By Max Meyer
Last May, the WNBA announced a new marketing campaign starting this upcoming season in which the league will market directly to the LGBT community. It will be the first time that a professional sports league has officially targeted the demographic. “WNBA Pride” will see players will raise awareness by participating in local pride festivals and grassroots events, and the initiative will be capped off by a nationally televised pride game between the Tulsa Shock and the Chicago Sky to be aired on ESPN2 on June 22nd.
This news comes at a time when the league’s financial situation is dire, primarily due to abysmal television ratings and below sagging attendance numbers. Reaching out to the gay community is an interesting and out-of-the-box approach. Professional leagues usually avoid politics whenever possible — getting involved might cost them money if they’re on the wrong side of an issue — but when you’re a league with balance sheet issues, risk becomes far outweighed by untapped (potential) sources of income.
Interestingly, the WNBA, though desperate, isn’t clutching at straws. Per the AP:
“Before launching the campaign, the league took a close look at its fan base. It commissioned a study in 2012 that found that 25 percent of lesbians watch the league’s games on TV while 21 percent have attended a game.”
Those numbers might surprise people, but not those who follow the league. The WNBA is well represented by current and former gay players, including Brittney Griner and Sheryl Swoopes. Griner, one of the most prolific college basketball players ever, came out in an interview with Sports Illustrated just a few days after being selected first in the 2013 WNBA Draft by the Phoenix Mercury. Swoopes announced that she was gay in 2005 while playing for the Houston Comets. Both players are also LGBT activists, and their vocal leadership gives the league a natural conduit to fans who wish to show their support.
Making inroads with the LBGT community isn’t just a matter of reaching out to those who like your product. Recently, CNN reported on a Prudential survey of more than 1,000 LGBT respondents. As luck would potentially have it for the WBNA, “respondents not only reported significantly higher annual incomes — $61,500 compared with the national median of $50,054 — but they also carried about $4,000 less in debt than the average American, and had $6,000 more in household savings.”
WNBA Pride — if the powers that be are paying attention— represents a wider opportunity for the league to deploy its limited marketing resources via LGBT-friendly advertising channels. There are worse things than selling your product to an untapped and affluent demographic.
Perhaps of greater importance, though, is what the WNBA’s marketing strategy means for the NBA. Half of the league’s teams are owned by the NBA, and given what has just transpired with Donald Sterling, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision newly appointed Adam Silver doing everything he can to appear progressive on social issues. Plus, the Association already has a history of reaching out to minorities — its notable anti-bullying campaign could easily be expanded to include gay children.
The NBA’s annual “Latin Nights” campaign introduced noches éne•bé•a, in which players wear Spanish versions of their team’s city or nickname on their jerseys. NBA Vice President Saskia Sorrosa, points out that, “with Hispanic fans comprising 18 percent of the league’s fan base, we have a responsibility to be inclusive and deliver customized experiences that connect with our fans in meaningful ways.”
It’s fair to ask why, if the NBA values inclusion, the league would not follow its already successful blueprint when it comes to the LGBT community. Forget corporate-sponsored patches as a way to raise revenue; imagine the message would it send to the country— to the world — if LeBron James was to wear a rainbow-colored uniform for one game a year.
Sure, there might be a little fire and brimstone over at FOX News, but that would likely be the end of the uproar. Approval rates for gay marriage have never been higher in the U.S., as 59 percent of respondents in a recent national poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News supported gay marriage. The LGBT movement has made major strides in the entertainment and political communities, why can’t sports be the next frontier?
And if any homophobic NBA players were to oppose NBA Pride, it isn’t likely that they would do so publicly. What could they do to stop it, anyway? Not refuse to participate. Not act disrespectfully toward a future teammate or opposing player, like the league’s first openly gay member, Jason Collins.
The Commissioner knows all too well what Collins means to the league:
“It is a big deal for this league, and hopefully, in the way that sports can uniquely impact society, that this is an area where they feel that much more comfortable coming out.”
The WNBA — whatever its fiscal situation and motives — has taken a big first step, one which should recognized and commended. But to have a truly lasting effect upon the country, the league’s efforts must be replicated by the NBA.
And with there already being openly gay players in the NBA, NFL and Division 1 NCAA basketball, why shouldn’t every league in every sport emulate the WNBA?
@TheMaxMeyer is sports business writer for Fields of Green, a partnership between USA TODAY Sports Media Group and the USC Sports Business Institute.