New president aims to widen WNBA’s fan base
WNBA President Laurel Richie has no qualms explaining why she had never attended a WNBA game before joining the league last month. In fact, she uses her own lack of fan engagement to define the biggest issue facing the WNBA, which tips off its 15th season on Friday night.
The Chicago Sky ranked last in average attendance among WNBA teams last year.
It’s a question that Richie is addressing as she begins her tenure as the third WNBA president. “I do believe that there are a lot of people like me, and our job now is to find them,” Richie said.
As Richie begins her introduction to the WNBA — which started with her first team visit, to San Antonio, in mid-May and will send her to each franchise this spring and summer — she inherits a league that has gained some business momentum.
The WNBA has an 80 percent season-ticket renewal rate, the highest in league history, coming after the 2010 season brought a 2.5 percent decline in average attendance, to 7,834. Excluding the Shock, which moved from Detroit to Tulsa in the 2009 offseason, eight of 11 teams saw attendance rise in 2010.
WNBA teams also were bolstered this offseason by an undisclosed share in revenue from the league television rights with ESPN and from national sponsorship revenue.
Individually, WNBA teams now average 40 local sponsorship deals, up slightly from last year. The Washington Mystics recently signed Inova Health System as their jersey sponsor, giving the league its fifth team with a seven-figure marquee jersey sponsorship deal. Other marquee deals are expected to follow.
New league marketing deals include American Express and InterContinental Hotels Group. The league signed promotional deals with CieAura, Deuce Brands and Parenting Magazine.
“The operating performance at the local level has gotten better,” said Chris Granger, who as executive vice president of the NBA’s team marketing and business operations division ran the WNBA from last December, when Donna Orender announced her resignation, until earlier this month, when Richie came on board. “We clearly have a ways to go in some situations. But every metric is going in the right direction.”
Yet there is little debate about the league’s pressing need to drive increased fan awareness. Although the WNBA has set a record season-ticket renewal rate this year, it comes off a season-ticket base that averages 2,000 full-season tickets a team.
Big-market teams are among those struggling. The Chicago Sky last season ranked last in average attendance, and the Atlanta Dream, which reached the WNBA Finals last season, ranked 10th out of 12 teams.
“The great challenge [for the Sky franchise] is still the commitment people are willing to make and the barrier to trial,” said Adam Fox, president and CEO of the Chicago Sky.
Redefining the WNBA’s brand is another one of Richie’s chief tasks. She’ll draw on her vast marketing experience, which includes two decades at Oligvy & Mather and, most recently, an assignment as chief marketing officer of the Girls Scouts USA.
Since she joined the WNBA on May 16, her primary mission has been to understand the current WNBA fan demographic.
“The first thing I want to do is get a tight, crisp view of our prime prospects,” she said. “We need to prioritize our audiences, and one of the things I am mindful of is not to reach all people on all channels immediately. It needs to be a disciplined and rigorous approach so we can measure as we go.”
Though the league’s fan base varies by market, Richie said the league’s core groups are family, women over the age of 35, and followers of college basketball. She said the league’s core television audience is mainly African-American and it skews male.
This season, ESPN2 will air 12 games along with postseason coverage; ABC will broadcast one regular-season game and the WNBA All-Star Game. The WNBA last year averaged a 0.2 cable rating and 257,705 viewers over 18 games on ESPN2, compared with a 0.2 rating and 269,180 viewers for 12 regular-season games in 2009.
Richie likens the challenges of the WNBA to that of her stint at the Girl Scouts, where there was brand awareness but not enough engagement.
“People understand that from a sports standpoint, [the WNBA] is a great game, but how do we translate that into a good feeling of going to a game, of becoming a season-ticket holder or a sponsor,” she said.
Richie said she is already sifting through internal research and likely will commission additional, outside market-data studies.
Complementing Richie’s data-driven strategy is a blunt management style.
“I am very direct and very honest and I like to be challenged,” she said. “I am very confident making decisions, but until that moment, I consider it my team’s job to push me and share their opinions.”
Richie, who has no experience in professional sports management, said she has reached out to both Orender and founding WNBA President Val Ackerman to better understand the business.
“The ongoing challenges are linked to [the WNBA’s] visibility,” said Ackerman, who served as president from 1997 through 2005. “It’s a much better product than when we started. It is now a matter of figuring out its place in a cluttered landscape.”
It is also a matter of getting teams profitable, something that most WNBA teams have failed to do since the league’s inception.
“It’s about top-line revenue,” said Karen Bryant, president and CEO of the 2010 WNBA champion Seattle Storm. “For us, revenue growth is the goal. How do we take all that we have learned in 14 years and drive sales? We are hoping that [Richie’s] experience can help us do that in short order.”