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The WNBA’s Growth: The Difference Between Quantity and Quality

What is the actual value of web traffic to a professional sports league?

That’s what I was left wondering yesterday after I read the WNBA’s brief statement of growth that included an announcement of "record web traffic":
In June, WNBA.com set an all-time record for monthly site visits with nearly 3 million, a 35 percent increase over June 2007. WNBA.com also experienced a single-day video record of nearly 95,000 streams on June 23, one day after Candace Parker became the second player in WNBA history to dunk in a regular season game.
Does this mean anything to us other than reinforcing the positive tone of the press release?

To be fair, I don’t want to dismiss the rest of this press release -- increased television ratings, attendance, and web traffic is good for a league that is still trying to establish its fan base. If nothing else, it is better than the alternatives: decline or stagnation.

But I think the most important thing to know about web traffic is whether the league is able to turn those hits into paying customers. Consider this point from a web marketing blog:
Until you help your website close the sale, your site is just another in an endless supply of internet marketing websites and that’s exactly what your visitors are going to prove when they visit, read a little information and leave.
The WNBA is a business and hits only matter to the extent that they enable a new method of selling the product to consumers.

Of course people went to WNBA.com to find out about Candace Parker because she’s created a national buzz. Even bloggers who publicly disdain the WNBA have probably visited the site just because there aren’t many sites that have comprehensive information about the league. But what I’m curious about is the quality of the web traffic – how it influences the bottom line – rather than just the quantity.

OK, I know I’m nitpicking a little here but as someone interested in the health of the WNBA and how the web can be used as a tool to build its paying fan base, I find this news interesting. And hey, they brought it up first…

Marketing to...who?

The web has proven to be a potent tool for business when used properly so this news makes you wonder about how the WNBA is capitalizing on this web opportunity. But an essential part of effective web marketing is identifying a target demographic and for the WNBA, that might be easier said than done.

I always found Donna Orender’s comment about the decision to expand to Atlanta rather interesting:
"The WNBA will succeed because it’s reaching out to a different group of people who historically haven’t been served, or have been underserved, by the NBA."
But part of the challenge is that this group of people is extremely diverse, which means poses an additional challenge other sports don't face. Take another comment about the Dream's marketing process, as an example:
But the Dream is marketing toward a coalition of consumer groups, rich and poor, gay and straight, small business to big business, single to married, men and women.
That’s not to mention college educated, middle class fathers and young black women. So how do you balance all of that and craft a marketing plan that capitalizes on all of this newfound web traffic? And is it sustainable?

Is this just part of a Candace Parker novelty effect?

As it turns out, nearly every televised sport in 2008 has experienced a boost in ratings. The reason, according to Media Life Magazine, was that every sport had a great storyline that got people writing. For the WNBA, it was Candace Parker.

The WNBA’s first two games on ESPN2 were up 44 percent over last year, coinciding with Candace Parker’s entry into the league. Parker became the first girl ever to win the McDonald’s All-American slam-dunk contest in high school and later led Tennessee to back-to-back national titles.

So the problem is that when the initial excitement over Parker wears off – or the Sparks fail to reach the championship series – all of this growth could return to normal numbers if the WNBA can’t find a way to keep them around. And with such a broad target demographic for the league, it is a challenge that will take a clever marketing strategy to figure out.

My questions…

So just for the sake of clarity, I have three questions that might be helpful if we want to understand where the WNBA is headed:

1. Was there an increased rate of ticket sales among web visitors?
2. How many of those sellouts can be attributed to Parker alone? (The Parker effect can explain four consecutive sellouts in May)
3. What exactly were they expecting with a superstar rookie who could dunk entering the league in 2008?

Transition Points:

In case you’re still interested in WNBA e-marketing, check out the Women’s Hoops blog post about it too.