As the buzzer sounded on the Los Angeles Sparks’ Women’s National Basketball Association championship- clinching win over the Minnesota Lynx on Thursday, Oct. 20, the league also closed the books on its celebratory 20th season — one of the most successful in its history.
Heading into its 20th season in 2016, the WNBA — the women’s professional basketball league backed by the popular men’s National Basketball Association — has had a mixed bag of success. From a business perspective, the league has expanded from eight teams during its launch in 1996 to its current 12 franchises and has secured a long-term television deal with ESPN and a long-term collective bargaining agreement between players and team ownership.
It has also struggled to build awareness for the league, its teams and its collection of world-class women athletes, including Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi.
Yet under the tutelage of freshman president Lisa Borders, the New York-based league this past season drew more than 1.5 million fans to its games, its highest attendance since 2011, according to the league.
From a viewership perspective, the league posted an 11% gain in viewers on ESPN and ESPN2 during the season while increasing female viewing by 25% and its young male audience by 17%, according to network officials.
“We were there from day one from the first tip and they have evolved tremendously over the past 20 years — the growth has been excited for us to see,” Carol Stiff, ESPN’s vice president of women’s sports programming, said. “They’re still very young — 20 years is not long. Title IX [which spurred investment in women’s sports in schools] has only been part of our culture for 40 to 45 years. I’m excited to be able to showcase the athleticism and storylines from the league ... we look forward to working with them for another 20 plus years.”
The future does seem bright for the league. The WNBA set social-media records for usage, generating 530 million impressions and over 50 million video views, securing the league’s position among young, media-savvy sports fans who are enthusiastic about talking up the franchise. Borders spoke with MCN programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the league’s 20-year start and provided a sneak peek into what’s in store for the league going forward, including potential team expansion plans.
MCN:When you stepped into the role as WNBA president at the beginning of the league’s 20th season, what were your thoughts on where the league was and what it had achieved up to that point?
Lisa Borders: Let me start by saying that having been a fan for 10 years and a season ticket holder [of the Atlanta Dream] that I understood the extraordinary play on the court. The game has evolved over 20 years and it is extraordinary. The fundamentals are sound — all 12 teams are incredibly talented. We’ve got 144 of the best athletes in the world, so in terms of the core product it was absolutely outstanding. It is not a secret that on the business side of our endeavor, we had some work to do. What we sought to do in the 20th season was to work on the business.
MCN:How did you think the league was perceived by folks on the outside, particularly fans and those who say that after 20 years the league should be further along with regards to its overall success and popularity — particularly given the popularity of the NBA? Did you listen to any of that criticism and do you think it was valid?
LB: Well, I hear it, but listening and hearing are two different things, just so you know.
[Laughs.] So if you hear something, that makes me think of rumors and innuendos and irrational thought. So when people talk without facts or without a rational basis, I tend to give less credence and credibility to those comments. When I have the opportunity to hear talk about our game and talk about our league from people who are deeply invested, who’ve spent time in the arenas, who understand who the teams are, I frankly give more credence there. So there’s good news and bad news. And it’s the same topic: awareness is where you have to start in any business. So the good news was people were aware. The bad news is, or was, people were not as aware as we needed them to be.
We play six months out of the year here in the U.S. and then many of our players play in the international market during the [off-season]. So folks know who we are but not as broadly or as deeply as we would like for them to. But I remind anyone that we are 20 years old — and that is remarkable, but we are 20 years old. That is still very young by professional sporting standards. If you look at the NBA, our big brother, it was born in 1946. We were born in 1996. So our big brother is 70. If you take this out of the vernacular of sports and just think about two people, one being 20 years old, one being 70 years old, the richness of their lives is very different but they are both human beings with two ears, two eyes, one nose, one mouth, two legs. So you could say, those two people should be exactly the same because they’re both human. Well, that’s not true. You and I both know that a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old are not comparable people. The same thing is true of our league and our big brother, the NBA. They have been at it much longer. We applaud the NBA, they’re part of our family, but we are the younger sibling in the family. And it takes time to grow and get your footing and walk briskly before you run. So my response to people is, give us time to grow into the mature league that we know we’re going to grow into.
MCN:That’s a great way to transition into the performance of the league’s 20th season. What do you think was the overriding driving force for the success you saw?
