A New Direction for the WNBA

by January 05, 2010

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.