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Bing partnership and groundbreaking TV deals show "how the WNBA is evolving"

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After yesterday's big announcement about the Seattle Storm's marquee partnership with Bing, forward Swin Cash chatted with Kevin Pelton about its meaning.

Players Talk Bing Partnership " StormTracker - The Official Blog of the Seattle Storm
Cash: I think it shows how the WNBA is evolving. With everything that’s happened in our country with the economy, to see teams like Seattle, like Phoenix, like L.A. take the initiative to do great partnerships with corporations like Bing, I think it’s going to make not only the Storm but the WNBA better.

As players, we’re really happy about this opportunity.

While the deal is exciting all on it own, placed in context, the excitement could reach well beyond Seattle.

First, there are also people who haven't paid any attention to the WNBA since the Phoenix Mercury won a thrilling five game WNBA Finals series against the Indiana Fever last October, close to eight months ago.  For new and casual fans who were asked to Expect Great and had their expectations met, expecting them to maintain their excitement for eight uneventful months is asking a lot. With WNBA training camps only days away from opening, announcements like the Bing partnership put the WNBA back in the headlines and send both a concrete and symbolic message that maintaining high expectations for the league might be more than a patient exercise in faith.

"To have a company the caliber of Bing make a strategic decision to invest in a local, independently owned WNBA franchise is a significant milestone," said Storm CEO Karen Bryant to StormBasketball.com.

While the Wall Street Journal technology blog Digits framed the deal as yet another step in Microsoft's takeover of Seattle professional sports, sports marketing blog NYSportsJournalism.com suggested that "it could be the most impactful marketing deal in recent U.S. sports history". Either way, the bottom line is this: for those that have understandably lost enthusiasm for the league due to the slow trickle of off-season news, it's difficult to overstate the significance of this milestone to both the Storm and the WNBA as a whole.

When placed in the context of a WNBA off-season that also included the Atlanta Dream's broadcast partnership with Fox Sports South and SportSouth earlier this week and the Chicago Sky's groundbreaking broadcast partnership with Comcast, it becomes clear that the league has more upside than some critics might believe.

It might almost seem paradoxical to suggest that not just one but multiple corporate entities would invest in a league that has experienced roster, salary cap, and franchise reductions in the past three years. But the financial backing of entities not part of NBA Entertainment is impressive and represent that somewhere in the undisclosed numbers of the league there is tangible fiscal value that goes far beyond the abstract cultural value of providing role models or breaking down antiquated stereotypes of womanhood. In a still struggling economy, the Bing partnership as well as the off-season television contracts that the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky collectively represent not only an evolution since its opening tip in 1997 but also opportunities for further growth in the future.

Even though it's already a comprehensive partnership that includes sponsorship of the Jr. Storm program, its value goes beyond basketball.

Nick Wingfield of Digits described the deal as the latest stage in Microsoft's takeover of Seattle professional sports: Major League Soccer's Sounders have the Xbox brand featured prominently all over their jerseys, merchandise, and pitch at Qwest Field while the Seattle Seahawks have added a Bing patch to its practice jersey. No word yet about whether Microsoft will soon brand its own latte.

In other words, Microsoft is not taking a leap into uncharted territory - more likely than them taking a leap of faith and "Expecting Great", they have enough background knowledge to know what makes for a successful partnership with a professional franchise. So there is strategic value to the partnership for Bing beyond doing the good deed of supporting women's sports - it's an opportunity to expand its market. NYSportsJournalism.com describes how there is actually some crossover between the target demographics of Bing and the Storm. 

NYSportsJournalism.com - WNBA Adds Bing
According to Microsoft, the Storm audience reaches a "highly valued demographic with fans who demonstrate an affinity for using products from sponsoring companies and considering sponsoring companies as leaders in their industry." Microsoft said the Storm partnership would reach audience segments "who already demonstrate favorability for Bing. For example, mothers comprise nearly 20% of Bing users and the youth audience has grown 25% since the Bing launch [on June 3, 2009]."

While this Bing partnership might appear to be a too-good-to-be-true convergence of demographics, geographical proximity, and an evil Microsoft takeover, NYSJ reports that more jersey deals are expected although the timeline is unclear. Based on that information, it is possible that nearly half the league could have corporate sponsors by the end of 2010. If reports from Lifelock about the success of their deal with the Mercury are true, then this mutually beneficial arrangement could indeed be the most impactful sports marketing deal in the U.S. in that it could contribute to the long-term viability of the league.

