Creating a Storm for social justice
No franchise in any major North American sports league had crossed the line from social to political activism as blatantly as the Seattle Storm did for last year’s July 18 home game against Chicago.
“We took a turn,” says Ginny Gilder, who owns the WNBA’s Storm with two partners. “We made a conscious decision. We did something we had not done before.”
That night, the team donated $5 of every ticket sold to Planned Parenthood, the 101-year-old nonprofit darling of the political left that, at the time, was under siege from the political right. The Storm made simply buying a ticket to the game a political act.
The total contribution to the regional chapter that includes the Seattle area amounted to the relatively modest sum of $45,000. But the money was the least of it. The impact — both for Planned Parenthood and for the team — was far greater. “It was a big thing, what we did,” says Gilder. “But for me, it was just a logical next step.”
In retrospect, it’s clear that Gilder and her two partners, the former Microsoft executives Lisa Brummel and Dawn Trudeau, had been working toward leveraging the franchise for a political cause since 2008, when they joined with Anne Levinson, the former Seattle deputy mayor, to save it from moving to Oklahoma. They’d served as progressive voices in one of America’s bluest cities, publicly supporting liberal causes such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights. But it took years for them to gain confidence that, as owners, they could deploy the team to try to mobilize their fan base as they desired. Over time, they’d come to perceive the Storm’s place in the community as, in Gilder’s words, “a corner at the intersection of business, sports and social justice.”
Even in heavily Democratic Seattle, aligning with a liberal organization like Planned Parenthood carried risks. Sports teams historically have shied away from politics, and their reasoning is clear: They have little to gain and plenty to lose. Not only can you alienate a percentage of your fan base and sponsors, but you’ll also scare away potential ticket-buyers who look to sports as an escape, especially in this era of contentious discourse. “You’re telling your fan base what they should be supporting,” says Andy Dolich, a former Oakland A’s, Memphis Grizzlies and San Francisco 49ers executive. “You’re instituting your political views to people who may be neutral or not supportive.”
At the same time, the Storm felt that those risks were minimized because it was playing to its base. “This was a very important issue to the Storm’s community,” says Donna Orender, the former commissioner of the WNBA. “In a sense, you can think of it as the team publicly backing the community’s interests and beliefs.”
In the end, the decision to proceed was far less about potential business impact than the owners’ emotional reaction to the political zeitgeist. “We were, frankly, collectively outraged at what was going on,” says Brummel. “We felt that it was important to use what we had to make a difference. To change the trajectory.”
The Storm’s only nationally televised game of the season, Planned Parenthood night drew 8,358, about 2,000 more than a typical weeknight game. It included a pregame rally outside KeyArena, complete with protesters and a speech by Trudeau, and a raffle that raised additional contributions. The night’s events gained the Storm national publicity, from the New York Times to TBS’s Samantha Bee.
As expected, opinion was mixed. The team received hundreds of emails, voicemails and letters from those who disagreed with the idea of bringing politics into sports.
Suddenly, though, the Storm and its actions were in the news, garnering the attention of industry insiders and even fans across America. And when was the last time that happened for a WNBA team?
Heading into this season, which starts next month, the ownership group remains uncertain on how to capitalize on last year’s exposure, or even whether to try. They aren’t planning similar, high-profile events in 2018, like another fundraising night for Planned Parenthood or for anyone else. Instead, they’re discussing a patch or T-shirt to commemorate the #MeToo movement, and voter registration drives at home games, neither of which is likely to make national news.
The effort around Planned Parenthood didn’t seem to have a lasting effect on the Storm’s attendance, which made a modest improvement to a per-game average of 7,704 last season. But for better or worse, such activism is now part of the team’s identity, in Seattle and beyond. “The Seattle Storm stands for progressive support for issues that matter to girls and women,” Brummel states unequivocally. “I don’t know that we have a plan, but we do have a brand.
“The question,” she adds, “now becomes, what do we do with it?”
• • • •
There’s estrogen in the air at the Riveter, a co-working space and event venue on Seattle’s Capitol Hill that caters to female entrepreneurs and executives. It’s a Wednesday evening, and a group with the provocative name of F-Bomb is holding a cocktail-hour workshop. More than 200 women have paid to nibble appetizers, sip Nasty Woman wine (red, white and sparkling) and listen to featured speakers.
On this night, the speakers are the entire Storm ownership group, which is on stage ready to tell its story. Gilder is the businesswoman in a blazer and designer glasses. Trudeau cultivates the funky but fashionable look of a cashed-out techie living the good life. And Brummel, as always, looks like a gym teacher. “I wore shorts every day at Microsoft,” she says. “I told them, ‘This is what you’re getting.’”
The moderator asks the women in the crowd to cheer if, over the last 24 hours, they’ve “dropped at least one inappropriate f-bomb.” Pretty much everyone waves her arms and shouts, even the three women on stage. It’s hard to imagine the owners of any other big-league team in a similar setting.
