It’s not an either/or situation: WNBA needs to market to all of their fans

I asked two longtime Los Angeles Sparks season ticket holders recently to tell me about the demographics they see at WNBA games. One said:

“I am not sure of the demographics or even if they are kept by the teams. Just by looking around my section and nearby areas, I have noticed a shift to more adults and adults with children.

My guess would be 30 percent lesbian – but I may be way off!!

I have also noticed more men – with and without kids in the arena.

I think the emphasis on targeting families has worked in bringing more families and kids out to the games.”

The second estimated that up to 50 percent of the fans in her section were gay/lesbian.

I see roughly the same thing: Numerous adults and children. Anywhere from 30-50 percent gay/lesbian. Families, or sections of families. Lots of women and girls.

I would further break it down into age: The adults are mostly age 30 and up, and the young people, 14 and under.

WNBA marketing logic since the league’s inception is that they need to attract NBA or NBA-type fans to the league, i.e. straight males, who also tend to make more money that can be spent. Thus, effort was put into garnering those consumers. As a result, many WNBA fans felt that the league tended to over-emphasize the lives of their straight players in the WNBA’s early days and to downplay the presence of the lesbian athletes, toward this end.

The presence of lesbian basketball players has always been the elephant in the women’s basketball room.

For whatever reason, women’s basketball has always had a higher-than-the-population number of lesbian participants. People in the sport know this. But how they treat this information is the source of contention.

Traditionally the WNBA has ignored its lesbian players and fans, pretending both don’t exist. Sheryl Swoopes was the first major pro superstar to come out in 2005, and since then, a few others have been openly gay. The most notable is Lynx all-star guard Seimone Augustus, who came out this year and marshaled the Twin Cities gay and lesbian pride parade last month with her fiance.

The Lynx posted a release on their website prior to the parade, noting that Augustus would be the grand marshal. Another WNBA team that has embraced their gay/lesbian fan base is the Seattle Storm. The organization has participated in the Seattle gay and lesbian pride parade for the last three years. Storm communications said it is a business decision:

“The Seattle Pride Parade is a large community event in the city. The Storm organization supports events, causes, businesses, groups that support the team. It makes sense for the Storm to be involved in this popular city event.”

Indeed, it does make sense to court the business of 30-50 percent of your customers. Why the WNBA hasn’t seen this logic more consistently for the last 16 years defies explanation. If they are afraid of backlash from society at large, all they need to do is look to President Barack Obama, whose recent announcement that he supported gay marriage was met largely with shrugs.

If the WNBA courted and supported many of their athletes and fans, it would not only gain them some respect for taking a stand, but it would undoubtedly ease some of the stigma female athletes still feel around perceived or real sexual orientation.

Some Sparks season ticket holders have recently filled out an survey asking who they come to games with, i.e. a spouse, partner, child, etc. So it sounds like they are collecting demographics, which is a good thing. I hope the survey also asks the ages of respondents.

The WNBA needs to court and reach out to fans in their late teens and twenties – two populations that are largely underrepresented at games. Younger kids and mature adults show up en masse to support teams, but not so much younger adults. It would behoove the league to figure out why this is, and then address that population and try to get them into arenas.

The league would also do well to divorce the notion that they need to attract NBA fans for the WNBA to be successful. The WNBA and NBA have two different fan bases, and while many WNBA fans also watch their male counterparts, the same can’t be said of most NBA fans.

I was on a local Los Angeles radio show a couple weeks ago, and the host said something he’d already expressed to me privately, which is that the WNBA needs to show its athletes as sexy to attract more male fans. I don’t agree.

If an athlete wants to wear sexy clothing because she likes it and that’s who she is, then so be it. But putting on an act and not being who you are shouldn’t be a requirement. If attracting male fans is indeed a goal, then go after the ones who my girls play pickup with for hours at 24 Hour Fitness – the ones who don’t care if my girls sweat in their tank tops or what their hair length is. The ones who just joke around with them, and where all have a good time.

Finally, it would behoove the WNBA to market itself as a legitimate and viable sports league rather than a place just for children.

If the WNBA wants to grow its fan base, they need to first acknowledge their current fans and court more of them. Then they need to accurately ascertain potential future fans, and go after those folks. If that doesn’t fit into the traditional straight male/NBA mold, then so be it. The WNBA is its own entity, and the league needs to claim its identity.


  1. As I'm sure you know the Sparks have had their lesbian marketing events in the past under various owners.

    The WNBA has been conservatively estimated (by Lisa Leslie) to have at least a lesbian baller level of 30%. Those of us that better understand the league put it at closer to 50% – 60%. It is a lesbian league as is D1 college ball to a lesser extent. it is what it is.

    If the league could have succeeded with only lesbian fans they would have done so. They can't. Not a big enough market segment. If they pitched the lesbian market heavy they would lose the Dad / Daughter market which is their second largest market segment.

    You are right that if all cis guy fans understood that there was 50% lesbians in the WNBA in addition to the lower skill set and athleticism levels they wouldn't be interested. So look for another market segment, ex-college female ballers, cis women?

    You are also right that the lesbians are getting pissed because they have been loyal from the beginning. I just don't see a full group hug with the lesbian crew by the WNBA. Would validate what most regular bb fans already think. Would probably kill the league.

  2. The WNBA is in a tough spot and frankly it doesn't seem to me that the new commish is coming close to understanding the problems much less coming up with a viable plan to grow the league.

    As you know, athletics has been somewhat of a refuge for lesbians forever. I think that is part of the reason Lopiano fought so hard to keep the AIAW operating instead of going over to the NCAA 35 years ago. She knew that things would change and they certainly did. We've seen the exponential growth in women's collegiate sports with the untended consequences of negative recruiting and the reduction in the percentage of women coaches which are both related to the lesbian issue at some level. Folks like Pat Griffin are pushing hard for the mainstream acceptance of gay athletes with limited success although Rapinoe certainly wasn't shy with her recent coming out announcement.

    In my mind the real question is can the TItle IX driven growth in women's sports be extended into women's pro team sports in the U.S. in the for-profit sector? Based upon women's soccer and the WNBA it doesn't look too promising so far.

    Any successful strategy shouldn't be contingent upon mainstream acceptance of lesbian athletes as I just don't think as a society we are there yet. That said I believe that folks like Griffin will continue to push for acceptance and it could go well or it could go very poorly. I wish we understood the real reason why both women's pro soccer and the WNBA continue to struggle so mightily to make it. I think that the LGBT influence has helped both leagues but I don't know if it has also is a key restraint on mainstream acceptance.

  3. I just don't know where You guys get your 50 to 60% estimate of lesbians in the league. You can't (and shouldn't) go by what someone looks like. Unless you know their private lives you're just picking a number out of the air. I'm pretty sure it's lower than that. Probably closer to Leslie's 30% who actually played with these athletes and would have a better gauge on the number than "those of us that understand the league"

  4. Given that Leslie is also an owner of the Sparks I'm not sure that depending upon her 30% number makes much sense. Not exactly an objective third party.

    That said I'm not sure that it matters. Even if the 30% number is assumed it still puts the lesbian participation in the WNBA at around ten times the commonly agreed to distribution of lesbians in the general population of 3%.

    I'm not saying this to denigrate the WNBA or lesbians, I just think that we need to start honestly trying to figure out why the WNBA struggles so much in the market, which I think is where Sue started with this post.