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Building Fan Equity: The NBA and WNBA

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Why are we fans of sports?

It's probably something primal. Why do we like to laugh? Why do we like music?

At a fundamental level, sports were probably a way to demonstrate physical prowess. To show the skills that would protect or feed the tribe. This story is “problematic” in the current culture for obvious reasons.

Let's say it's not something hard wired or primal. Instead, what if we start from the premise that sport is just another product, with each sport being a collection of attributes. These attributes are of varying interest to different customer segments.

With this framework, sports provide value because they are physically impressive (windmills dunks and home runs), highlight skills (30-foot putts and 7-10 splits), exciting (close games and last-second shots), showcase the human spirit (epic comeback starts right now) and tactically fascinating (poker tournaments).

However, sports are not mere products purchased purely to perform some function. Sports are also community builders. Sports are consumed, discussed, and shared with others. The social aspects of sports are obvious and often overlooked.

Fandom is also a two-sided phenomenon. There is the performer (teams and athletes) and the fan (the paying customer). There may be no bigger turn-off than a star that believes they deserve more fandom.

The reason for this discussion of fandom is that we are at an interesting point in the basketball calendar. The NBA regular season has concluded, and the WNBA season, its 25th, is starting.

The playoffs are where the NBA creates fans. The storylines will quickly form. Steph versus LeBron will be big news then promptly forgotten (unless they meet again in a later round). It is business as usual for the NBA.

The WNBA, in contrast, is always trying to break through. The WNBA is a fascinating league in many respects. It’s a great case study for the challenges of building fandom.

Sports Illustrated is currently celebrating the 25th WNBA season and posted an article digging into why the league has struggled. The article unintentionally highlights the disaster of combining politics and sports. The starting point is the journalist, Kate Fagan, questioning a male friend about why he doesn’t watch women’s sports.

This friend played sports at a high level, and he asked me, tentatively, whether he could explain why he doesn’t watch women’s sports. “Of course,” I said. “Let’s hear it.” I wanted nothing more than to understand why someone like him—an athlete, a millennial, a feminist—had never turned on a women’s basketball game. Or, more precisely, I wanted to hear why he believes he hasn’t.
“I’ve actually thought about this a lot over the years,” he said. “Because I often feel some level of guilt about it, but when it comes down to it, I just think that if I’m going to take the time to watch sports, I want to be watching them at the peak of how they can be played—speed, strength, all of it. And to me, that pinnacle is happening on the men’s side.”
I nodded as my friend spoke. He hit all the expected notes. I don’t watch because they can’t dunk; I don’t watch because they’re like a good boy’s high school team; I don’t watch because, you know, I could probably beat them one-on-one.

The phrase “why he believes he hasn’t” is the first sign that this is going in the wrong direction. It’s also a sign that this will be a standard (and thoughtless) politics masquerading as justice screed.

Watching sports and spending on sports is something that no one needs to do. Telling a consumer they are misguided in their preferences is about as bad an attempt at persuasion as possible.

The male friend is essentially telling the product attribute story. A more detailed version of “the games and athletes are not as physically impressive as the men’s games.” The journalist isn’t buying it. It’s a dumb rejection because, at a minimum, it’s probably partially true. The “wow” factor is part of sports does matter. It is part of the equation.

According to the journalist, the real reason fans do not watch the NBA is because of the standard “isms.”

Understanding why we watch sports isn’t just a thought experiment. It has practical implications. Rather than passively believing the WNBA is biologically inferior, we can actively recognize that no athletes in modern history have faced more cultural obstacles than the players of the W. Not only are comparisons to the men ubiquitous—and the differences rendered clearer because of the unique intimacy of the sport—but also, more important, no women’s league has a higher percentage of Black athletes, meaning that for nearly a quarter century the WNBA has been rowing against the headwinds of racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ sentiment.
Here we are, on the WNBA’s 25th anniversary, and society’s margins have reconfigured themselves. Today everyone inside the league feels similarly: that the world has finally caught up, that a movement has met its moment. In 2020 the WNBA saw all meaningful metrics—social media impressions, TV ratings, merchandise sales—skyrocket during its bubble season, and just months after the players signed a new collective bargaining agreement that doesn’t just raise salaries but encourages player movement, the fuel for year-round relevancy.

There is some truth to this perspective. The WNBA has done remarkably well during the COVID era and it may be the only sport that has seen higher ratings.

The league’s upswing makes sense. Polling data has found that social justice movements lead conservatives to watch less sports and motivate liberals to watch more. I suspect that the league had very few “Trump voters” to lose, so any growth in fans from the political-left results in a net gain.