While the sponsorships will contribute to the league's sustainability on the financial end, the television deals could contribute significantly to capitalizing on the potential and casual fan base that might have caught the buzz around the WNBA finals.

Technophiles might believe television is a thing of the past, but it's positive for growth in the present.

As valuable as WNBA LiveAccess is to helping fans see the game online, there are still some people who simply will not watch sports on a computer screen. So even though people have predicted that online broadcasting is the wave of the future, broadcast television is still often the medium of choice for sports fans and thus valuable to further growth for the WNBA in the present.

"I think it's great," said Chicago Sky coach and general manager Steven Key in an interview with Swish Appeal shortly after their broadcast deal was announced. "I think there hasn't been a professional sports league that has tried to survive without television - I think that's where it is. And so we took a step in the right direction in getting Comcast to do our home games and our away games to the point where it's almost NBA-like: the fans are still going to get an opportunity when we go out on the road."

In an interview with Swish Appeal just after the 2009 WNBA Finals, WNBA legend Lisa Leslie described the importance of television coverage and lamented the lack of season-long coverage of the WNBA.

Interview with Lisa Leslie (Part 2): WNBA Media Coverage, Womanhood, and Empowerment - Swish Appeal
The concern about local television coverage is reminiscent of a point she made in her final press conference – that it’s not fair that WNBA fans have to pay money for cable, NBA TV, (or high-speed internet) to actually see the games – and it’s worthy of further examination. Even in the three weeks since her transition began, it’s one of the things she’s already been fighting for.

"Through all my interviews, it’s important to encourage all of these different networks to promote women’s basketball and the WNBA, not just when it’s during the finals, but all season long," said Leslie. "It’s important to see our highlights and encourage fans to want to come out and support us. And it’s amazing how sometimes the media wants to point out the losses and the teams that have folded, but not necessarily point to what their responsibility is with our league. So yes, I’m pretty much an advocate for it…women’s basketball is important and we deserve to have our place and our space in the world of sports."

Although it's not necessarily the ideal of games broadcast on the major networks, the deals signed this off-season are a step forward in terms of that notion of exposure to the game as a means to not only build the fan base, but also boost ticket revenue is what the television deals represent.

"Our broadcast agreement with FOX Sports South and SportSouth is a major step forward in establishing the Dream among Atlanta's sports landscape and in exposing women's basketball fans across the Southeast to the exciting, fast-paced action of the WNBA," said Toby Wyman, President and COO of the Dream about their deal that will broadcast 16 of 17 games in a release. "We are excited to bring Dream fans great basketball from across the WNBA on two regional sports networks recognized as the leaders in local sports programming."

The Chicago Sky's deal with Comcast even more directly addresses Leslie's concern of networks promoting the WNBA all year long.

Comcast's CN100 will broadcast 28 of 34 games for the Sky, including 15 home games (the other two will be broadcast on ESPN2). However, similar to the Bing partnership, the Comcast partnership is not only inherently valuable to the Sky, but also to the opponents who will get more television exposure from playing against the Sky.

"Last year, we won our first 5 games at home but then we were gone for [5 out of 6] games and our fans get a disconnect - they don't see us on tv, they don't get anything from us," said Key. "So now they're going to get that opportunity to see us and see what happens. And when we get back, feel like they were a part of us even though we're on the road. So I think it's good in two ways: one that everybody is going to get more recognition in every game that we play as well as our fans are going to get the opportunity to see us on a more consistent basis."

With the Dream and Sky deals - in addition to smaller deals like the recently announced extension of Fox Sports North's partnership with the Minnesota Lynx - that ability for to consistently watch WNBA games on television is huge not only for keeping the fan base engaged, but also exposing new fans to the game and holding their interest. Although it is true that there are many other media out there that the WNBA could take better advantage of, expanding television coverage has to be seen as a win for any pro sports league.

After a season that was widely considered the best ever and a Finals series that may be remembered as the tipping point for the league, the league is indeed evolving and showing signs of getting stronger when many people are waiting (or wishing) for it to fail. That teams around the league are capitalizing on the momentum and finding opportunities for further growth has to be encouraging for the league and fans who might need a little reminder to start expecting great again.