The WNBA is now in its 13th season, much longer than some said it would last, but is facing economic situations that have forced the league to make such accommodations as cutting rosters and office staff but also experimenting with marketing activation including jersey-front sponsors, which analysts say may be in the future for all major sports leagues.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor, NYSportsJournalism.com
(Posted July 29, 2009)
Like all sports organizations, the WNBA has had to make significant concessions to keep ahead of the current economic challenges. Rosters were reduced from 13 to 11, teams had to eliminate an assistant coaching spot and front offices were held to tighter budgets. But given the current economic climate, the WNBA may be faring better than most of its brethren. According to the league, attendance and sales of merchandise are up, and marketing partners remain committed to the organization.
Prior to the 2009 season, the Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks crossed into sacred sports territory by selling jersey-front sponsorships, to LifeLock and Farmers Insurance, respectively, with the full blessing of NBA commissioner David Stern (who analysts say is using the situation as a test platform for the NBA). Other deals are in the works, but won't become a reality until 2010. The Houston Comets, which had won four league titles since the WNBA's inception in 1997, folded prior to the 2009 season, joining Miami Sol, Portland Fire, Cleveland Rockers and Charlotte Sting as franchises no longer in operation (two franchises also have relocated: Orlando to Connecticut, Utah to San Antonio). But other cities want in. Earlier this month, WNBA president Donna Orender was in Tulsa meeting with investors and city officials regarding possible expansion. Orender said new companies also want to come in as league partners, joining a list that this season includes General Mills, Gatorade, HP, Southwest, EA Sports, IHOP, Pitney Bowes, Kia, adidas, Nike, Russell, Peak, Pitney Bowes, Sanofi Pasteur, Starwood, Spalding, T-Mobile and Toyota.
Orender, who has been WNBA president since 2005, was named as a possible replacement for Carolyn Bivens, who recently resigned as commissioner of the LPGA, based on her nearly two decades with the PGA Tour. Orender, who was All-America in basketball at Queens College, N.Y., and an all-star with the now-defuct Women's Pro Basketball League, spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about the present and future of the WNBA.
NYSportsJournalism.com: The WNBA has had to make some concessions because of the economy, but how would you rate the overall state of the league?
Donna Orender: I am very pleased. Our attendance is up, our gate receipts are up and we started the year with two new team sponsorships - LifeLock with the Phoenix Mercury and Farmers Insurance with the Los Angeles Sparks - which are progressing very well. New sponsors want to come in, so we are very happy about that. Listen, like everybody else, we are working hard. But we are the WNBA. We are the "working hard" WNBA.
NYSJ: You mentioned the jersey-front sponsorships in Phoenix and Los Angeles. What response have you gotten from that and do you see more coming?
Orender: We've gotten a lot of positive response from that. Everyone is looking for new ways to generate income and work with marketing partners. Fans know this and they are becoming less and less hesitant to accept it. Other leagues are using the [jersey] space (more than two-thirds of Major League Soccer clubs have jersey-front sponsors and several NFL teams are putting marketing logos on their practice jerseys). We got these deals done right at the wire for the start of the 2009 campaign, so I see more of this for 2010 in order to plan it properly and gain maximum value. Some of our teams are reporting that they are talking seriously with companies.
NYSJ: At the All-Star Game on July 25, players wore special All-Star jerseys, so LifeLock and Farmers Insurance didn't get the national exposure when the Mercury and Sparks players came into the game. If more companies become jersey-front sponsors, would you consider letting players wear their home team jerseys for upcoming All-Star Games?
Orender: We are thinking about that.
NYSJ: Lisa Leslie, one of the WNBA's all-time great players, was voted into the All-Star Game but couldn't play due to an injury. How did you and the players feel about that, especially considering that she has announced her intention to retire after this season?
Orender: It was disappointing not to have Lisa at the game to give her her fair due.
She had to stay home doing rehab to get her knee back to where it needs to be so she can complete her final season. So I'm sure she was more disappointed than any of us.
NYSJ: I'm following you on Twitter. Do you like tweeting?
Orender: Yes. I tweeted during the All-Star Game and when I was at the White House [July 28] when President Obama met the [2008 WNBA champion] Detroit Shock].
NYSJ: What do you envision for the second half of the season?
Orender: We always get a post-All-Star Game surge in attendance and merchandise sales. On the court, competition is really unbelievable so that will continue to generate interest leading to the playoffs and WNBA championship [in September]. And marketing partners will continue to activate and support us.
NYSJ: You recently met with people who want to have a WNBA team in Tulsa. How did that go?
Orender: Very well. The enthusiasm is there, fan interest is there, suites are already selling and there is genuine excitement about the WNBA. The investors there have worked very hard with the WNBA over the past years. They have strong support from the city and have some strong corporate support, so now they are bringing it to the fan base. If the deal elements we all discussed are met we'd be ready to make that move.
NYSJ: Carolyn Bivens recently resigned as commissioner of the LPGA under pressure from some of the players, and I saw your name on a list of potential replacements. What are your plans?
Orender: I'm here [with the WNBA]. I have golf in my blood. But I’m 100% focused on the WNBA. I've had no discussions with the LPGA.
NYSJ: Overall, it seems as if marketers and fans want to be part of what the WNBA is doing.
Orender: You know what? So do I.