As you all know, I’ve been a big women’s sports fan since the 70s (though it started in 1967 with the lead-up to the Mexico City Olympics). Basketball, soccer, softball, what-have-you. During almost all of that time, I’ve also been very frustrated by the apparent misogyny of media, politicians, and even religions. Despite their constant attempts to quash equality of sports opportunities for men, women’s sports endure. Unfortunately they don’t thrive. It seems to me, then, if the playing field is never going to be anywhere near level, then maybe the ladies should change the rules of the game.
Since its birth, the naysayers have had the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) on the verge of imminent collapse. And yet, thirteen seasons in, the league is having arguably its most competitive year yet. Despite WNBA president Donna Orender’s rosy outlook, the weakened economy has made the health of the league more problematic. Hideously rich NBA owners who also have a WNBA franchise are boo-hooing how losing about $1 million a year is something they can’t absorb. That’s poppycock. By and large they took on the teams because NBA Commissioner David Stern bullied them into it. They never really wanted them.
But, some will say, they took them on to open up new markets for profitability. No, they didn’t—at least not if their financial team had any brains at all. I’ve mentioned before my participation in trying to get the WNBA into Albuquerque. With no other knowledge other than average attendance and ticket prices, plus team valuations in other leagues, I figured it would be about a $10 million buy-in and that a team could expect to lose about $1 million a year. And, as I came to find out, that’s pretty much the reality.
Here’s the deal: ticket sales pay for the salary of the players on the WNBA team and that’s pretty much it. All other costs must be paid for by some other means. What costs? Transportation. Facilities. Equipment. Coaching and support staff. Administration/Front Office. Advertising. Insurance. Pension. Community outreach. And all those other myriad little “gotchas” that every business has to deal with. The expense of the league isn’t the talent, it’s everything it takes to showcase that talent.
A recent article about the WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer), the first-year soccer league shows a very realistic view that profits aren’t going to be had for the foreseeable future. It’s good that the league is realistic and that the owners come in with their eyes wide open.
“I have no illusions that we’ll be rolling in dough in the next three to five years,” said David Halstead, part owner of the Philadelphia Independence, which will join the league next year. “You have a bunch of folks who want to see something new around the horizon.”
Really, it isn’t difficult math. Anyone buying into a league has to know that you aren’t going to get rich unless you line up some lucrative sponsorships or get the attention of some other sugar daddies like the kind that pay for those luxury suites at stadia and arenas for men’s sports.
Given the quality of the product—and make no mistake, the WNBA and WPS are quality products—why aren’t they more in the public eye? Largely because the media ignores them. Except for the occasional headline-grabbing event, women’s sports are deliberately and callously pushed to the bottom of the heap. Sure, sometimes a station or even a network will have a staunch advocate on their hands that they have to appease, but by and large, if you aren’t NFL, MLB, NBA, or (grudgingly) NHL, you aren’t going to get air time.
For example, a lot has been made of the WNBA’s 8-year deal with the cable network ESPN. Seems like it would be bonanza, doesn’t it? What’s the net effect? One game ALMOST every week. ABC will sometimes show a game on a weekend if there isn’t anything better they can put on. Even NBA-TV barely shows games anymore…and this is their own product! Instead, the league’s own network often opts for NBA reruns.
It wasn’t always this way. In the early years of the league there would be at least two broadcast games a week, one on basic cable and one on broadcast. The NBA PPV channels would show upwards of four games at the same time. It was a lot of fun for a fan. This year, the WNBA is touting it’s LiveAccess, which is carrying most of the games being played this season. This is a very good thing as no team gets short-changed as they had been before. Unfortunately, you need to have a good broadband connection, and even then some of the feeds provided are just barely watchable full screen. Even so, something is better than nothing.
I like to think that the smarter-minds-than-me that sit atop the women’s leagues understand the problem. LiveAccess and the team sponsorships that the Phoenix Mercury and L.A. Sparks (and soon others) have entered into are creative approaches to the vexing problem of finding revenue. Since it’s clear that the traditional media have no desire to be players in this (imagine if the amount of press given the NBA and WNBA were swapped, all other things staying the same, which would be the more popular sport?), a new way of creating and sustaining a sports league has to be found.
Since no one seems at all interested in really pushing something like ESPN-W (i.e. ESPN for women) new outlets have to be found or created. So…let’s brainstorm.
A Few Notions
Actually, why don’t we barnstorm? Why not have a few journeyman teams in the WNBA? It’s been made amply clear that NBA cities aren’t necessarily WNBA-friendly. Conversely, towns that would strongly support a WNBA team couldn’t manage the same feat with an NBA franchise. But how to find these towns? How to get out of a bad situation where the arena shows on TV as mostly empty? I propose having teams that will stay in a city for, say, two years. If it finds a following, great, they can take up permanent residence. If not, no hard feelings. Let’s move the entire team, the whole kit and caboodle, to the next candidate on our list. No $10 million buy-in (deferred until/unless a team stays). Just a bond to pay expenses in-full for a couple of years.
