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"Getting Around Gender": Would the WNBA Benefit From Getting "Out of the Ghetto of Being a Role Model for Girls?"

I follow women's basketball for one very simple reason:

I love basketball.

The cultural significance of supporting a women's professional sports league is icing on the cake for me.

Summer is the NBA off-season and the WNBA is a perfect counter-balance to keep me fully engaged in basketball for the entire calendar year, schedule permitting.

So I realize that marketing the WNBA to someone like me is simple -- the very idea of extra basketball was enough to get me interested in the WNBA in 1997. The combination of Candace Parker and gloomy Expect Great ads was enough to get me re-invested in the WNBA last summer after taking a long hiatus (moving to cities without WNBA teams).

However, I also realize that most people don't feel the same way about basketball as I do (they might actually have lives). In fact, some people seem to harbor resentment not only for women's basketball, but also that whole gender equity agenda thing that some people still believe is reserved for radical man-hating feminists.

So the very idea of a male women's sports fan is laughable to many people. Sadly, some individuals seem to enjoy going out of their way to demean female athletes and dismiss women's sports as irrelevant. And while I strongly believe that everybody is entitled to their own (defensible) opinion, openly disrespecting individuals who are performing at the top of their profession is just unnecessary.

So when I saw a link to an article on the Soccer Science blog entitled, "One Man’s Struggles With WPS Fandom: Does Liking Women’s Soccer Make You Gayer?" I was at once intrigued and wary of yet another insecure sexist rant.

Of course, I clicked.

Not that I’m afraid of becoming "gayer" by liking women’s basketball (because the very notion of that is ridiculous, as I believe the author intended to highlight). But I was very interested to see how the author – Cyrus Philbrick -- would go about developing his argument. He clearly was not dismissing women’s sports -- he was just trying to express why he’s struggling with it. That’s fair.

The premise of the article is as follows:
I love soccer. And I’m pretty sure I love women. So why don’t I love Women’s Professional Soccer? Or do I, secretly? These are questions I fear to answer because any serious soul-searching might uncover the misogynistic pig within. That, or I’ll end up stripping away a vestigial layer of macho-callous that has kept me straight and largely insensitive to the needs of women through the years. Oh well, here goes…
The article is actually a pretty fair description of some of the challenges that some men might have in making the transition from men’s sport to women’s sport.

However, Philbrick does not merely rehash standard critiques. In fact, he makes a critique that I normally take for granted in all my fervor about the cultural significance of women's sports.

His post ultimately arrives at the conclusion that WPS athletes are marketed as role models for girls, something that may alienate male fans. Which begs the question -- what about the WNBA?
"We need to get out of the ghetto of being a role model for girls," Andy Crossley, the Boston Breakers’ director of business development, said in a recent New York Times article. "You can’t make dads feel like they’re visiting Chuck E. Cheese’s."

The problem is I’m not sure if anyone knows how the league can change this. WPS works best as an inspiring example for young girl players. And as millions of them exist in this country, this isn’t a bad selling point. But to draw in the rest of us skeptics remains a challenge that will take a lot more than just innovative social media marketing.
I find this to be an interesting argument.

My knee jerk reaction is that perhaps these dads who feel apprehensive about doing things with their daughters because of how they feel need to get over themselves. But... you know... since I’m not a father…I’m going to suspend that judgment.

So beyond personal hang-ups, I suppose I don’t see being a role model for girls as a "ghetto" to begin with.

Isn’t being a role model for girls a good thing? Isn’t promoting fitness and sport for girls a good thing? And, most importantly, isn’t it somewhat inevitable that female athletes will be role models, given that women’s professional sports are a relatively new (and sometimes contentious) phenomenon?

But for a moment, let’s assume that getting out of the ghetto would indeed help the WNBA…then what? Where exactly would a league like the WNBA go from there?

"Marketing Women’s Sports to Men"

These questions led me to another article on a blog about marketing to women entitled, "Marketing Women’s Sports to Men". The author – Andrea -- says the following, looking specifically at how NASCAR and figure skating have attempted to transcend gender in their marketing strategies:
Now, the sports realm, overall, has come full circle in the ways that previously pegged "women’s" sports must grow to reach more men.