These are the team’s constituents, assembled in the owners’ image: accomplished, striving, feisty, eager to engage. The owners estimate that about 60 percent of their fans are women, and 80 percent are politically liberal. They listen, rapt, as Gilder explains her decision to invest in a women’s basketball team. She’d been running an investment firm, as she still does, flying frequently to the East Coast. She wasn’t in Seattle enough to feel rooted, and everyone she worked with on the road was male. “I was feeling, not out of my league, but out of my element,” she says. “It was this ache, wanting to do something, wanting to be with a group of people that was connected to community.”
That zeal to connect, to create a gathering-place constructed around shared values, is coded into the Storm’s DNA. “These are women who took on this responsibility for this community with a definite point of view,” says Orender. “That’s been an underpinning since the Storm was born in Seattle. They’ve always had a different vibe out there, which is about being socially conscious. Just buying the team was an act of activism.”
When a group of investors fronted by Clay Bennett purchased the NBA’s SuperSonics for $350 million from Howard Schultz in 2006, the WNBA team was part of the deal. Without a state-of-the-art facility, it was clear the city had no chance to save the Sonics from moving to Oklahoma City.
But Levinson believed that ownership of the WNBA team, which remained a fit for aging Key Arena, might be negotiable. On her own, she began a dialogue with Bennett about what it might take for the team to stay. At the heart of the pitch wasn’t business, but a conviction that Seattle needed its only professional women’s team far more than it needed the NBA.
Trudeau had been a major investor in the Seattle Reign of the defunct ABL, which Levinson had brought to Seattle in 1996. Trudeau knew Gilder because they’d served on a board together at a local girls school. And Gilder and Brummel had overlapped at Yale, where Brummel was a four-year basketball star and Gilder a rower headed for an Olympic medal.
The owners were all in their 40s — Levinson, who did not invest capital and left the group in 2010, was slightly older — and financially secure. As a business deal, it didn’t make sense for any of them. And unlike Brummel and Trudeau, Gilder had little interest in the sport. Once the $10 million purchase from Bennett had been finalized, Gilder’s partner, Lynn Slaughter, gave her the book “Basketball For Dummies,” and it wasn’t as a joke. But she did sense the potential of using the franchise to help effect change.
Gilder comes from an activist family, but on the other side of the political spectrum. Richard Gilder is a retired money manager and renowned philanthropist whose firm, Gilder Gagnon Howe & Co., currently handles more than $6 billion for high-net-worth investors. He helped found the conservative Club For Growth, and for years has donated large sums to conservative candidates.
His daughter participated in the 1976 “strip-in,” a protest staged her freshman year at Yale in an effort to get women’s showers at the coed boathouse. Gilder viewed the strip-in as part of an ongoing struggle against a gender disparity that seemed outdated even in the 1970s. “We’d walk into the weight room to lift weights and the guys would say, ‘Those are our weights,’” she says now. “I mean, it was insanely stupid.”
Gilder also had an abortion at Yale, facilitated by Planned Parenthood. As the organization came under assault during the 2016 campaign, she contemplated ways to help. Early last year, she brought the idea of a Planned Parenthood Night to Trudeau and Brummel with some trepidation.
Early in their ownership, the three agreed to never make the polarizing step of using the franchise to endorse a politician. “You want everyone to feel comfortable when they come into the arena,” Trudeau explains. “You don’t care who they are or how they think or how they voted. They need to be welcomed.”
But they viewed Planned Parenthood as a cause, not a candidate. They believed that Planned Parenthood stood for the same issues of women’s empowerment and opportunity that had helped found the WNBA a quarter-century before. Gilder found a sympathetic ear in Trudeau, who had gone to Planned Parenthood for contraception before she’d even started dating. And if the economics of the gesture were risky, well, the three of them hadn’t bought the team in order to play it safe.
Let’s try something different, Brummel agreed. It wasn’t like they were selling out KeyArena as it is. This probably wouldn’t hurt their business. It might even help.
Most important, they all felt it was the right thing to do.
• • • •
As the gathering at F-Bomb winds down, Brummel takes the microphone and challenges anyone in the audience who hasn’t ever come to a Storm game to explain their reasons. In another setting, such an in-your-face appeal would seem jarring. But a philosophical alignment between the owners and the entrepreneurs in front of them has already been established; a mere mention of the Planned Parenthood fundraiser earlier had elicited sustained applause.
Brummel is asking them to treat the WNBA team the same way as its owners treat it: as a small business, to be sure, but also a community organization dedicated to the betterment of local lives. One after another, the women raise their hands and respond.
Almost unanimously, they say the same thing. It hadn’t occurred to them how important it was to not just feel warmth toward the Storm but to actually show up at the games. They hadn’t realized that buying a ticket wouldn’t be just a decision on how to use their free time, but a crucial gesture of support. One woman, who hasn’t ever seen the team play, ends her monologue with an oath. “As God is my witness,” she says, “I’m buying a season ticket tonight.”