Take advantage of the technologies available. Since we are in an increasingly on-line world, why not add some virtual heads to the arena seats? Fans pay a couple of bucks and they can have their photo or web-cam image added to a pre-animated avatar in the empty seats? For a couple of buck more they can have a shout-out (a/k/a sports tweet) during time-outs. Small-businesses (vetted) can pony up a reasonable fee to have their ad put on some greenscreen area in frequent view of the camera. It’s just CPU cycles. Once the software is set up, the expense is minimal.
I also think it may be time to throw in the towel with the whole lesbian perception thing. When you read the rhetoric of some conservative groups, you know that despite the family-friendly atmosphere of most women’s sports venues, they will never conform to some narrowly-defined ideas of “family values”.
Also, can a closeted business even hope to survive the PR hypocrisy? I’ve been around women’s sports for a long time. Even so, I can’t even hope to know with any kind of accuracy what the level of lesbianism is in any sport. (E.g. for women’s basketball – all levels – what I’ve been able to discern anecdotally is that the figure is probably somewhere between 20-55%…and that’s such a large range that it’s doesn’t even qualify as an educated guess. Oh, and for men’s sports the range seems to be between 5-25%.)
I’m not saying to necessarily shout it from the rooftops. I don’t think that will really help. Just stop trying to pretend it isn’t there. Sheryl Swoopes proved that it really isn’t that big of a deal to the majority of the public. It has nothing to do, as the already male-minded media have suggested, with how popular the WNBA is or isn’t. It mostly has to do with the fact that it’s not perceived as being that big of an issue in this context. The public isn’t looking to the WNBA as a barometer for how to live their lives, they are looking to the league (and other leagues) for entertainment.
To that end, I’d actually start encouraging the WNBA to loosen the PR reins a bit. During interviews you pretty much get the same canned answers time after time. It tends to homogenize a league that is incredibly diverse. Why not let some players mouth off just a little? Look at how fun the Cooper/Laimbeer feud has been. Take them away and the emotional content of the league comes off as another marketing-based facade of safety.
Even so, it’s also important that the players stay true to the fans. You can tell the ones who understand that. During the player intros when they hand balls to kids, some players are sort of like “yeah, kid, whatever” (if they pay even that much attention) and others actually will say hi, make eye contact, and sometimes add something else to these young fans. That stuff does matter.
Would the leagues getting more involved in the social networking scene would help? Yes, there is a presence on Facebook, Twitter, etc, but no real branding. WNBA.com is notoriously difficult to interact with (and errors often send you to NBA.com, which is frustrating).
So, with all of that, how does a women’s sports league make enough money to be self-sustaining? That’s really the $100 million question, isn’t it? Obviously you have to do research with your fan base. Where do they shop? What do they buy? That’s how you get the larger endorsements. Obviously there also has to be an incentive for the small- and very-small-business owner to want to participate. Perhaps quid pro quo? In exchange for lower ad rates, they agree to tout your league (and I mean actually tout, not just install a stand-up and call it a day).
You can see what I’m getting at: instead of focusing solely on the big ad score (which also needs to happen), go for volume. Part of the advertising/PR budget can go to providing branded supplies to schools. Work in concert with school papers/blogs/video. If they give you better coverage than mainstream media, then give them more access as well. Thus you train the next generation of sports journalists to cover women’s sports.
Obviously branding has to be important.Get the brand out to every single nook and cranny. Yeah, that costly billboard might be flashy, but you might get more bang for the buck by making thousands of sheets of stickers available for the under-fives (kids put stickers EVERYWHERE).
You notice I’m mostly targeting the young. Well, as I said, women’s sports is not a short-term moneymaker. That being the case, you work on the foundation. You forge not only acceptance, but approval of women’s sports in the young. You train them to understand. If the kids become big enough fans, the parents will part with the money…ask any cereal company. (OK…so obviously you have to do a lot of ad placement on the shows kids watch.)
And those are just a few of the easy ideas. I’m sure they’ve already been discussed.
After over a quarter of a century of personally trying to get the media to give more than token attention to women’s athletic excellence, I’m pretty much fed up with the lot of them. With newspapers shutting down and ratings for the “Big 3″ being a shadow of what they once were, perhaps this is the time of great opportunity. The U.S. automakers stuck to their old ways for too long as more innovative companies from overseas took over their markets. I think a lesson needs to be learned from that.
Women’s sports will not be profitable in the short term. That’s just the way it is. The media and marketing structure isn’t set up for them, and even it was more accommodating, it has no more room at the trough. In adversity there is opportunity. Instead of trying to find your way to the “adult” table, why not make the “kids” table a lot more fun?
I do want to mention one site that any fan of women’s sports should frequent and support: WomenTalkSports. It’s as complete a one-stop site as I’ve seen over the years. I also spend time over at University of Maryland Women’s Basketball because they aren’t just the team of my alma mater, but I will always think of the people connected with it as family (also, for a college site, it’s really good). I often also drop by Hoopfeed.com for my basketball fix, and Mechelle Voepel‘s blog for basketball and other insights.