SBJ/May 14-20, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

WNBA plans to weave Team USA into season

The WNBA begins its 2012 season on Friday looking to sustain business momentum in a year that brings a monthlong shutdown to accommodate the Olympic Games in London.

The league will go dark from July 14 to Aug. 15 to make way for the London Games. While the WNBA won’t play any games during its break, its teams won’t be idle, as the league will be working to stay relevant during the hiatus.

Each franchise will a have steady diet of player appearances, promotions, clinics, camps and community events during the break. Teams with players on the U.S. national squad will leverage that international exposure by hosting viewing parties and other events related to Team USA.

Eight of the league’s 12 teams have players on this year’s Olympic roster. Only Washington, San Antonio, New York and Tulsa are without a player on the national team, which is gunning for its fifth consecutive gold medal.

“We know the Olympics have a positive impact and I view it as a bonus when 12 players on [Team USA] are on WNBA teams,” said WNBA President Laurel Richie. “The Olympics are an international stage for us to showcase the talent in the WNBA.”

The London Games mark the fourth Olympic break for the 16-year-old WNBA. Attendance dipped for the league in 2000 and 2004 compared with the two respective prior seasons, but in 2008, after the U.S. women’s team won gold in Beijing, the league saw its attendance increase to 7,952 fans per game compared with 7,742 in 2007.

Washington led the league in attendance last season.
Photo by: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
The WNBA last year drew an average of 7,955 fans per game, up 2 percent from 7,834 in 2010. Washington led the league with an average of 10,449; Tulsa ranked last with an average of 4,828.

The desire to increase this year’s fan base by leveraging the Olympics into the WNBA season takes on added importance given that the league will not hold an All-Star Game this year due to the Summer Games. Instead, Team USA has scheduled exhibition games against China’s national team and Japan’s national team in Seattle and against Brazil’s national team in Washington, D.C.

“[The national team’s schedule] will be woven into our schedule,” Richie said. “We will be having a lot of activities in our markets.”
Kelly Krauskopf, COO and general manager the Indiana Fever, who has worked for the team for 13 years, said the league has learned from its previous Olympic breaks.

“We have very specific ways to monetize the break and create a marketing opportunity that is geared toward a lot of community involvement,” Krauskopf said. “During the last Olympic break, we saw our group ticket sales increase by 8 percent. Having that window really allows us to have a lot of grassroots components.” (see story)

But other teams are wary about the WNBA going dark during the season.

“It is a double-edged sword,” said Adam Fox, president and CEO of the Chicago Sky. “What is concerning is that as the season gets going, you are able to gain momentum — and then we go dark. We play in a very cluttered market. You have to keep your awareness up and let people know that the [shutdown] is temporary. But a positive is that you have a month during the season to reset your business.”

The 2012 season comes as the WNBA saw key business metrics improve last year.

So far this year, the WNBA has an 80 percent season-ticket renewal rate, the same as last year. In addition, its teams are averaging about 2,000 full-season tickets sold, also tracking at the same level as last season, according to Richie.
The one major metric Richie is monitoring is team profitability. Last year, three teams were profitable: San Antonio, Minnesota and Connecticut. Richie expects that number to increase.

“It is a trend we plan on continuing,” Richie said. “Once you get a few teams profitable, then it feels within reach and there is some competition to see who will be team No. 4. But it doesn’t mean we are on Easy Street.”

The defending champion Lynx lead the league in new full-season-ticket sales, with the addition of 1,000 new season tickets, doubling the team’s season base to 2,000.

“The base is now real solid,” said Chris Wright, president of the Lynx and the NBA Timberwolves. “Our intention is to lead the league in gross sales. We don’t want to lose momentum and we are embracing the [Olympic break].”

The Minnesota Lynx has three players (from left) — Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus — on the U.S. Olympic team.
Photo by: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
The Lynx has three players on the women’s national team roster: Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen. That represents the most players on the Olympic team from a single WNBA franchise.

“Our intention is to take full advantage and find different ways to come alongside [the U.S. women’s national team],” Wright said.

The WNBA also hopes for a continued upswing in television viewership. Last year, the league averaged 270,126 viewers over its 12 national telecasts, up 5 percent from the 2010 season’s 18-game slate.

This year, the WNBA will have nine regular-season games on ESPN2, two on ESPN and one on ABC — the same regular-season national TV schedule as last year. The WNBA also will be seen on NBA TV, but that schedule had not been finalized last week. The WNBA postseason will be shown on ESPN2 and NBA TV.

The league also plans to roll out a new branding campaign in the near future, though league officials declined to provide specifics on that effort.

One major business strategy for the league is a plan to partner in all of its local markets with Girl Scouts of the USA, which this year is marking its 100th anniversary. Before joining the WNBA last May, Richie worked as senior vice president and chief marketing officer for the Girl Scouts. Specific details of the effort are being finalized.

The WNBA also is planning to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX with local events tied into the historic legislation.

The WNBA added eight new partners last year, including marquee partner Boost Mobile, which has a jersey deal with 11 of the 12 WNBA teams. The company begins its first full season with the WNBA this year with the Olympics seen as an added benefit (see story).

“The overall visibility for women’s basketball at the highest level will be on stage during [the Olympics] time frame,” said Steve Gaffney, vice president of corporate marketing for Sprint, which owns Boost Mobile. “We have great confidence that there will be great momentum coming out of the Olympic Games for the WNBA and by extension, it will benefit the Boost brand.”

The league as of last week had not announced any new marketing partners for the 2012 season, but the WNBA is banking on its deal with Boost to help attract new partners.

“Any time you form a partnership that has an impact on the industry, it can’t help but raise our profile,” Richie said.

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