A New York Liberty Blog

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Now and Future

A meaningful discussion of WNBA’s future needs to be honest, so let’s not delude ourselves here. Attendance has dropped, TV ratings are anemic, and sponsorships are not what the owners want them to be. With the exception of the Liberty, Shock, (probably) Sparks, and (possibly) Monarchs, teams post losses year after year while the league itself has never shown a profit. Players make more money playing in Europe and are also treated better, while the WNBA, once the butt-end of jokes and sexuality-threatened rants, has dwindled in the public eye (I don’t know which is better?). Things, in the end, are not going all that well.

This is not to say that all hope is lost. The Sun have increased attendance every year since they’ve been in Connecticut, while several teams show strong ties to local communities and have indeed posted mild profits. If one discounts Chicago’s horrid attendance from last year (admittedly creating an unfair look at the league), the average attendance for 2006 was about 7,994 people league-wide, still a drop from the year before but not quite as catastrophic as some would claim. The Sting, while missed, were losing fans and sponsors faster than a Chicago sports team after a losing season, and the NBA seems determined (resigned?) to keep the WNBA steady. What can be done, however, to change this league from (at best) a joke to something achieving respectability? Hope and a great product cannot substitute for reality and an uninterested populace. The WNBA cannot continue on its current path of hoping that a horse, without being lead, will find water and then drink it. I submit that creative business plans are the answer.

First off, really expand the ticket base; I know, easier said than done, but don’t think of it in the rigid terms of the MLB or NBA. TV Ratings will increase if fans come to see the game, not the other way around. As the AFL has shown, simply having a TV contract doesn’t guarantee returns (that league began to succeed after it focused on home attendance). How can this be achieved? In the immediate future, decrease ticket prices, especially in the rafters. Most money is made from food and rink anyway, and offering ridiculously cheap prices could at least tempt the curious part of the public who are interested but do not want to pay ten or twenty dollars. Don’t do it across the board; a certain amount of worth and mystique is good when it comes to floor and close seats. Remember, however, that these drops are not to appeal for the base fans. The league can only exist on the faithful's shoulder's for so long. These are for the curious few who are looking for any reason NOT to go to a game. Remove that disincentive. Decrease ticket prices.

Secondly, to increase season ticket sales, provide good reasons to buy them. I considered buying season tickets to the Liberty for myself and my girlfriend, but what’s the point? I can only afford the ten-dollar seats, and there isn’t a discount available. What if I can’t go to a game? I lose those tickets. Instead, we’re going to go to all the games we can make, and in the end, save the same amount of money. Looking at this, then, ALWAYS have a discount for season tickets. Allow for lay-away plans, in which (like Baseball, the NFL, and really, every other league) fans can pay for their tickets in installments with an initial deposit. Make it so that season-ticket holders can turn in unused tickets for later games (availability-dependant). These seem like reasonable things to do, and with the exception of discounts, don’t actually cost any money. In fact, the law-away plan can raise MORE money.

None of this matters if the WNBA can’t reach its core base, though. This includes college sports fans, women’s hoops fans, and female athletes of all ages. The WNBA should be actively recruiting and doing things with women’s high school basketball, and college hoops, for that matter. Get some stars to show up to a practice, give out free tickets, get them into the games. These are the people who not only want/need role models, but they are the natural fans of the WNBA. Things like this are already in place with many teams, but they should be done by all teams, all the time. Make it so that it is easy for them to come to a game, and, in time, these will be the people who will grow and support the WNBA in their adulthood. But how to get them in the stands on a regular basis?

That’s where marketing comes in. Guerilla marketing has worked well for numerous underground and lower-end companies. Think American Apparel and, before that, Sprite. “We Got Next” was a great campaign because it increased visibility and showed off stars. Something like that needs to happen now. Or increase the need for rivalries. Pump up the L.A.-New York game, or the Detroit-Sacramento rematch of the finals (that game was the season opener, and drew barely above eleven thousand people; someone’s PR firm needs to be fired). Above all, get seen. Fliers, sponsorships of events, players at parties, autograph sessions before and after games. Diana Taurasi, when she came into the league, should have been on numerous talk shows and on as many magazine covers as possible. The WNBA champions should try and meet the President. Don’t seem desperate, because that could have the opposite effect. The game itself is great: it is the audience that needs to get expanded. Try some unorthodox moves and it will pay off.

