Marketing Uncategorized

The WNBA: Sports vs. Cause Marketing

(AP Photo/WNBA)
(AP Photo/WNBA)

The WNBA recently began its 18th season but, from a sports business perspective, the early portion of the season has been overshadowed by a major marketing development off the court.

The launch of WNBA Pride, a comprehensive marketing campaign targeting the LGBT community, includes a dedicated web presence, integrated team initiatives, national media components and community engagement efforts. Covergirl will serve as the campaign’s presenting sponsor.

Regardless of the campaign’s timing and appropriateness, it may not automatically and immediately result in a marketing slam dunk for the league, a perspective not likely shared by WNBA President Laurel Richie.

In discussing the campaign, Richie stated that, “For us it’s a celebration of diversity and inclusion and recognition of an audience that has been with us very passionately.” Many, including those associated with the WNBA, believe this a tactically brilliant campaign.

Others see it as an act of desperation, one driven by the need to cater to the league’s core fan base rather than focus on extending it.  This argument suggests that the league, unable to broaden its fan base, is undertaking business initiatives to maintain its core fans.

League attendance has essentially been flat, edging up slightly to just over 7,500 per game.  While TV ratings have recently out-performed attendance, this may be a short term development based on the entry into the league of high profile stars such as Brittney Griner.

Despite recent national media attention focusing on changes in gay rights legislation and the fact that, according in to a recent study commissioned by the WNBA, 25 percent of lesbians watch league games on TV and 21 percent attend games, this campaign could have limitations.

At the core, the question now becomes what is the WNBA selling, competitive sport or the support of compelling cause?

After all, straddling the two can confuse marketing messages and, by extension, open up the league to additional competition from other worthy causes and advocacy groups. Should corporate America allocate marketing dollars to the WNBA because it is the proverbial right thing to do, or will it allocate marketing dollars to implementing strategies that have the highest return on investment (ROI) or return on objective (ROO)?

Positioned, even ever-so slightly, as worthy of fan/consumer support based at least in part – if not large part – on lifestyle may concern potential sponsors seeking ROI and/or ROO from a sports marketing perspective.

In fact, if sponsors want to support a cause or otherwise make a social statement, they can do so without affiliation with sport – and do so in a more direct and less shrouded way, quite likely improving their ROI/ROO given the clarity of a more targeted message. Importantly, these marketing dollars may be pledged from non-marketing budgets, such as those linked to community relations or through corporate foundations.

Once positioned as cause-related, the WNBA immediately finds itself competing against so many other compelling social issues and charitable organizations; each of which has an unambiguous strategy and distinct messaging. For example, the Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure and the AIDS Walk, which take place in major cities nationwide, deliver great clarity as important causes worthy of time and funding.

So as the WNBA doubles down on what is perceived as its primary fan base, the league needs to be aware that this new frontier may have a rippling effect that includes numerous unintended consequences that simultaneously support the league’s base while potentially compromising its future. It won’t be long before this campaign will be seen as either a stroke of genius or an irreparable act of despair.


David Carter is the Executive Director of the USC Sports Business Institute and is an associate professor of sports business at USC’s Marshall School of Business. Bio

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