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Expect Great ’09: A case study and reflection

Unfortunately, I don’t have any juicy information about the opening of WNBA training camps that you couldn’t get elsewhere.

So instead, I thought this was a good opportunity to comment about another major occurrence yesterday – the television premiere of the newest Expect Great ads.

As excited as I was about yesterday’s NBA game sevens, they were a huge disappointment, which is probably why my mind just wandered to this post.

I watched with 3 of my friends at my friend C’s house (pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of the innocent). As the games continued to suck, our attention wavered and we started talking about all kinds of random stuff, including watching YouTube clips of C’s brother’s band at one point.

So what ended up grabbing my attention was my friends’ responses to the Expect Great commercials. Of course, the commercials are what inspired me to write this blog so naturally I’m interested in how well this newest iteration "works". And what better way to do that than with a bunch of over-educated dudes watching basketball?

Anyway, C is in love with his DVR and has now decided that he has no use for commercials. So we "accidentally" caught the WNBA commercials only twice (I’m not sure if they were on more than that throughout the afternoon). But I think the conversation (and non-conversation) was enough to make a point about this year’s first iteration of ads.

We are all graduate students (meaning we have a lot of time on our hands to think about inconsequential aspects of the world around us). None of them are WNBA fans and they don’t watch as far as I know. I’m not sure if they’ve ever been to a game. None of them played high school basketball, though I have played intramural basketball with C and R, both of whom did play a high sport. All of us, however, are NBA fans, and at least C and G are NCAA fans as well.

A random note that should not matter, but usually manages to come up in conversations:
C just got married last year (no kids yet), R is engaged, and G is pathetically single, like me.

Obviously, I had seen the ads before online and I’m assuming they had not. And prior to watching it with them, here’s essentially what I thought:

I agree with those who say they are an upgrade from last year – the gloomy tone is gone and the images are…interesting – but they still fall way short of building a buzz about the league among their target audience.

After watching it with my friends, here’s what I think now:

Whereas last year’s initial spots targeted men, grabbed their attention, and challenged them to interrogate their own biases (thus turning off a number of lunkheads who were shocked that women were allowed to leave the kitchen), this year’s ads are still targeted at men, but fail to grab their attention and hardly get them to interrogate their own biases.

My thoughts on last year’s ads

Just to recap, here’s what I thought about last year’s Expect Great ads:
My friend and I were trying to figure out if these "Expect Great" commercials were effective and whether we liked them. After some deliberation, the verdict was "no" on both counts.

The tone was probably too gloomy and it was just uninspiring. I also have a hard time getting over the grammatical incorrectness of "Expect Great". I guess it grabs attention because it’s so awkward….but whatever…

So after thinking about what the commercials needed to communicate, here’s what we came up with: in order to appreciate the WNBA people have to stop comparing it to the men’s basketball as inherently "inferior".

People have to be able to envision basketball without 300 pound 7-footers and highlight reel dunks. Somehow people need to redefine their own conceptions about what basketball is and how the women’s game fits under an umbrella that includes many distinct variations: the NBA, FIBA rules, And1 Mix Tapes, NCAA basketball, and everyday streetball.
That of course essentially frames the goal of this blog – to just appreciate the WNBA on its own terms and find ways to highlight its bright spots (some of the best female athletes in the world competing to see whose team is best).

So here’s what happened yesterday.

Data: My friends’ responses

So when the ad flashed on the screen for the first time, we were all just zoned out or in the middle of a conversation or something. The ad passed by without anyone even bothering to pay attention to it. If anyone did have a thought, they just didn’t share. My only thought was – man, that fell as flat on the big screen as it did on my computer.

But when it came on the second time, there was a different response, it went roughly as follows.

[Commercial ends]

[Collective reflective pause]

"You know I was just reading that Sheryl Swoopes is coming out of retirement this year…like she just had a baby two years ago or something," says R.

[Collective bewildered pause]

"Yeah, I just read that Candace Parker is having a baby and might not be playing this year," says C.


"Actually R, Swoopes played last year," I say. "In fact, she played right here in Seattle for the Storm."

"Oh," says R somewhat surprised. "Well I thought someone was coming out of retirement or something."

[Pause – I realize now he’s talking about Holdsclaw…but before I can respond…]

"You know I would really like to go to one of those games this summer if any of you are up for it," says R.

"Yeah, I’ve been to a few. I was planning on going this summer," I say. "We should get together and go sometime."


Data analysis: Conflating old narratives

What I find absolutely fascinating about this is that R had essentially conflated three different major WNBA "narratives":
  • Holdsclaw coming out of retirement
  • Swoopes, clearly a star around the time we were in college, who did have a child
  • And Parker, who just had a child
Clearly, R has some fledgling interest in the game and would go if given a reason (in this case, I would take him). But do the commercials on their own really tell him anything about the league or somehow give him a narrative to latch onto?


And thus he is left grasping at straws to create connections among a bunch of images of players he doesn’t even know.

The Holdsclaw story would certainly grab attention, but given that she’s left teams twice for personal reasons, making that story prominent for this season is probably inappropriate.

