How could an organization that had four championships and was once a cornerstone for the league possibly go under?
I took a break from my hiatus from reading various message boards, and saw this comment that stood out: “If this can happen to the Comets, then what’s safe?”
My answer is pretty much nothing is ever “safe” in women’s sports. And I’m not a Chicken Little. I’m an optimistic pragmatist. Women’s sports have always faced an uphill battle for a whole host of reasons, just as women have faced that in every other endeavor in life.
It’s been gradually through my life that I’ve reached the “pragmatism” part of this. Part of its been covering women’s sports for 20-plus years. Part of it is just getting older and realizing that frustrations and setbacks are to be expected, and it’s how you respond to them that matters. You can’t really avoid them.
There are plenty of obstacles to professional women’s sports leagues succeeding in the United States. One of them is successfully hooking in groups who would be open to your product.
I’m clearly not talking about those male sports fans who actively dislike women’s basketball _ the type that celebrates any bad news about the WNBA and insists that no one at all cares because they don’t care.
Those fans are unreachable, which is why the WNBA’s “Expect Great” ad campaign seemed so pointless and wrong-headed to me. It was based on the concept of trying to convince men who would say hostile and belittling things about the WNBA that they just needed to tune in and be converted.
What a waste of energy. Stop worrying about them. The league was never intended for them.
Instead the WNBA has to focus on the fans who don’t have an ingrained negative attitude toward women’s hoops. But even those fans can be hard to reach.
Because while they may not be hostile in any way to women’s basketball, a lot of them are indifferent and quite reasonably may not see it as a product that’s worth their time and money.
They may be big sports fans, but just have not found any particular reason to get interested in women’s hoops. They probably feel they have satisfyingly entertaining options in men’s sports and that they just don’t have the time or desire to develop interest in something else.
Reaching out to them is undoubtedly hard work, but the league should approach it with the confidence that some of them really can be reached. I especially believe more women who are not “traditional” sports fans can be brought into the fan base if they’re approached in the right way.
There are still a large number of women in this country who came of age before Title IX and never had the opportunities to participate in sports that are available now.
But there are also a lot of women in their 30s and 40s now who DID participate in sports in high school and maybe even college. However, they’re juggling careers and children and maybe just don’t think they have time or desire to watch sports that don’t involve their own kids or isn’t something their husbands/boyfriends/girlfriends/partners/whatever are watching.
It’s imperative for the league to reach out to both those groups of women and make them feel they are “part” of something by coming to a WNBA game.
The WNBA is a niche business, but plenty of niche businesses do survive and thrive. Is it more difficult now than ever in this economy? Of course. But it means that the league has to not just work harder but also smarter.
To that end, let’s get to the core group of fans: The ones the WNBA doesn’t have to win over and lure to games. The ones who already are invested. Don’t take them for granted. Reach out even more to them. There are some pretty amazing minds and talents out there who do care about the WNBA and women’s hoops in general.
They have full-time jobs and yet find time to blog about the league, or create artwork about players/teams, or come up with detailed statistical comparisons to better illustrate points they make in intelligent message-board debates (those do happen).
Here’s an idea that I think would be worth the league’s time and money: Have a type of contest among WNBA fans for each of the remaining 13 teams asking them to submit their ideas for how best to market the league, grow its fan base and better serve the core fan.
Some of these ideas could be universally applied to all teams, but others would be more specific to individual cities and teams.
Send some WNBA trinket to every fan who responds. But pick the best entry from each team and fly those 13 to New York for a meeting with the WNBA brass and player representatives to discuss their ideas. (OK, so the Liberty fan wouldn’t get to “fly” anywhere if he/she is based in New York, but …)
Let these fans share their experiences and their suggestions with the people who need to know. The players have to be as vested in all this as anyone, because it ultimately is about their careers.
Maybe the Houston Comets can be revived at some point, but right now the league’s energy has to be on how to keep the other franchises in the best shape possible during a terrible economic time. Look to the people who already care the most and let them help. That’s grass-roots thinking _ and the one thing women’s sports should never forget it always needs.