Where can that kind of emotional connection with a market take a franchise? Brummel would like to find out. One chilly, drizzly morning later that week, she sips coffee at a café inside KEXP, the University of Washington’s public radio station. The station is celebrating International Clash Day, so the guitar riffs of Joe Strummer fill the room. It makes foot-tapping easy but conversation hard.
But don’t be fooled by another unconventional setting, or the fact that, despite the cold, Brummel is again wearing shorts. When it comes to running a company, this UCLA business school grad is a by-the-book pragmatist.
She knows that the affiliation with Planned Parenthood has likely closed the door to some potential sponsors, who have national shareholders to consider. And even existing sponsors have the right to get queasy when they learn that the franchise they’re affiliated with is considering a controversial stand. “In retail, we typically stay out of any kind of political activism because we don’t want to alienate potential customers,” says Jen Moran, the executive manager of Carter Subaru Shoreline, a longtime Storm sponsor.
Once the decision to publicly support Planned Parenthood was made, Moran was one of the first calls made by GM and CEO Alisha Valavanis, right after Swedish Hospital, the Storm’s uniform sponsor. Valavanis felt the team’s plans would be at least tolerated by sponsors. Still, she was surprised at what she heard. “It was pretty special,” she says, “to get on the phone with Swedish and not have a drawn-out conversation, but instead to get a very quick ‘We support you.’”
To some sponsors, including Moran, the action actually may have increased the value of the partnership. She sells Subarus in progressive Seattle, she points out, not Ford trucks in conservative Indiana. Most of her customers are likely to be politically aligned. “And I guess I just can’t worry about losing a few people over the Storm’s owners standing up for what they believe in,” she says. “We’re just proud to be associated with such a passionate group of people that care so much about women and how they thrive in this community.”
The truth is, we’re a badass franchise. We say what we think. We do what we want. We’re unashamed in promoting the values of our organization, which our fans share.
At some level, too, that feeling appears to be shared by the WNBA. When Lisa Borders, the commissioner (and a former president of the Atlanta City Council), is asked about the Storm’s support of Planned Parenthood, she doesn’t hesitate. “It doesn’t scare me when our owners say that they want to be civically engaged,” she says. “As a former public official, it actually lights my fire.”
Yet it’s telling that Borders won’t admit to a difference between the Storm’s level of activism and the civic-mindedness of “all of our franchises.” When pressed, she talks about how several New York Liberty players donate their salaries to their foundations, and she touts community work being done by the Chicago Sky. “Seattle’s brand may be elevated because their activities got more airtime,” is the furthest she’ll go.
No WNBA team, Borders knows, has ever developed a nationwide following, or gained any significant visibility outside its market. The Houston Comets won the first four WNBA championships, but they were defunct eight years later. At least half of the league’s franchises lose money, The New York Times reported in 2016.
Against that backdrop, taking risks with your franchise starts to seem logical. “From an asset value, from a revenue standpoint, there isn’t a whole lot of upside to a WNBA franchise,” says David Carter, a former consultant for sports teams, organizations and venues who now serves as executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute. “So why not use the franchise in the way you want to?”
As Strummer sings about police and thieves taking to the streets, Brummel muses about what the Storm’s activism could mean for its future. “The only way we’re ever going to expand the exposure for this business, the only way we’re ever going to draw new fans, is to try new things,” she says. “Things that other teams in other leagues may not be able to do because they’re constrained, they’re too big, or because of their owners or their sponsors. We have to do things like this to test the boundaries of where this business can go. Otherwise, how will we ever know?”
• • • •
Inside the organization, there is a strong sense that the genie is out of the bottle. The willingness to take stands on controversial issues has spread to the Storm players, Breanna Stewart reports. “We want to do this stuff,” says Stewart, who revealed herself as a #MeToo victim last year. “We think it’s important. People used to say, you know, ‘stick to sports.’ But why would we stick to sports? When I got to Seattle, I realized that we want to be great and win a championship, but there’s other things in life that are just as important.”
That gratifies Gilder, whose idea prompted the support of Planned Parenthood. Sitting in the living room of her house on a hill above the city, scratching the head of her poodle while gazing out at Lake Union through a wall of windows, she could be any wealthy owner in any league. Then she starts to talk, and her voice sounds like nobody else’s in sports. “The truth is,” she says, “we’re a badass franchise. We say what we think. We do what we want. We’re unashamed in promoting the values of our organization, which our fans share.”
Though its political activism has only started to manifest itself, Gilder sees the Storm as a force. If the right issue emerges, Gilder makes clear, the Storm’s owners seem to be ready to do it again.
“We’re not willing to be quiet when we decide we want to speak,” she says. “If we have to, we will take on the league.”
Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer in Colorado.