SBJ/May 20 - 26, 2002/Marketingsponsorship

Marketing stars and targeting women a winning combination for WNBA

Creating a popular, profitable WNBA is no layup. Some insider expectations when the league was born in 1996-97 held that NBA fans would quickly take to the game. Early on, however, a quick exchange from HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" — perhaps the funniest TV series ever — illustrated the wall the WNBA had to knock down to get NBA fans interested:

Female executive assistant (to male head writer): "Hey, want to go to the WNBA game with us tonight?"

Head writer: "Why? What are they wearing?"

Simply, the WNBA has had to overcome a male-oriented NBA fan perception of an inferior game experience. The NBA markets high-flying superheroes. While there is plenty of excellent basketball being played, the WNBA waited seasons for its first dunk. So the league has learned to position the women's game slightly different from the men's.

Results have been mixed. While the TV audience is gender balanced, the WNBA now recognizes that its core ticket-buying audience is nearly 80 percent female. Entering its sixth season, with its female attendance base on its collective mind, the WNBA has created its most strategically smart advertising approach yet.

The campaign, tagged "I Am," features a very personal approach. It allows fans to get to know some of the league's most popular players off (and on) the court.

The strategy behind the campaign is a good one: Create fan connections with star players. The idea is to provide fans with a person, not just a team, in whom they can invest. And it's a proven strategy.

The star strategy was the brainchild of sports TV pioneer Roone Arledge, who enjoyed booming ratings by being the first to take us "up close and personal" with athletes, for ABC Sports years ago. Arledge had a clear vision: Stars sell.

David Stern, the most marketing-savvy of the sports commissioners, took many of Arledge's lessons to heart, shaping modern NBA marketing as a star-making machine. So it's not much of a stretch to expect that WNBA President Val Ackerman would take pages out of the NBA marketing manual.

The campaign is anchored by TV ads featuring a range of established stars and potential breakout players, with another group of players shown in their home markets. Players from all 16 WNBA teams are represented in the campaign.

Further, capitalizing on the momentum of a great NCAA women's season, new spots will break in the next couple of weeks with the top three draft picks of the class of 2002: Seattle's Sue Bird, Washington's Stacy Dales-Schuman and Detroit's Swin Cash.

The spots are video yearbook pages, opening and closing with the player talking to the camera, introducing herself with "I am ..." and telling a little about herself — to nice effect.

But this athlete-as-star advertising is a little more, well, female. All-star Lisa Leslie blows kisses to the camera and animated hearts float from her lips. Players talk about their families, music, movies, shopping and, yeah, basketball.

It's the softer side of professional basketball. Sure, there's the requisite game footage, but the game's not the star. Instead, there are underlying themes of character, honor, empowerment and achievement in these real people.

Boldly, the spots all end without a tag line. Instead, as the player tells us "this is who I am," a graphic of each player's autograph followed by the WNBA logo caps each spot.

Overall, the WNBA's star-driven advertising approach should be a sound effort toward strengthening fan interest in women's professional basketball.

James H. Harris (jim@thoughtstep.com) is CEO of the Chicago-based strategic marketing consultancy ThoughtStep Inc.

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