Above all, they should keep at it. Once people have a good experience at a game, they are more likely to come back or become regulars. One idea that has worked for minor league hockey teams (an example being the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins) is to allow amateur teams access to the court for a match before/after scheduled games in exchange for tickets. Here’s how it works: two teams get to play a game on the big-stage with their friends – and parents, if they’re in school – looking on (imagine being a kid growing up in the Bronx and getting to play in Madison Square Garden), but must sell a certain amount of tickets to the tied game in the process (let’s say five). Two teams, fifteen people each, plus coaches, times five tickets per person, could mean up to one hundred tickets sold based on this. Not that much, but still, a draw, and it’s a great community connection.

Nothing like this will work if the WNBA front office can’t get its act together. Each team should be required to regularly update its own website (I’m looking at you, New York Liberty. Why bother having a website if one doesn’t regularly do things to reach out to fans. Hire a hip web-design company to create a new look and ADVERTISE on local websites. Related to that is the TV Contract: the ABC contract is great, but the league should also push local affiliates to carry games. Those are the people who are going to watch the game anyway, so why not hype that up? That’s how the NHL has survived low ratings: high local ratings. Hire interns from the ranks of girl’s basketball players: it creates loyalty and its cheap, not to mention the passion involved. Above all, just clean up the front office. Why is it that the Sun can sell-out games (admittedly in a smaller arena and in a women’s hoops hotbed) in Uncasville, Connecticut while the Liberty struggle to pull in more than eleven-thousand in a metropolitan area of twenty million people? It’s not necessarily laziness, but it is connected to really striving to get the word out. They shouldn’t be afraid to spend money; they’re losing it anyway. Overlook short-term losses in favor of long-term gains.

Above all, the WNBA needs to be wary of the pitfalls of expansion. While a 14th team in the Eastern conference should be added to balance schedules and travel, it would be folly to over-extend the market. The lure, of course, is the hope of finding an untapped market that is dying for women’s basketball. This is not as crazy as it sounds; in the NHL, the Tampa Bay region (hardly a hockey hot-bed) has turned the Lightning into one of the premier teams in the league. However, much like the rest of the NHL (and to an extent, the MLB), over-expansion could dilute an already-thin demand for the WNBA, while also increasing travel-time and diminishing the talent pool available. The cemetery of dead sports is littered with the headstones of over-extended leagues: the WHA, ABA, USFL, MILL, NBL, dozens of minor baseball leagues, and many, many more. The NHL almost expanded beyond its reach (Helloooo, Nashville), and even baseball struggles in a few of its markets. The money from the expansion fee is not enough. The league needs stability, not an ever-changing cast of characters.

The league seems hell-bent on expanding, however, and I hope that the WNBA will not expand significantly. If it does, it should look to markets that are ready-made for teams. Small markets, while attractive for having the WNBA being the only game in town, ultimately may fail to produce winners. Why would someone in the middle of New Mexico care about women’s basketball? At least with large populations (though Chicago has shown that this is not always the case), there is a shotgun-effect chance that if even one percent of the population goes to games that it will lead to monumental ticket sales.

Where do we find these mythic places of money and hoops fans? Right under our noses. Philadelphia, for one, has rabid sports fans (their AFL, NLL, and NHL teams all sell-out, for crying out loud), a perfect site (the Spectrum), an NBA fan-base built-in, and is situated two hours from both New York and Washington. Denver, which had an NBL team and an owner desperate to bring it back to the WNBA, seems like a decent choice as well. The population is good, and as shown by the Chill (NBL), the market is there. The Bay Area, with a good public transportation system and a strong sporting market, is another idea, as is Las Vegas (proximity to several teams), Dallas (largest market without a WNBA team), and possibly Atlanta (good market, but who knows). An argument could even be made (though I won’t do so) that adding a total of three teams could do wonders for the league (expansion fees are dispersed – partially – to all teams) in the short term, and increase visibility without cutting too much into talent or interest. This is a way to go, and I won’t deny that it has some appeal.

This model for expansion, however, does not seem to be the case, however. Current sites that the WNBA is looking into include Albuquerque (whoa, now…), Kansas City (wha?), and Northern Arkansas (no, really). The Sun succeed in a non-NBA market primarily due to the success of UConn’s women’s team. Why would a middle-market city like Kansas City, filled with the same nuclear families that have been noted to be turned off by the large number of lesbians in attendance at games, be any different from, say, Charlotte, a team with strong basketball roots that just couldn’t get it up for the Sting? Why Northern Arkansas? Is the WNBA really THAT desperate?

In a sense, yes. The media likes to play the WNBA as a third-tier sports league, and to be fair, it is. We shouldn’t let the league be treated as if its some bottom-tier Kenyan Soccer league, but let’s face the facts. The MLS is bigger right now in every category than the WNBA. So is AA-Level Baseball, for that matter. When the Altoona Curve outdraw three WNBA teams, that’s not a good sign, and people don’t hear enough about it. What’s out of sight is out of mind.