And, how are they going to do that? By identifying what about the particular sport appeals to a men’s market and highlighting that. If the marketing decision-makers are smart, they’ll likely figure out a way to do so without alienating the women who already love said sport. Now, to clarify: It isn’t necessarily men that the more female-fan skewing sports should be worrying about. Instead, those marketing decision-makers should spend time learning to reach all of the human beings who appreciate the (traditionally) more masculine aspects of the sport.
The suggestion in this article is the de-genderfication of sport – finding the elements of a sport that appeal to all fans and highlight them.

However, given differences in the way men and women play basketball (see "Transition Points" below), "highlighting the masculine aspects" of basketball is almost impossible for the WNBA – at this moment, there is no female athletic equivalent of athletes like LeBron James or Dwight Howard. And part of what people like about the NBA is the almost surreal feats of athleticism. Women’s basketball can’t really provide those particular athletic aspects of the game, that have become prominent.

So if the WNBA is somewhat immune to de-genderfication, what else might a marketing expert suggest?

How about an awareness of third wave feminism, as Andrea suggests in another post?
I’m not saying that all is perfect between men and women now. I’m suggesting it might be a good time to accept that there is no easy answer but to study up on how the women in your market fit into this wave (or not). They might consider themselves feminists, but that could be VERY different from your mother’s feminism. And, today, there may well be a lot more men who consider themselves feminist or identify with the movement (whether they say so or not), and by making assumptions, you could potentially lose trust with them as well, Remember, too - parenthood tends to put most guys into a gender transcending role that changes their behavior in other ways. So, feminism can just creep up on you (in a good way)!

An awareness of third wave feminism is not for women’s studies majors only. Instead, it is a movement that may offer up the insights you need on how/why your consumers live and make decisions the way they do.
If we take Andrea’s posts together, then the challenge for a sport like the WNBA is finding a way to minimize the gendered elements of the sport (that may in fact define it) while simultaneously drawing upon insights from third wave feminism to understand what women might want beyond the antiquated narratives of equal opportunity and representation.


While I understand all these points about ghettoizing women’s sports, de-genderfication, and taking an expansive approach to feminism (that includes men rather than assuming it’s a "women’s only" domain), I also find the approach highly problematic.

Girls still need role models…just like boys have had for decades/centuries/The Big Bang or Genesis. And it's worth playing that up.

There are gender differences in athletics that we should probably learn to appreciate instead of disregarding or rejecting them outright. And it's worth helping people do that.

And while feminism is not only for women’s studies majors and should apply to men, it also seems dangerous for it to become a part of a marketing strategy. Not that the feminist principles would necessarily lose their edge if assimilated as part of a marketing strategy…but…things tend to lose their edge when they are assimilated as part of a marketing strategy.

Nevertheless, the sad fact is that these commentaries may be right – indeed, it may simply not be profitable to market women’s sports as "political", whether it be in a role modeling capacity, the symbolic promotion of equal opportunity/representation, or a direct challenge to sexist attitudes.

So where does this leave us?

The tension here is that if men want to demean or dismiss women’s sports for being too "Chuck-E-Cheese", "too feminine", or "too feminist", I firmly believe that is their problem, not the problem of women’s professional sports.

But realistically, the market for sports is traditionally the 18-35 male crowd, which is stereotypically proud of being against things labeled as "Chuck-E-Cheese", feminine, or feminist. And there are certain women (that I’m sure we could all think of and name) who hold the same views.

However, what is most troubling to me is the assumption underlying all of these things: sexism exists and if women’s sports are to be marketable, they have to roll with it rather than going against the grain.

Realistically, most people can’t be bothered with political messages about role models, opportunity, or oppression/discrimination/prejudice while they’re being entertained. They merely want to be entertained.

So that leaves us with the question of where are the people who want to be entertained by women’s basketball? And how does the WNBA reach them?

Does the WNBA need to "Get Around Gender"?

