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Building the Fanbase: Nancy Lieberman on the WNBA's Growth

There was a great post on the new blog "They're Playing Basketball" the other day about the "State of the Game" which highlighted a study done by the NCAA that outlined the developmental stages of fanhood.

I found the stages relevant to my ongoing interest in the WNBA's marketing. Here's a summary according to Sue F (thanks for obtaining and posting the research, Sue):
The study outlines the process of becoming a sports fan, which they call the five phases of a "sports love affair." The first is introduction, which the majority of fans received in playing the game themselves either now, or in the past. The next phase is attraction, followed by connection. After that comes commitment (sic), and the final phase occurs when the team becomes part of the fan's identity.

The WNBA has this down pat. They have plenty of fan events when a team is new, to establish that connection for fans to the players, and gain the commitment and even the identity part. Then the fan events slowly disappear. Colleges should be so tactical with their promotions.
Not surprisingly, the main challenge for women's basketball, according to the study, is exposure, something that anybody with even a passing interest in women's basketball is probably acutely aware of.

However, the first thing that occurred to me is how this study might translate to an analysis of WNBA fanhood. The primary difference between professional and college basketball would seem to be that at least a small fraction of NCAA fans come from alumni or family members of alumni (if you're at all familiar with the University of Michigan alumni network -- I believe the largest in the nation -- you'll know it's probably more than a small fraction). So the question to me is how well can the WNBA parlay that into greater professional attention?

Does NCAA fanhood translate to the WNBA?

In part two of Steven Litel's interview with Nancy Lieberman, Lieberman addresses the very issue of parlaying a connection to the women's college game to the pro game:
I think a lot of people saw these kids play in college for four years, so they have their fanbase. You’d like to think that if someone was a fan of Charde Houston at UConn or Parker at Tennessee of Fowles at LSU, then those fans would take some sort of an active interest in watching them play in the WNBA.

We’re growing our sport every day. Our ratings are up on ABC, our ratings are up on ESPN and our attendance is up. In year twelve, the WNBA is doing all the things it should do to grow as a league.
On the surface, this seems like an excellent point about leveraging people's connections to college stars, but I wonder if it reflects the findings of the NCAA study well.

Sue F. reports that the most important determinant of overall fanhood -- big fan or not(?) -- is character whereas being a "big fan" of NCAA basketball is highly correlated with a connection to a team (or so it appears from her write-up). What the WNBA needs is a way to grab the big fans because it would seem more likely that they would become season ticket holders or watch the games more often and boost ratings.

Implications for WNBA marketing

So given that the WNBA is still in its early stages, does it make more sense to market the Sparks with Candace Parker as an individual or heavily market them as "Tennessee West", as Sue F. writes about in another post? Or is the answer to market to the broader spectrum of WNBA fans and promote Parker's character (which I think is already done)?

The problem seems to be that the promotion of character is exactly what many people see as a gender bias -- people say that it ends up perpetuating the old gender roles of women as emotional beings who rely on others to succeed whereas men are portrayed as courageous warriors who are heroes. It seems that there's a tough balance to strike there between advancing the ratings of the women's game and holding up the players as a different sort of role model for young girls.

I'd be interested to see a similar study done about WNBA fanhood and see how they match up in order to better evaluate Lieberman's assumption about the translation of NCAA to WNBA fanhood.

Transition Points:

At some point in my own WNBA fanhood, I'm sure I'll commit to a team
, but for now, I'm still enjoying watching so many players that it's hard to narrow down to one team I like. Right now I have two teams that I like, both of which I've mentioned previously -- the New York Liberty and the Chicago Sky. I like the Liberty because of their gritty style of play, but I like the Sky because they are just oozing with potential...plus Armintie Price might just be the funniest player in the WNBA. Hard not to root for her. I'll have to keep watching to make up my mind, but with Fowles coming back to the Sky, it might be hard not to adopt them....


There was a great chapter in a book entitled Media Sport
about the gendered descriptions of basketball players that is relevant to the discussion of how female athletes are more likely to be described in terms of their character. I'll have to dig that up and see how it compares...