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Volume 23 No. 28
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WNBA has the map, and they’re driving the bus

Years of social activism has culminated in ‘pivotal moment for our league’ as athletes and teams use spotlight for ongoing societal issues

Come for the activism. Stay for the passion and authenticity.

Maybe that should be the WNBA’s next slogan. In the time of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, no league has embraced social justice activism more naturally or more aggressively than the WNBA. The benefit? The 2020 season has become league-defining and culture-confirming. The “wubble” has amplified the players’ voices and increased their impact on social justice issues. They’ve found a way to tell their stories and take control of the league’s narrative at the same time.

“I certainly feel as though this is a pivotal moment for our league,” said L.A. Sparks star and WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike in an interview for Sports Business Journal’s “The Road Ahead” series. “We’re being introduced to a lot of people who may not have been following us before not just because of basketball, but more so because of how we choose to use our platform as WNBA players. I’ve been saying this since we got here [to the bubble in Florida]: Our movement has found its moment.”

The players made national headlines for dedicating this season to Breonna Taylor and, earlier this month, for wearing “Vote Warnock” T-shirts to games. The shirts backed Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is challenging Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler for her seat in the U.S. Senate. They were an unexpected, smart, badass swipe at Loeffler and her objections to the league’s support of Black Lives Matter, an iconic protest because of the message’s simplicity and subtle savagery. And because of the authenticity of the source.

L.A. Sparks player and WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike sees the bubble season as a way to inspire further innovation for the league.
Photo: getty images

The lives of female athletes are lives of advocacy and activism. Always. By necessity. To create opportunities in sports, women must disrupt, push against tradition, challenge conventional thinking, be difficult in the best possible way. They’ve effectively been preparing for this moment their entire lives. It’s also why WNBA players have been leaders in social activism for years.

In 2016, the Minnesota Lynx wore shirts with the words “Change Starts with US — Justice and Accountability” on the front and the names Philando Castile and Alton Sterling on the back, along with “Black Lives Matter.” That happened nearly two months before Colin Kaepernick kneeled for the first time. In 2018, there was the league’s “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” campaign. It gave fans an opportunity to donate $5 to different charities that support women, including Planned Parenthood. 

But this summer, something feels different about the interest in the WNBA and its players. Credit the way the “wubble” focuses attention and the popularity of the league’s signature orange hoodie selling out, and the big ratings on ESPN — an eight-year high for the season opener and, above all, the players’ unified social justice campaign. 

When asked how she hoped this historic, unorthodox season shapes the league, Ogwumike said, “Whether you’re coming to watch the WNBA because you’re loving a certain team, a player or basketball in general, or loving hearing what we’re having to say about the things that are happening in our world, I hope this brings more partnerships in a way that we may not have been able to do before. I hope this continues the pioneership that we developed in the union. And I hope this brings innovation for seasons to come. I feel … this bubble season shouldn’t just be a one-time emergency plan. I feel we need to take pieces of what we’ve learned from this bubble season to incorporate into what we see for the future of the WNBA, to continue to push it, enhance it and to support it.” 

The players’ activism is real, not staged, not performative, not PR-motivated. That’s what makes it an incredibly effective way to communicate what the league is about. Not only has it captured people’s attention and tapped into their emotions, it’s shown how the WNBA is different from the NBA and, in some ways, better because of that difference. 

How can the WNBA sustain the interest created by its players’ activism and stay authentic? 

It starts with a clear sense of the league’s core beliefs, its conviction, its why. Why does it exist beyond basketball? “As a league, it’s really about challenging norms and what we feel is legitimate,” said Marcus Collins, an award-winning marketer who’s worked with the Pistons, Clippers, Nets and Beyoncé.   

That rings true across the women’s sports landscape. By their very existence, women’s sports challenge tradition and change what’s considered “legitimate.” And that role doesn’t take away from the importance of what happens on the court in the WNBA. It adds to the league’s importance as a cultural institution.

Down the road, if the WNBA used “challenging norms” to promote the league, what would it look like? “The WNBA can talk broadly about what we feel is acceptable, what we feel is legitimate, then hard cut to the sport and say, ‘Here’s another thing we’ve gotten wrong. Come and see. Have another look,’” said Collins, who’s also a lecturer in marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “We go through this world thinking things are one way, not just because they are, but because we are. This is an opportunity to change that in a fundamental way.”

That’s the real power of the moment where the WNBA has found itself.

Shira Springer writes about the intersection of sports and culture and teaches journalism at Boston University, including a new course:  “Sports, Gender & Justice.”

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com