WNBA needs to increase fan relations

Last summer I recommended that the WNBA do a better job of developing team identities, which would include keeping franchise players and cutting down on the massive trading we see annually. Now I’m going to urge the league to do something else to increase fan base and financial stability: re-develop relationships between the players and fans.

For my very first blog post in this space, I surveyed fans of a women’s basketball message board as to why they loved the women’s game. A sizable portion said they identified with the players, and/or liked player personalities.

My second entry outlined an NCAA study called “the state of the game.” Here’s a slice of what I found:

Being a “big fan” is highly correlated with having a favorite team – “connection” – a key element in interest in any sport. The study says that aside from that, competition and catharsis are the next strongest drivers of interest in sports.

Here’s the interesting part: the study found that the most important determinant in fanhood of the men’s game is connection. For fans of the women’s game, the most important factor is character.

That makes a lot of sense. One thing a respondent to my question on rebkell pointed out was that we fans of the WNBA seem to be comfortable with using the first names of players, and assuming a type of intimacy with them that fans of the men’s game usually don’t with those players. I would concur, and would expand this to include female college players. Women’s basketball fans are generally quite protective of their favorite players, as if they were sisters or daughters.

The study outlines the process of becoming a sports fan, which they call the five phases of a “sports love affair.” The first is introduction, which the majority of fans received in playing the game themselves either now, or in the past. The next phase is attraction, followed by connection. After that comes committment, and the final phase occurs when the team becomes part of the fan’s identity.

Here’s the key part, because the disconnect between the players and fans is ten times more pronounced now than in was in 2008:

The WNBA has this down pat. They have plenty of fan events when a team is new, to establish that connection for fans to the players, and gain the committment and even the identity part. Then the fan events slowly disappear. Colleges should be so tactical with their promotions.

In fact, the study said that while fans view the main challenge in men’s basketball as being the perceived conflict between academic and business interests, challenges for women’s hoops were different. The main challenge facing women’s college hoops is lack of exposure, according to the study. Researchers proposed a grassroots-type campaign to overcome this issue, including using posters and flyers on campuses, increase the number of fan giveaways, and gaining support from the media.

I’ve pointed it out before here, that there are less and less player appearance events for WNBA fans every year. Sparks season ticket holders noted it too in last Saturday’s column. There was no fan fest (team introduction and autograph session) preceding the season this year, and there has been one appearance that I know of – the “downtown dribble” last month, where a few players showed up. The popular Trader Joe’s store takeover isn’t happening anymore, either.

In other cities, the stories are similar. If there are player-fan events, they’re high-priced and thus not accessible to many fans – especially in this poor economy. There is less and less personal connection between WNBA players and fans, and fans have noticeably detached from teams. They don’t feel a sense of ownership as much anymore; they just come to games.

I met a woman last week who played basketball in high school and college. Her main inspiration for playing came from an appearance by Ann Meyers 30 years ago. The woman was in middle school, and Meyers did a clinic at her Los Angeles school. She put on a camp and then talked to them to inspire them. For this woman, it worked.

“It meant so much to us that she came to our school and talked to us like that,” the woman said. “We thought Ann Meyers was the greatest, and we became fans of hers and of women’s basketball for life.”

We need more of that today.

When I first came to LA six years ago, the Sparks had camps for kids. I took my kids to two of them. I believe the Sparks stopped having camps in 2009, as I remember the last one at Pasadena City College in 2008. Other WNBA teams are also conducting disappearing acts. They perform charity work, which is admirable and good public relations. But really: what’s the point of impressing corporate types? Is anyone on a beach going to know who the tall women were who were picking up trash? Wouldn’t it make more business sense to show up at, for instance, “Summer Night Lights” in the city of Los Angeles and interact with young people? Because those kids will go to games, whether they’re female or male. If players showed up for youth, those youngsters will go home and get their parents to take them to a game or five. Cheryl Coward (hoopfeed.com) and I saw it last night at the Mercury-Sparks game at Staples Center – the most excited fans are the young fans. They jump up and down, celebrate each basket and yell. Those are the WNBA’s future fans…..if the league courts them now.

As businesses and people get bigger, they do tend to step back and become less accessible and more remote to customers. The WNBA can’t afford to do that yet, or maybe ever, considering how attached women’s hoops fans get to their teams and athletes. What the league needs to do right now is get those players back in front of fans. Sign autographs, make appearances and remind fans who you are and what you’re doing. Conduct a clinic and inspire a child for life. Give some love to your adult fans, too. If the fans adore the players and the teams, they will keep coming even if the team is losing.

The WNBA needs to put the personality back in the game. They need to have more player-fan events and facilitate the development of relationships between the athletes and the fans, the way it used to be. If they did that, attendance at games and awareness of the league would increase exponentially.