However, it is Lisa Leslie’s last season. People do know Swoopes. But I imagine the average male who knows those players knows nothing about the current league or who is even playing in their own city – even when it is Sheryl Swoopes.

C might have read the ESPN the Mag article about Parker or seen something on, but probably couldn’t tell you who Parker plays for.

Keep in mind, this was one of the most intelligent conversations I’ve had with men about the WNBA since the league started (I had a college roommate who is now a sports producer who just knew everything about every sport).

So where does this leave us?

Implications for Future Research

Obviously, I can't really generalize or make any causal claims based on this case study "data". However, it does lead me to some insights we could gain from this.

First of all, if the WNBA wants to target male fans (which I'm not saying is the best strategy) my group of friends are the type who I think the WNBA should be targeting. They're far more likely to show up at a game than the clown in the bar who is looking forward to lingerie football. Lingerie football and the WNBA are just incommensurable. Let the lunkheads do as they please, WNBA. We'll address them at some later date...

In this particular group of males, we do not see the blatantly disrespectful and dismissive remarks that we might find at the local dive bar or a Lingerie Bowl fan club. So they, like me, would probably be interested in the WNBA purely for the sport of it. They just need a reason.

However for this group – and many males like my friends – I imagine the WNBA equation looks something like the following:

WNBA = Leslie + Swoopes + Holdsclaw + Parker

I’m sure that there would be additional names added to this equation depending on location and age. And there may be additional individual differences based on where people went to college. But in my experience – this and others – even players like Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, and Diana Taurasi are relative unknowns on a national scale.

The problem, of course, is that Leslie, Swoopes and Holdsclaw are past their primes, if not retiring. And Parker won’t be playing for a while this season.

So when taking this "data" (really just grounded assumptions) into consideration, what can we say about WNBA marketing?

The first impulse might be to say that we need to pump up these "unknown" stars to demonstrate that indeed, the league has made progress since inception and there are reasons to watch.

But upon further reflection I thought of something else – with Leslie retiring, isn’t this the perfect time to come up with some "passing the torch" campaign? Something reminiscent of the "We Got Next" campaign? Like who has next after Leslie, Swoopes, and Holdsclaw are off the radar? Yeah, sure there’s Parker but now that she’s out for a bit, why not introduce the next squad who has next?

I thought the Olympics set the stage nicely for a "passing the torch" campaign – the Leslie to Fowles handoff was essentially executed in Beijing as far as I’m concerned. So why not expand that theme a little?

In addition to Fowles, there’s Candice Wiggins, who’s like lightning in a bottle off the bench. Then there’s a set of young players like Cappie Pondexter, Candice Dupree, Sophia Young and Seimone Augustus who can flat out play.

Fowles, Wiggins, Pondexter, Dupree, Augustus, Young…and of course there are others...

They got next. Why not tell us to watch them in your commercials?

Why not give people an actual story to follow of some sort?

This is not to say that Bird, Jackson, and Taurasi are somehow uninteresting – you know I love Taurasi. But why not build a narrative – no matter how contrived – that people might hear about and talk about and actually want to go see develop?

What if the conversation with my buddies involved hearing about the next dominant post player in the WNBA in Fowles? Or the scoring ability and intensity of Candice Wiggins (who some people may know from her NCAA days? Or Augustus’ ability to score 30 points on 80% shooting on one of the best defenses in the league?

You want my buddies to Expect Great? Tell them what’s been going on in the last decade since they last paid attention to Leslie, Swoopes, and Holdsclaw. Tell them what’s on the horizon and help them step into a developing story.

I’m not even suggesting a second iteration of "We Got Next" – the slogan could certainly change, but I think that spirit would be perfect for the WNBA right now. But everybody likes to be the one who picked up on the next big thing before they were the big thing. Why not help people get there?

Random images of people they don’t recognize and pictures of girls in the crowd ain’t gonna do it.

Transition Points:

The NBA has had similar campaigns "passing the torch" campaigns to promote Kobe and Tim Duncan in the post-Jordan years. Of course, it was all with the help of their corporate friends:

But some of it was the NBA’s own promotion of the game. Anybody remember the hype around the Kobe-MJ matchup in the 1998 all-star game?

There was also a brief effort to compare Dwyane Wade to Jordan (a disservice to both men) on a lesser scale as well.

We can debate whether these efforts were "effective" – and honestly, they annoyed me to no end -- but there’s no doubt that this set of players have ended up carrying the torch for the NBA while the world waited for LeBron to just take over.

And as though the anticipation around a Kobe-LeBron NBA finals showdown needed more hype this year, the commercial that got us all going during yesterday’s games was Nike’s Kobe-LeBron puppets commercials.

The thing is, I could imagine Kobe being that…um…"proud" of his accomplishments… I think it would even funnier if they added a Carmelo Anthony puppet just begging for some attention…

Something else I thought about: Right now may not even be the time to really campaign hard for the WNBA -- it's not starting until June 6th. So maybe right now is just the time to plant the seeds since there's not much to watch yet...maybe the WNBA will have a second iteration closer to June 6th tip-off? Who knows...