More gradual steps or a big leap for the WNBA?

Can the outgoing trifecta of women’s college basketball’s most visible stars attract a bigger spotlight for the WNBA?

That’s what both the league and ESPN are banking on as they held a tightly-staged press conference Thursday to announce an extension of their long-standing television partnership.

The six-year deal, which Sports Business Journal reported ahead of time is worth an estimated $12 million a season, was unveiled along with the WNBA’s new branding campaign and logo.

Picture 1At times during Thursday’s media event, it was hard to tell whether it was about ESPN’s self-proclaimed commitment to women’s sports more than the WNBA. But it is quite clear that Brittney Griner of Baylor, Skylar Diggins of Notre Dame and Elena Delle Donne of Delaware, who figure to be top three players taken in the April 15 draft, have generated the kind of national press that the WNBA has dreamed about.

For as loaded as the pro league has been since its inception with former college All-Americans and Olympians, their visibility drops during a time of year when most fans (this one included) don’t have much basketball in mind.

The question at the top is one that has been posed many times before. Here’s another one: Remember Diana Taurasi? UConn’s iconic guard and three-time national champion has had a stellar WNBA career leading Phoenix to two titles, as well as three Olympic gold medals and European crowns in Russia.

But as she completes her first decade after college, Taurasi’s feats have largely flown under the larger national sports radar. When Griner joins Taurasi in Phoenix — the Mercury won the draft lottery — will that truly generate a closer look at a WNBA that has been around for 16 years? Griner’s potential dominance in the pros could be as unprecedented as her spectacular impact on the college game.

Diggins has become something of a national sports celebrity thanks to her social media acumen, counting the rapper Lil Wayne (reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated) among her many admirers. Whether she goes to Chicago with the No. 2 pick or Tulsa at No. 3, she’s easily the personality player of this trio. But will that interest wane as she takes her game to the dead of summer, and then overseas, where the real money is earned by female pros?

Delle Donne, the one-time UConn signee, is as pure a shooter and scorer as the women’s game has had in years, and there’s no doubt she can gun it in the pros. She’ll have to learn to play some stellar defense in the W and get used to its rather rugged physicality.

The hope is that they’ll do for the WNBA what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s arrival did for the NBA — broaden its appeal far beyond the purists.

The WNBA is coming off its lowest average attendance for a season since it began in 1997, and Griner is a once-in-a-lifetime-player whose presence has been compared to that of Wilt Chamberlain.

While reading through some Tweets of WNBA players during the press conference, it’s easy to understand why seasoned pros, most of whom are now playing in Europe, Asia and Australia for their real living, might chafe at the hype.

Most revealing were the comments of Erlana Larkins, a former college standout at North Carolina who plays for the WNBA champion Indiana Fever and is currently winding down her Turkish domestic league season. In response to another Tweet she said:

league has superstars that have proven themselves how can u be a superstar & have yet 2 play in a pro game yet

And this:

Griner is huge & everything but unless she gets get weight up she won’t be as prosperous as everyone thinks

While I groused (only once!) on Twitter about ESPN’s relentless promotions of “3 to See” during the NCAA Tournament, from a business and promotional point of view it makes sense.

At the same time, the Phoenix marketing staff isgiving away tickets to men in an attempt to appeal to a segment of the sports-watching public that supposedly doesn’t think much of female athletes.

Not only that, but the Mercury has set up Twitter hashtags #ManUp and #CureTheCooties as part of this campaign.

Yes: “Cure the Cooties.”

Welcome to the fourth grade, fellas.

A franchise with Brittney Griner coming on board is resorting to a gimmick like this?

While they indulge in the hard sell of “enlightening” men about the women’s game, the Mercury and the WNBA still aren’t addressing why more women don’t watch and become fans. They are dealing in a bottom-line reality that NBA commissioner David Stern has laid out for the women’s league to achieve beyond his departure: To become more financially self-sustaining.

Star power is what got the NBA where it is, so expect a further deluge of ESPN’s “3 to See” branding at the next level. Name recognition beyond what appeals to hard-core fans explains the prominence of Bill Laimbeer during Thursday’s presser. He’s back in the league after guiding the former Detroit Shock to multiple WNBA crowns, and now is GM and head coach of a New York Liberty franchise that has been floundering for too many years.

As Shelley DuBois noted at Fortune.com, three of the WNBA’s 12 teams have turned a modest profit, as well as the league overall. The money per team as part of the new ESPN contract is $1 million a season and that’s nothing to dismiss: “In a way, the cold business of it is heartening: This deal wouldn’t have taken place if it wouldn’t work financially.”

Bingo. The business of women’s sports, especially professional team sports, will always be a sliver of what their male counterparts enjoy, but this is a notable development. Increased ticket sales — not patronizing giveaways — and corporate sponsorships remain just as important as branding campaigns and buzzwords.

As for the new logo, I’ll admit it doesn’t do much for me. Instead of a female dribbling, she is now shooting a layup, which is supposed to signify another phase in the development of women’s pro basketball.

But the less gimmicky the WNBA becomes, the better. If we’re going to have cheesy promos, I’m totally old-school, a hopeless nostalgiac for the funky funky 70s that ESPN reprised in the early years of the league. What’s easy to forget now is how effective these ads were, and how much of a sense of fun they evoked. There’s nothing wrong with keeping that going.

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One Comment

  1. Bern
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Well Said. Your recent comment on Fagan’s piece on Griner on ESPNW was also spot on. Of course in spite of all of the positive comments to yours it only lasted about two days before the standard politically correct ESPNW comment purge. The fact that Fagan is sourcing Lavoi for “expertise” speaks volumes.

    Griner is a force but as far as the W goes it won’t make a difference. She isn’t marketable to any new potential fan bases. Unfortunately it may end up being somewhat negative to the image of the W or at a minimum reinforce the already unfortunate image of the league with the general public. That said I think Diggins and EDD are potentially marketable to conquest customers.

    Your point on female fans is true. My girlfriend grew up in Los Angles and is a hard core USC / UCLA / Laker fan. I’ve been watching women’s basketball for the past few years and she not only refuses to watch it, she totally doesn’t get why anyone else would either.

    I’ve found WCBB somewhat compelling and supported by the same regional and school spirit thing that helps make mens CBB popular. That goes away in the W. Everyone that knows anything about basketball knows that the only proven markets for the W are Lesbians and Dads/Daughters. The Mercury trying to shame men into attending their games speaks volumes as to their feelings about not being able to move regular women into fan status. It isn’t happening.