fans who may give the league a legitimate shot are ever to throw their support the league’s way. Quite simply, the league and the fans cannot DEMAND anything from those who do not choose to support the league.

It is time for WNBA fans to welcome “visitors” when they make an appearance at a game or leave a comment on a message board. They are allowed their opinions based on their own experience, just as we are. They are allowed to prefer the NBA or college basketball or whatever other sport they may choose, just as we are allowed to enjoy the WNBA.

...as well as the good to be successful.There have been times in this very space where comments are more than unfriendly to the WNBA or a specific player. Comments such as these are welcome, as long as they are thought out. The WNBA is not untouchable, as it has many things that can–and probably should be–criticized. The league makes mistakes, the fans make mistakes, the players make mistakes and I’ve made mistakes in covering them at times.

To give you a perfect example, I purposely stayed away from writing about Diana Taurasi’s DUI arrest last summer, as I was afraid my harsh words would be a detriment to the league. This was a mistake on my part since I hold this position at SLAM, but, more importantly, because I support the league. If the league is able to take a great amount of criticism in the areas where they make mistakes, then it will survive. If we have to treat the WNBA as a baby, protecting it from the big, bad world, it will never grow up and be able to stand on its own two feet.

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  • http://www.slamonline.com Ben York

    Thank you, Stephen – for the kind words and also for your insights into the league.

  • Q.

    this is actually a GREAT article.. good job!!! couldn’t agree w/ you more..

  • Ace

    I really want to talk to these WNBA fans that people speak of that hate on the NBA. The WNBA fans I have talked to love the NBA too. It’s one thing to say you don’t like the WNBA fine, but when the comments start talking about how women should stay in the kitchen, wanting them to wear skin tight outfits, and wishing the league would fail, is when it starts to become “hating.” Overall enjoyed the article.

  • http://slamonline.com Stephen Litel

    Of course, there are a great amount of people who enjoy both leagues. Your comments about “women staying in the kitchen,” etc are the comments that can be avoided. You don’t like the WNBA…fine. You don’t like the NBA…fine. To each his own, you know?

  • http://www.goarticles.com/cgi-bin/showa.cgi?C=2409799 scott

    idk about this a 100 percent. Putting on my facebook wall. Cheers.

  • http://www.chicagoskyblog.wordpress.com hoopla

    Great article. Hopefully the league, fans and journalists alike will all take heed to the words of wisdom that you just wrote. The sad thing is, if you go to WNBA games, the fans in attendance are totally cool. I don’t see all this NBA-hating, oversensitive, victim-hood, entitlement stuff. The problem lies with the vibe given off by WNBA fans in cyberspace. Perhaps that’s because, when you’re at the games, you’re pretty much in friendly territory, whereas on the internet, you’re pretty much behind enemy lines whenever you venture into 99% of sports-related websites wanting to talk about the WNBA. Totally understandable, but I just wish more people realized that by having a hissy fit over every little negative thing ever written about the league, you are doing more harm than good…

  • http://slamonline.com Stephen Litel

    Hey Scott…

    Hit me up on FB.

  • Fred

    One comment I have is about the WNBA fans who “bash” the NBA.. I happen to be a male fan of BOTH Leagues, I’ve heard WNBA fans “bash” the NBA but they were fans who became fans of the WNBA because they like the WNBA more (for their own reasons). So it’s not really WNBA fans bashing the NBA, it’s people who used to like the NBA but got tired of things that the NBA has done or the players have done or do. It’s not them bashing the league to defend the WNBA (though maybe s few do), let’s not act like people have to be crazy or have an agenda if they don’t like the NBA! There are PLENTY of people who don’t like the NBA, but that may have to do more with there being so many BLACK players. I’ve heard the talk, them wanting more WHITE American players. In my opinion, the WNBA fans have a right to be defensive. I’ve read a lot of negative comments and it’s normally sexist, and just flat out disrespectful. Also the, “They’re not as good as the men” have to get on the ladies nerve as well. THEY ARE WOMEN, they play hard and as a Team and that is what should make you want to support. They also have Star players who can take over a game, no they may not be as quick or can’t jump as high as men but why would you expect them too? STOP HATING is the moral to my story, shut up sit back and enjoy what they bring to the Court. I promise you will enjoy yourself if you actually go to a game or two or three lol, the ladies work to hard to be disrespected!

  • Fred

    I meant they work “too” hard to be disrespected by people who’ve never seen any games.

  • pilight

    @Fred: You wrote “they may not be as quick or can’t jump as high as men but why would you expect them too?” People don’t expect them to. That’s why people don’t watch them.

  • http://www.slamonline.com/online/category/blogs/year-round-hoops/ Stephen Litel

    How about the marketing, people? I’ve received a bunch of emails from people saying that the league only markets to preteen girls, in their opinions. Do you agree with this? How should the marketing change?

  • Chris

    Wow, great article, Stephen! Someone from the WNBA media ranks finally listened to stuff I was saying. I see Ben York also complimented you, so I hope he’ll heed your advice in his future writings. As for marketing, I don’t think the WNBA is really getting through to preteen girls, and that is potentially a HUGE market. I mean, how many teenage and college girls do you see at games? Not many… To get through to preteens, you have to relate to them. The very FIRST change must be the uniforms. Preteens and teens do NOT relate to long baggy shorts and baggy tanktops. That’s just a fact. The uniforms is the first impression, and if that doesn’t get through, the rest is completely moot. We need much more feminine, tight-fitting uniforms. Shorter shorts and tighter tanktops, like tennis players practice gear and soccer shorts. Not bikinis or anything distasteful! Just athletic feminine stuff. As an aside, such uniforms might also change the views of guys who see the WNBA as as butch or manly. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of first impressions, and right off the bat, the WNBA uniforms is turning both females and males off. There are other changes to be had, I’m sure, but this is the most obvious and glaring one. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I can’t think of many other walks of life in which women and men dress exactly the same. Picture women’s figure skaters (by far the most popular women’s sport), golfers, tennis players and volleyball players in the exact same outfits that their male counterparts wear — now can you imagine what that would do to those sports’ popularity, with female AND male fans?

  • Sara

    Chris, that’s one of the most subtly rendered sexist comments I’ve ever read about the league.

    As Stephen said, the league has a lot of marketing problems, but I think that feminizing the uniforms would only enhance those problems. The league continues to try to mold its players into cookie-cutter, wholesome girl shapes. That may work to market some of the players (Candace Parker, Sue Bird), but many of its great players–Diana Taurasi and Seimone Augustus come to mind–don’t suit that shape.

    And is that shape what the core group of fans really want? Maybe, but it doesn’t really seem to be working.

    The league needs to figure out who its players really are and who its fans really are (and I don’t claim to know who either group is), and market in a way that affirms both those groups.