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WNBA 2.0: Can Web 2.0 Tools Help the WNBA Build Its Fanbase?

With all the buzz that Candace Parker’s Sunday night dunk generated, it’s even more interesting to consider it’s impact on the WNBA in the YouTube generation.

Within 24 hours of Candace Parker’s dunk on a Sunday night, over 50,000 people had seen it on YouTube…not including the videos posted on blogs, news sites, and of course

Of course when an athlete as popular as Candace Parker dunks it should come as no surprise that she would generate a substantial amount of YouTube traffic or go "viral".

However, this is also an excellent example of the vast marketing potential of the web – even for a professional sports league. The WNBA already made a nice move by making some games available online via webcast (though curiously, Parker’s game Sunday night was not available). But how can it expand its fan base with the web?

The key here is that it’s not just WNBA fans seeing these YouTube clips – it’s that entire 18-35 year old market that uses YouTube. That will include fans, haters, and the indifferent. People can access the clips through their computers or on cell phones. And most importantly, it can reach potential fans – fans who might not have a strong opinion about the league yet, but might want to watch if there’s a buzz about it.

Just to finish this train of thought -- once we start talking about YouTube and cell phones, we also have to talk about social networking sites (Facebook, My Space), blogs, and all the other exciting developments of "Web 2.0". All these things allow people to exchange information, ideas, and images with numerous gadgets that fit in their pockets.

For a league that needs to attract fans, it would seem that there may still be untapped marketing potential in the web. With the recent success of Barack Obama’s "web driven" presidential campaign, you have to wonder what a growing league like the WNBA can learn from his model.

So I think the WNBA has to ask itself the following:

Can a professional sports league build its fan base by capitalizing on the spirit of the web? And how can it channel the energy that these "YouTube moments" generate into sustained interest in the league?

I don’t have any magic formula to make it work, but I think there’s a lot to be learned from existing web community building efforts. And since Obama is a WNBA fan afterall, why not start with his model?

Community building with the web is more than having a website…

Certainly having content (the game itself), an established web presence, and giving visitors something of value (webcasts, player blogs) are essential to building the online fan base as Obama did. But the real key to Obama’s campaign was interactivity – not just about getting people to donate money, but building productive relationships.

Noam Cohen of the New York Times wrote in a June 8 article titled, The Wiki-Way to the Nomination:

…Mr. Obama’s notion of persistent improvement, both of himself and of his country, reflects something newer — the collaborative, decentralized principles behind Net projects like Wikipedia and the "free and open-source software" movement. The qualities he cited to Time to describe his campaign — "openness and transparency and participation" — were ones he said "merged perfectly" with the Internet. And they may well be the qualities that make him the first real "wiki-candidate."
"On the McCain and Clinton Web sites, there is a transactional screen," Mr. Benkler said. "It is just about the money. Donate, then we can build the relationship. In Obama’s it’s inverted: build the relationship and then donate."
It reflects the utopian, community-building vision central to the Internet.
So obviously, it seems absurd to imagine a sports league with total openness, transparency, and participation – imagine the casual fan having input on decisions like trades, who should start at point guard, or draft decisions? There may be wisdom in crowds, but at some point it could create as many problems as it solves, just as it has in politics.

But then again, would anybody have believed a year ago that a presidential campaign based upon principles of web interactivity (not to mention "progress" and "hope") would be successful? I know I didn’t think so.

Although Obama’s campaign is perhaps the most recent example of the potential of the web for organizing people, it isn’t really unprecedented – in traditional politics, there was the use of YouTube for this year’s debates, Howard Dean in 2004, and I believe Diane Feinstein was among the first to use a website to raise money in the mid 90's. In grassroots organizing, the most prominent example is the WTO protests, but more recently, the Save Our Sonics/Storm project in the NBA is a smaller scale example (though probably unsuccessful).

Web based fan building

Perhaps the WNBA may be on the way there. The WNBA's webcasts at least represent an understanding of the vast broadcast potential of the web. One report projects the web to replace television – cable and broadcast -- as the second biggest medium for advertising in the next 5 years.
IDC concludes that "what will help drive this trend is that consumers are stating to realize that, as opposed to TV, Internet video lets them watch what they want, when they want, and increasingly, where they want."
That means increased revenues for those who can take advantage. And already the big networks are lining up to take advantage of this trend. But is there more? How can the WNBA build the relationships that will get people to come out to games in the way Obama got people to come out to vote?

