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How Grassroots "Fan Journalism" Could Help the WNBA

How is it that the Washington Mystics are having one of their best years from a business perspective during one of their worst seasons on the court since 2003…and in the middle of an economic downturn no less?

One explanation could be increased exposure.

However, the Mystics didn’t use a national media blitz to boost their revenue – instead they used a combination of local partnerships, longer season-ticket advertising, flexible ticket plans, and doubling their number of sales representatives. All "minor" efforts that ended up reaching an impressive accomplishment for a losing team in a growing league.

So what can we learn about sports business from this example? The Mystics’ success represents the value of increasing exposure at the grassroots level by making connections with fans and giving them what they want.

That lesson is being applied to the launch strategy of the upcoming Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPS), which has taken lessons from the WNBA and the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer League.

WPS plans to start small and grow through grass roots. Teams will be individually owned and operated. League officials estimate teams could break even with 5,000-average attendance.

"It's about local investors in local clubs," Mallett said. "If you can win support on the local level, then you can win nationally."

The grassroots strategy might at first seem inappropriate for the task of building support for a national professional league, but then again…it also seemed inappropriate for the task of winning the democratic nomination for president. Ultimately, when you’re fighting for exposure to make a name for yourself, the long-term strategy of using local exposure to gain broader interest seems to be the strategy of choice for start-up sports leagues.

Might there be a way to extend these lessons about grassroots sports business with the new media political campaign that helped propel Barack Obama to the democratic nomination for president? The answer might lie in a new media "fan journalism" effort, for which the technical infrastructure already exists at an unlikely source.

Overcoming the Exposure Challenge

In Sue F.’s "State of the Game" post at the "They’re Playing Basketball" blog, she cited a 2002 NCAA report that noted the biggest challenge to women’s college basketball is exposure. The same could be said about the WNBA.

The NCAA noted that a potential solution to the lack of exposure is "a grassroots-type campaign…including using posters and fliers on campuses, increase the number of giveaways, and gaining support from the media."

Since the report was written in 2002, new media technologies -- such as blogging or social networking media -- were not mentioned, but would seem to be reasonable additions in 2008. And given the success of the netroots movement that has united liberal progressives and helped Barack Obama’s presidential campaign immensely, it’s hard to ignore the potential power of blogging to similarly increase exposure for a niche sports league.

I know I’ve written previously about whether the WNBA could leverage web 2.0 strategies to help the league grow, but now I’m thinking of a more bottom-up approach driven by fans rather than the league – how could new media technologies help channel the energy, knowledge, and spirit of individual fans into greater attendance, exposure, and ratings for the WNBA? In other words, could a grassroots new media campaign help mobilize basketball fans in support of the WNBA?

The goal of such a new media grassroots movement in terms of the stages of fanhood laid out by the NCAA report should be to attract fans who know the game and help them establish a connection to a WNBA team. It would then seem that commitment is established by ongoing media exposure and coverage that push the new fan to stay involved with the league even if they are not able to attend games regularly. And it is that ongoing coverage that encourages commitment that the WNBA is lacking right now.

Those goals for a new media sports movement are similar (though probably of a lesser magnitude) to the key elements to the netroots movement, as described by Christine Pelosi in a Huffington Post article: to join a community, send a consistent message to potential voters, raise funds, and mobilize people around a cause.

At the end of her article, Pelosi sort of issues a call of action that would be interesting to apply to people interested in helping the WNBA grow:

If each of us who has concerns about our future, complaints about the system, or cynicism about what is possible takes these 4 steps, a progressive majority is inevitable. Our Netroots All-Stars have stepped up to the plate to battle those concerns, complaints and cynicism in order to build a better future -- now it's up to us to join the team.
Despite the obvious differences between a political campaign and a growing professional sports league, Pelosi’s call to action would be interesting to pose to WNBA fans…and there may already be an infrastructure in place to make it all work.

Fan-journalism: Expanding participation in the journalistic process

As evidenced by a recent effort by New York senator Tom Duane to extend journalistic protections to "journalist bloggers", the lines between "blogger" and "journalist" are blurring and we still haven’t figured out how to negotiate those boundaries. But with the Netroots Movement and Duane’s proposed legislation, we might be forced to fully engage the dilemma soon.

The problem with blogging that leads some people to disregard it as a form of journalism is the lack of accountability and their limited ability to gather information (lack of press credentials), according to Jonathan Alter of Newsweek. As a result, there’s a tendency to become rumor-mongers instead of truly generating "news".

However, with fan journalists, there’s a chance to do something more because the games themselves are the most important content and anybody can turn on the television or buy a ticket and provide analysis...which is, of course, what leads to concerns about accountability and quality. Then again, this is definitely a case where any publicity is better than no publicity.

Fan journalists could provide first hand accounts of games that the media don’t cover, statistics analysis that provide additional insight, and give attention to the players that the media typically ignores. But the problem is that many people don’t have the time to maintain a blog, though they might have outstanding content to provide every now and then. And it’s hard for a blog with sporadic posts to get noticed and build a following.

However, there may be a solution to that problem that would allow individuals to contribute to the coverage of a sport without committing to a blog and seems to represent the very spirit of the new media grassroots movement that the WNBA needs – Bleacherreport.com (BR).
Bleacher Report (www.bleacherreport.com) formally launched its community-driven online sports network...providing all sports fans one place to create, critique and consume compelling coverage on their favorite college and professional teams. Bleacher Report’s open, collaborative platform features a peer-editing system that helps ensure high quality fan-generated coverage on the site. While in beta, the site grew to more than 400,000 monthly unique visitors and 2,000 original sports editorials published per month — drastically outpacing similar outlets in both web and print media...