Well, take this insight from another Andrea’s posts entitled, "Getting Around Gender":
An article in the latest issue of Pink mentioned how the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan got creative in reaching out to women, specifically for their executive MBA programs. Because state law prohibited the school from offering gender-based scholarships, they did the research and realized that a lot of non-profit executives happened to be female. So, Ross focused its scholarship money there. Brilliant. The school figured out a commonality that had nothing to do with gender - and learned how to reach THAT group effectively… My point is that, in a lot of cases, the best marketing to women has gotten around the gender question by serving humans/individuals who may so happen to be women.
In other words, if somebody stepped in and told the WNBA they could not market exclusively to women, what might they do? How might they describe their consumers aside from gender (or sexuality) identifiers?

Does the target audience like particular elements of the in-game experience? Do they like certain player personalities? Is it a particular style of play that a change in rules could really accentuate?

The notion of gender-blindness is problematic, if not downright harmful to me. But that is essentially what this blog is suggesting: gender-blind marketing. And yet, if gender is toxic to sports profit as all these people are suggesting, then maybe that is the strategy… but would a gender blind marketing approach even work for a league that is absolutely gendered?


I must fully acknowledge that Andrea is not talking about the WNBA -- she made a reference to NASCAR and figure skating and I'm trying to make a link to the WNBA....

Ultimately, I don't think such an approach would actually draw the fans who have blatantly sexist and dehumanizing reasons for not watching women's sports to begin with. So hiding from such an obvious aspect of the league -- that the women are role models -- just seems counterproductive.

It is important that women's sports leagues exist, if for no other reason "to get females to play" as Mechelle Voepel wrote about on Sunday. But while that is great advocacy for a women's non-profit organization, is it viable for a professional sports league striving to make profit?

But is it so difficult to imagine a world in which people stop judging women by men’s standards and are actually genuinely entertained by female athletes? Is there no way to appreciate women for their athletic feats just as we appreciate men? Why can’t we strive for a higher human standard rather than striving for the lowest consumer denominator?

Naïve, idealistic questions…that I find worth wondering about…

Relevant Links:

When it’s ‘her’ turn to just dive right in (Mechelle Voepel)

Marketing Women's Sports to Men

Getting Around Gender in Marketing

Transition Points:

The argument that first stuck out to me in Philbrick's piece
was the one about the speed of women’s soccer – that "It’s inarguably, frustratingly, heart-murmeringly slow." Ouch. However, one could certainly make the same argument about the WNBA in comparison to men’s basketball…and that of course led me down a much longer path…

This past weekend I probably spent way too much time watching basketball. On Saturday I went to see the Seattle Storm defeat the San Antonio Silver Stars in overtime. Then on Sunday I went to see NBA players with Seattle ties play in the Adonai Hood Tournament, a four-team tournament of local high school alumni. And as I probably need not tell you, the differences between the women’s and men’s game were quite stark.

The men’s game is just faster, more physical, and yes, field goal percentages are typically higher. And for a game that is predicated on putting a ball into a ten foot high hole, the fact that men are taller on average is significant.

The fact is that the women’s game simply does not have athletes like the 5’9" Nate Robinson (NBA player from Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School and University of Washington) – an ultra-quick former NCAA Division I football defensive back who has won two NBA Dunk Contests, including this year’s in which he jumped over the 6’11" Dwight Howard for a dunk (in 2006 he jumped over another diminutive dunk champion, former NBA player Spud Webb).

Taking Robinson as one example of the type of athleticism in the NBA, these games are just different. And as I’ve said before, if you are going to support women’s sports, you first have to accept that they are different from men’s sports (duh…right?) and just appreciate each on their own terms, loving the sport as a sport as well as another form of entertainment.

Tonight: Storm game with a NBA fan who has never been. Should be fun...

(Note: I’m still not entirely sure how watching women’s sports – or anything for that matter -- might make one "gayer", though many men seem to feel their sexuality is at stake when watching women’s sports. If I was hypothetically operating on such lunkhead male "logic", it would seem that the opposite would be true – that spending hours watching sweaty men post each other up and pat each other on their firm behinds would make me "gayer")