So, above all, talk to various media outlets. Demand WNBA coverage. Tell them that you like their sports section, but that you’re a WNBA fan, and even a half-page of women’s hoops news would be great. Call in to sports talk shows and withstand the laughs and derisions of the morons there and get the word of the WNBA out there. Don’t let up. Support the Storm as their fans try to keep the team in Seattle (one of the most successful teams in the league should NOT be moving to Oklahoma City). Don’t let the rest of the country (or your friends) forget that demeaning women’s hoops just because it is played by women is unacceptable. This is the 21st century. Let’s stop acting like Neanderthals.

And, of course, the little things help. Go to games. Bring friends. Buy food there. Watch coverage, if possible. Write a blog, if you can. Tell your team your ideas, and keep the league informed as well. Just keep doing things, and eventually, things will change. If they don’t, then maybe the WNBA wasn’t meant to exist. But don’t worry. If it folds, I guarantee that a different, better, more adaptable women’s league will pop in its place. With strong support in several markets, it proves that there is a need. Maybe the WNBA isn’t the right purveyor of this entertainment, but someone is. Who knows who, but she or he is out there, waiting for a chance to bring a great sport to the masses. It’s not the game, remember; just the packaging. The packaging can change. Don’t give up hope.


(Day post to come before noon)

This is not to say that the WNBA and its teams do NOT do any of the things listed above, merely that they do not get enough recognition, nor do all teams do all of these things all the time. There needs to be an effort by everyone involved - from the commissioner of the league to the teams to the fans - to get the Good News out there.

2 comments:

Rebecca said...

Obviously can't speak for every team out there, but I do know a little about the team we both love.

There *is* a ticket exchange program available for season ticketholders, as well as a preseason installment plan (although admittedly, they've been known to fuck that up, grr, arrgh), and some other nifty perks. I've been an STH in the $10 seats since 2000, and I haven't regretted it.

The Liberty have been exceptionally bad at reaching out to the metropolitan area. When's the last time you saw a highway ad like the one the Sun has on I-95? I've heard rumors that there are subway ads, but I haven't seen them yet. LA's starting to get the hint about the kidrens- a friend of mine is a coach out there and she spoke personally to one of the owners about setting something up, at least on a small scale.

The Liberty *do* have court access for group tickets, though I think the threshold is lower than your theoretical.

Expansion- Albuquerque has a passionate fan base for UNM sports, including women's basketball; they pack the arena there on a regular basis, plus there are folks in the league with New Mexico ties (Whisenant would be gone from Sacramento if there was even a whisper of an interested owner in New Mexico), and, um, what the hell else is there to do in Albuquerque other than the Isotopes? Denver's looking for a team even now and will probably be set up in 2008 or 2009. Kansas City wants a team to fill the new arena they're working on, and Kansas and Kansas State both have strong fan bases (plus KC has Mechelle Voepel, the awesome columnist). I don't know why Bentonville is looking at a team- I certainly don't think it would fly.

Philly, on the other hand, couldn't even crack four digits in the ABL, and that was with Dawn Staley on the team. The Warriors are blocking a Bay Area team. Atlanta's pushing, but Atlanta sucks as a sports town. Dallas, maybe, but do we really need three Texas teams?

I think the rivalries are building- but not necessarily the glamorous ones the league wants. Connecticut-Detroit's starting to get interesting, for example, whereas Phoenix-Seattle is a rivalry but not one about "GRAH KILL BEAT DESTROY!" And as much as the league loves to cram certain teams and players down our throats, I think they're missing part of the point. (If I see that Swin Cash ad one more time, I'm going to scream. Depending on where you are in the area, you might even hear me.)

And oh gawd yes the Liberty site is awful and mostly useless and I find out more useful information on the message boards. Talk about a team that does things right- look at Detroit's site one of these days.

In the meantime, 3-0, bay-bee. Garden Sunday. Can't wait. I'm off to CT, so I see Phoenix back-to-back, which should be interesting.

LLobo_fan said...

Question:

"Why would someone in the middle of New Mexico care about women’s basketball?"

Answer:

DIVISION I
Rk. School G Attendance Average

1. Tennessee 16 234,845 14,678
2. Connecticut 22 237,642 10,802
3. Texas Tech 14 149,351 10,668
4. Oklahoma 12 125,247 10,437
5. New Mexico 15 143,729 9,582

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