Other more obscure sports, including MMA, are using the web to drum up interest. But after 12 years of existence, it’s safe to say the WNBA is beyond that point.

The Atlanta Dream drummed up support for their expansion team and coveted season ticket sales with grassroots organizing techniques, though they are going through the expected expansion team growing pains right now (read: losing a lot).

So if we scaled these principles up to the league level and return to the potential of YouTube in particular, an additional benefit to the WNBA could be learning more about their demographics. It could be an opportunity to provide people with the type of targeted WNBA content that might persuade them to take in a live game, buy merchandise, or gain exposure to the game by watching a webcast.

That approach would make events like Parker’s dunk (and I suspect Sylvia Fowles’ dunks as well whenever they come) a goldmine of opportunity to identify new fans. And it wouldn’t take much except a conscious effort to make the content available and reap the benefits for themselves.

OK, a quick timeout -- even as I write this, I cringe as I recognize that a corporate takeover of content seems anti-thetical to the decentralized principles of the web. And mining YouTube clips for potential fans seems like yet another example of "Big Brother" that the world does not need. But as Cohen describes near the end of the New York Times article, even Obama’s seemingly "grassroots" organization was actually quite "top-down".
"The Obama campaign is still very much a top-bottom operation," Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, of the influential DailyKos Web site, wrote in an e-mail message. "They’ve made it very easy for people to hop on the bandwagon, but those in the back of that wagon still get no say in where the campaign is going."
So the key here is not to hand over control of the WNBA to the fans. But why not make it even easier for people to at least access the content, watch more than highlight reels and feel as though they have some sort of relationship with the WNBA? That doesn’t necessarily mean taking over a team.

Let the images that speak loudest "go viral"

The idea of images and short clips defining a sport is not at all new. Think about images of Bill Buckner missing a routine grounder in Game 6 of the World Series, Michael Jordan scoring over (ahem, fouling) Bryon Russell to win the NBA championship, and Al Michaels screaming "Do you believe in miracles?...YES!" Those are some of the most enduring images of our time. The web just allows those images to get to more people much faster.

On a night without games (like last night) why not make footage from a recent game available – like ESPN does "instant classics"? Maybe let the "crowds" vote up a game to replay, e.g. Deanna Nolan’s 44 point game or games featuring major stars. Let people design and submit ideas for new television commercials… or better yet, bypass television ads (save that money) and make some straight to YouTube ads that are targeted to specific demographics.

Better yet, put more recent player footage on the web for people to use for mixes, sending to friends, or using on blogs. And if they really want to be popular... slap a Facebook group link on like the Atlanta Dream have done on their blog.

The league is already doing some of this...and some of the more established bloggers certainly play a role in building the league's fan base. But even in trying to find materials for blog posts, it seems that there is more that could be done. It was very difficult to find recent footage of Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen, both of whom are star players. In contrast, I can find footage of 19-year old NBA draft prospects that play in second division basketball leagues in Spain.

And yes, I recognize that a big issue with all of this is copyright restrictions, which is a legal issue that extends beyond the WNBA or sports in general. But if CNN can agree to make footage of the presidential debates available via YouTube and if ABC is going to make prime-time shows like "Lost", "Desperate Housewives", and "Ugly Betty" available via the web, why can’t the WNBA make more game footage available? And more interactive? What am I missing?

Candace Parker is going to be a great player. So if people really believe that she can save the league, then why not find ways to help people build the relationships with the league with the images that make them go "wow"?

Transition Points:

  • There is a well done YouTube video that nicely captures the what the Web 2.0 movement is all about. It was created by Prof. Michael Wesch at Kansas State. Worth a look if you have five minutes.

  • Of course not all web attention is positive, which is the comparative downside of the Web 2.0 revolution: it's a forum for anybody to express any opinion. But I suppose you have to take that with a grain of salt...

  • ...but then again, you have clips like Shaquille O'Neal publicly taunting Kobe Bryant which might add intrigue to the league, but isn't exactly "family friendly"...

  • ...and perhaps that's why sports leagues -- like colleges -- don't want it getting out of control??

  • I find the story of the Dream's expansion process to be a pretty interesting example of community organizing techniques in professional sports. Their blog gives some insight into things they've done...

  • ...and the Gaytlsports blog has a pretty thorough documenting of the Atlanta Dreams long process of building from the ground up with an unorthodox fan base. Nice resource if you’re interested.