LB: Well, let me just say there was no one silver bullet or one-panacea answer. It was a combination of many different approaches and strategies to our game and to our marketing and leveraging our game. It started with the “Watch Me Work” campaign, which really was a more integrated approach to how we marketed the WNBA. Typically, we have just marketed the league when the season starts in April with the draft and in May with tipoff. This year we started in January at an [NBA Cleveland Cavaliers] game and we unveiled what we called and continue to call the “Watch Me Work” campaign. That campaign ran throughout the preseason, through the season and into the post season. We’ve never done that before. But clearly, we have the platform to do it. In February, the NBA had its best and brightest in Toronto for the All-Star Game, so we also had our best and brightest there. On the sponsor side, we had folks like Adidas, which is are our apparel supplier and partner right now, roll out a special shoe for the 20th season. Spalding rolled out a special ball for the season. Verizon came on as a sponsor and we had new uniforms.
And then there was this little thing called the Olympics that happened in the middle of the season where both of our teams, men and women, won gold medals. That helped generate interest and excitement, and in the WNBA’s case, we supply all of the players for the national team. And those players came back with the U.S. women’s team’s sixth consecutive gold medal. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment by any measure.
MCN:The league also made several changes to the game itself. How did that play out it terms of building awareness and excitement for league games?
LB: We did two things to do with the technical components of the game. One was changing the offensive rebounding clock to 14 seconds rather than 24 seconds. Clearly that paid off in terms of pace of the game, but if you look at our statistics — for field goals with number of points scored, field goal percentages, assists — we have some of the highest statistics ever in the history of our game during this season. The same thing is true when you look at the playoff format, with single elimination in the first two rounds.
So those two changes to how we played the game had a dramatic impact on people getting excited about coming to the arenas and watching on ESPN and/or watching on League Pass, which also had extraordinary and record-breaking numbers from a subscription standpoint.
MCN:You started to talk a little bit earlier about the importance of social media. How big was that in terms of really developing the league’s brand?
LB: The social media aspect of our business was the brightest jewel in our crown of accomplishment. Clearly social media allows you to reach beyond any traditional fan or group of fans that you’ve ever had because it is ubiquitous. The Internet is everywhere and people are connected. In the case of watching our games or seeing content post-game, a highlight reel or a specific play or an exciting dunk, people have that opportunity to see that 24 by seven by 365. So what it allows you to do is to use our own democratized voice to serve as a distribution channel for the content that we are generating. Our players play and they do amazing things with the ball and with their bodies and with their teams and what we are doing is packaging it and sending it out another channel so that folks can consume it, of all ages, of all backgrounds, working on all time zones. It is not time-dependent in any way. It serves as not only a complement but a supplement to what’s done in traditional media but also what we are doing because, typically, the WNBA has had a website, like any business but that’s a static destination. What social media allows you to do is push that information to anyone to anyone who’s willing to receive it.
MCN:So now how do you build on the league’s success as you go into next season and beyond?
LB: Well, the things that are working, we will continue to do. So the marketing as a family of basketball properties — the NBA, the WNBA and the [NBA Development League] — we understand there’s opportunities to leverage all of our properties to the good of each of them individually, and to all of them collectively. Things that are working really, really well, like social media, we’re going to ramp them up. So not only will we share content about individual games and individual series of plays or individual series of games, now we will drill down further and begin to share information and content about our individual players. Because you and I both know, no one follows a league — they sometimes follow teams, but what they really follow are individual players to whom and with whom they can relate. We will leverage that content over time, not just talking about what our athletes do because what they do is play professional basketball. What fans want to know is who they are. And social media lends itself to that type distribution of information quite well. We will also invest heavily on spreading the word of the WNBA’s existence and its impact to date and where we aspire to go in the future.
MCN:What do you see as the biggest challenge for the league going forward?
LB: Well, I think always, in any business you are looking to be sustainable. So if someone is aware that you exist, then they have to pay attention once they realize you exist and they have to express a preference on whether they are interested in team one, team two, team three. And then they must exercise that preference … people have to engage and stay engaged.
So the challenge in this world, where you have so many opportunities to be entertained and so many opportunities to be distracted, is gaining a fan and holding on to him or her. That’s your greatest challenge. So whether you can get them in the arena or whether you can get them to watch on ESPN, or on League Pass, that is what makes our business go. We know that the source of our talent from the college ranks is solid. We’ve got great kids coming out every day. But fans come and fans go. So running the business in such a way that people are consistently entertained and want to be season ticket holders or even come up for a single game, that’s the greatest challenge for our business or anybody in the sports business.
SIDEBAR: Hail to the Chief
Career highlights of WNBA president Lisa Borders:
• Named as the fourth WNBA president on Feb. 10, succeeding Laurel J. Richie.
• Former VP of global community affairs for The Coca-Cola Co.
• Served as vice mayor of Atlanta and president of the Atlanta City Council from 2004-10, presiding over and maintaining relationships with the city government
• As head of the Atlanta City Council, she was instrumental in launching the Atlanta Dream WNBA franchise in 2008
SOURCE :Multichannel News research
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