But the author is misguided. The WNBA has probably received the most favorable treatment of any new sports league in the last 50 years. The league was introduced with a great deal of fanfare. Working from memory, Rebecca Lobo was the face of the NY Liberty, and Lisa Leslie was the pride of the LA Sparks (I’m not going to look this up). I believe that the WNBA has been on ESPN for its entire run. The NBA also seems to subsidize the league financially. WNBA economics are difficult to assess as there is little public information.

My first-hand assessment of the WNBA is positive. I went to a game a couple of years back, and It was both fascinating and enjoyable.

It was an intimate experience with sparse enough attendance that when fans advised the referees of their shortcomings, most of the audience could make out the conversation.

I’d estimate the attendance at about 1000 (announced attendance was far higher). Packed houses bring a form of energy, but this size crowd also creates a fun environment. The people-watching was fantastic. The surrounding elements were also notable. For example, the cheer squad was a mixed group and very different from a traditional cheerleading group.

Seriously, I would happily attend more games with the right group (I went with a female colleague who loves women’s sports) and at the right price. I think our tickets had a listed price of about $75. This price was way too high.

The WNBA is an interesting product that has an audience. Is it the NBA? No, but why should it be?

The problem with the Sports Illustrated piece is the implication that the WNBA should have more fans. That society owes the WNBA more support.

As a marketer, I sympathize. If sports is just another entertainment product, why shouldn’t female performers have the same economic opportunities as male performers? As an experiment, go back and listen to the top song from 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2020. Are people changing, or do people just like whatever is popular? Would the WNBA have as many fans as the NBA if the WNBA enjoyed the same coverage? If you cover it, they will come.

I do have sympathy. There are all sorts of bad products and performers that get premium shelf space. I have kids, and I think it's safe to say that their favorite artists just happen to be the most popular artists. From Jake Paul to Kim Kardashian, people focus on what the broader society focuses. This comes back to the communal nature of fandom.

Has the WNBA gotten a fair chance? The WNBA is a relative newcomer with 24 seasons in the books. Twenty-four seasons seems like it should be enough to become a cultural force. But is it? A lot of new sports and leagues have tried to create fandom. The USFL, the XFL, and Alliance of American Football all failed to create football leagues. There are also pro lacrosse and pro disc leagues. It’s tough to create new sports fandom. What about classic sports? What kind of attendance does pro-track generate?

MLS may be the most successful “new” league. But soccer is the most popular game in the world, and had a built-in international fanbase. And still, MLS is the “5th league.”

I suppose that this is the author’s actual point that women’s sports deserve a sustained extra push to make up for not being featured during the era where it was possible to build large fanbases. I’m not going to debate this point. It’s inherently political, so nobody’s mind is getting changed. But why should basketball get 25 years of a push, and Women’s soccer is only covered during World Cups. If I were investing in a women’s league, I would choose soccer. I suspect there is more potential, but the NBA is a basketball business.

From a straight marketing perspective, the league needs to be realistic. It has a core audience, and with the NBA providing exposure, the league may be sustainable. The league needs to understand what it does well and who its product appeals to and build from there. Like almost all leagues, the WNBA seems to be moving towards more of a partnership with its players. In other leagues, social media is causing the balance of brand equity to shift towards the players. I don’t know that this is true in the case of the WNBA.

Hopefully, the league ignores Kate Fagans’ “guidance.” Sports are tricky in 2021. Sports are a cultural business, and the cultural part creates dilemmas. The cultural part means there is a tendency to operate based on how some people believe things should be rather than what fans want. Calling people racist and sexist is a strange customer-equity building tactic.

The paradox of entertainment fandom is that while it is often “constructed” by networks and platforms, no one deserves it. By “constructed”, I mean that fandom is created by the platforms rather than by merit or talent. The top performers are unlikely to be the most talented. They are usually some combination of most marketable and most connected. Even in the case of elite sports, production values and easy access drives much of fandom.

But on the other hand, no one really deserves fandom. The economic returns that come with having fans far exceed any fair wage. Performers that have millions of fans have won a competition and enjoy outsized rewards. Should a woman basketball player earn less than a male basketball player? Should anyone earn millions to play a game? I’m think male athletes are paid too much rather than that female athletes are paid too little.

If it is purely about equity (which is a political word that should probably be avoided), should a woman basketball player make more money than a woman softball player? If softball had an ESPN TV deal for two decades, would the sport blossom?

The problem with the SI article is that it isn’t about sports, and it isn’t about business. It is just more politics. And politics is the surest way to shrink the sports business.


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