SBJ/May 20-26, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

For the WNBA, time for a clutch 3

The WNBA is counting on a trio of players it’s calling the “3 to See” to help it rebound from record low attendance last year — even though the three have yet to see their first regular-season games.

Rookies Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins are at the heart of the league’s marketing efforts for the 2013 season, which begins on Friday night. A new TV deal, a refreshed brand image and some renewed sponsor interest also mark the start of the new WNBA season, the league’s 17th year.

The league will tout (from left) Skylar Diggins, Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner.
Photo by: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
Last year, the WNBA averaged 7,457 fans per game in a season that was divided by a monthlong Olympic break. That was down 6 percent from 2011 and was below the league’s previous low average of 7,479, set in 2006.

With a return to the league’s conventional May-to-September full season this year, league executives are expecting attendance to improve. In addition, through May 14, the league had seen 2 percent growth in full-season-ticket sales and a 5 percent increase in its season-ticket renewal rate compared with last year, according to league officials. Specific marks were not available.

Griner (Phoenix), Delle Donne (Chicago) and Diggins (Tulsa) were the first three players selected in last month’s draft. The league is hoping the success and visibility they had at the college level — Griner at Baylor, Delle Donne at Delaware and Diggins at Notre Dame — carries over to the pro level. The “3 to See” promotional efforts began at last month’s draft, with video and player stories across all platforms on league media partner ESPN. The marketing of the players won’t come from only their franchises — WNBA teams across the league have created ticket packages built around games featuring Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins.

“There are lots of innovative partial packages that leverage the ‘3 to See,’” said WNBA President Laurel Richie, who begins her third season leading the league. “We are seeing a lot of creativity around the three and beyond.”

The WNBA also is pointing to its offseason “brand refresh” effort that created a new league logo with orange and oatmeal colors and features a player shooting at the basket. It replaces the league’s former red, white and blue logo featuring a player dribbling a basketball.

“The brand refresh is all about making sure how we represent ourselves as a league is in line with the athleticism and diversity of our players,” Richie said.

ESPN is primed for a boost in the league’s profile. The network in March announced that it had signed a six-year extension running through the 2022 season. The value of the deal averages about $12 million per season, bringing each WNBA franchise about $1 million in television revenue annually. The deal also increases the number of ESPN network games to 30 from 28 and this year includes a Memorial Day doubleheader on ESPN2 that will be the WNBA’s version of the popular NBA Christmas Day game schedule. Those Memorial Day games will include the teams with the top four draft picks — so the league and network will be able to highlight Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins.

While the Memorial Day doubleheader currently is set for only this year, Richie said talks are under way for similar scheduling for next season.

The WNBA last season averaged 359,000 viewers a game during the regular season on ESPN, 180,000 viewers on ESPN2 and 804,000 viewers on ABC.

“[The ESPN deal] became a catalyst in thinking about our business and what we can do to take it to the next level,” Richie said. “Things like our draft being televised in prime time for the first time [this year] and kicking off our season with a doubleheader featuring our top draft picks. We are in discussion about a whole host of things. There is a shared desire to bring fans closer to the game. We are giving fans an opportunity to get to know our players on and off the court. That will be an important part of our future.”

Since selecting Griner with the top overall pick in the draft, Phoenix has seen combined full- and partial-season-ticket sales climb nearly 40 percent through May 14 compared with all of last season. The Mercury also has seen a 33 percent increase in group-ticket sales, and team officials say the club is on pace for a record revenue-generating season.

“Coming into the draft, we knew the impact would be big, but none of us knew how big,” said Mercury Chief Operating Officer Amber Cox. “A lot of people who have sampled us in the past are coming back, and interest outside our normal fan base has been phenomenal.”

In Chicago, the Sky last season averaged 5,573 fans per game at Allstate Arena, 10th in the 12-team league. Chicago this year expects to average 6,000 fans per game.

“We are tracking ahead of last year and we are on track in meeting our revenue goal,” said Sky President Adam Fox. “The growth has been in our groups and small-ticket-package sales.”

Officials at the Shock, who last year ranked last in the league in attendance with an average of 5,203 fans per game, said single-game ticket sales and sponsorship sales have increased but would not disclose specifics. The Shock this year for the first time will use dynamic ticket pricing as they look to leverage Diggins’ star power. A total of six of the 12 WNBA teams this year will use dynamic or variable pricing.

“There is a lot of curiosity and interest around her, and more people are talking about us,” said Shock President Steve Swetoha.

The Shock this season also becomes the sixth WNBA team to have a jersey sponsor, as the Osage Casino begins its first season as the team’s marquee sponsor. The other teams with jersey deals are Indiana (Finish Line), Los Angeles (Farmers Insurance), Phoenix (LifeLock), Seattle (Bing) and Washington (Inova Health System).

On the sponsorship front leaguewide, the WNBA this past offseason signed State Farm to a leaguewide agreement, and WNBA officials say the league is working to bring back former partner Procter & Gamble, which previously was a sponsor from 2003-05

“They have been a partner in the past, and right now we are back in discussions with them and hope they will be joining us this season,” Richie said.

Officials from P&G were unavailable for comment.

State Farm was the presenting sponsor of this spring’s WNBA draft and will be the halftime show presenting sponsor for all nationally televised games on ABC and ESPN2. It also will be the presenting sponsor for the monthly WNBA Community Assist Award.

State Farm, which has been a sponsor of the NBA since 2010, has had team deals in the WNBA before its signing as the league’s 15th marketing partner.

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