The (founders) shared a belief that mainstream sports media didn’t offer the range or depth of coverage to satisfy diehards, and that some of the most insightful analysis comes from the fans who know their teams best. With Bleacher Report, they created a platform to empower all fans to become fan-journalists, producing high-quality content and sharing it with a built-in readership of hundreds of thousands.
Now for those of you that have spent any time at BR, you probably know that the quality of the articles can range from mindless drivel to quality sports commentary (with articles from this blog somewhere along that spectrum). And the majority of those articles are written by the "average lunkhead male", which is not a favorable environment in which to write about women’s sports.

However, before dismissing it as a possibility, consider the potential it has to support a new media grassroots movement for the WNBA; in a web-driven world, a site like BleacherReport.com that already has partnerships with Fox Sports and Google News might be the perfect outlet for WNBA fan journalists to provide their own exposure to the game.

Affordances of BleacherReport.com

The use of a reputation system for writers and a peer-review system for rating articles, makes BR more effective for growing a professional sports league than the more insular bulletin boards in two ways. First, the most highly regarded articles and writers are moved to the forefront of the community, which gives non-fans the opportunity to see the best content first. And second, being part of a broader community of sports fans provides the league with more direct exposure to fans who otherwise might not pay attention.

Even more exciting, writer Alan Bass reports that one writer from BR was even given a media pass for a St. Louis Cardinals game. That’s a huge accomplishment for a site like fan-driven site, even if other professional franchises don’t immediately follow suit.

Unfortunately, at this point the BR community has mimicked the imbalance in the mainstream media – whereas the NBA at BR section has 50 articles in the past three days during the slowest part of the off-season, the WNBA section only has 33 articles since the site's inception. As a result, the WNBA section is not even listed on the menu bar on the site, essentially rendering it invisible.

However, WNBA fans cannot blame the league’s lack of visibility on the site’s founders -- as a community-driven site, the burden of producing WNBA articles and making the section more visible lies firmly with the users themselves.

And since the overall culture of the site is not that supportive of women’s sports so people interested in writing WNBA articles probably have to make their work twice as good as others to get noticed. Nevertheless, the opportunity to increase exposure of the WNBA using a platform that has connections to major media outlets is unique and worth capitalizing on for those with an interest in supporting the league’s growth.

BR provides an excellent opportunity for fans to influence the way the sports are covered, but WNBA fans are not yet participating. If they did and the mainstream partners eventually took notice, why couldn't it help the WNBA?

Alternative media coverage could be beneficial to the WNBA

I acknowledge that this whole idea is a stretch – the idea of a fan-driven new media grassroots movement supported by a site that doesn’t promote its WNBA section is a bit idealistic. But for fans who genuinely care about the WNBA and want to influence its growth, this might be the best way to have an impact beyond buying season tickets.

And if the St. Louis Cardinals are willing to provide BR writers with press passes, why shouldn’t the WNBA? The reality is that most media outlets are not going to put their financial resources into women’s basketball (yet). Imagine for a moment if out of the handful of people who read this blog post today, a few in WNBA cities managed to get press passes and cover a team they doesn’t normally receive consistent coverage. It could be a huge benefit to the teams themselves and the fans.

Recently, a few BR writers have written about the value of the site to the sports world and the potential of it gaining credibility. Some writers are even starting to experiment with radio, which would be an even more dynamic step forward. In other words, the site has huge potential…and WNBA fans are not yet involved.

One of the testimonials from Mary Jo Buchannan, a NASCAR writer, really captures the spirit of what BR is good for.
I've also had the privilege of meeting other wonderful writers, many of whom have taken the time to edit my work. Their constructive criticism has shaped my writing and helped me to learn to express myself better than I ever could have imagined.

Bleacher Report has opened up a whole other world for me as well. Who knew there were so many sports that others were equally passionate about as I was NASCAR racing? I've learned more about Olympic events and cricket and F1 in my short tenure with Bleacher Report than I ever would have in a million years of reading about sports in the traditional venues.
Figuring out how to grow fan journalism in the BR spirit could be extremely beneficial for the WNBA and BR has already laid out the technical infrastructure. It’s now up to WNBA fans to take advantage. "Netizens make the Internet," writes Duncan Cameron at Rabble News. "Top down messaging is not internet friendly, and directive e-mails are deleted." If the WNBA is going to use the internet to grow, it needs to rely on fans.

Transition Points:

Writing at BleacherReport.com is pretty simple. Go to the site, sign up, and start writing. It's not all that different than signing up for a web forum, like Rebkell. Let the movement begin...

Helen Wheelock has previously written about the use of blogs and podcasting to make up for the lack of media coverage of women’s basketball. It’s worth a read if you haven’t already. An excerpt:
It is encouraging to note that there are those in journalism world who advocate for, and independently produce, coverage of the women’s game. It is also important to note that they face very real resistance. "My colleagues in the media – they make fun of it all the time," said Kris Gardner of the online site Houston Roundball Review. Initially Gardner covered the NBA, but was drawn to women’s basketball by the passion of the Houston Comets’ fans. "You hear the snide comments from people you hang around with – especially the men. ‘Women’s basketball? Who cares about that? Why should we bother even covering it?’"

"Don’t get me wrong," said Gardner, "a couple of years ago I was asking myself, ‘Why am I still doing this? There’s no money in it.’ But I’m stubborn. I do it because I enjoy it and I think the athletes deserve some recognition and acceptance. They deserve some respect. If I get an email from a fan saying, ‘Thank you for what you do, I really appreciate it,’ that’s enough for me."