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WNBA’s growing relationship with big business: A look at the promises and problems

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McDonald’s tapped WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert for its board. Forbes named Breanna Stewart to its “30 under 30” list. The WNBPA is partnering with Microsoft. Should the WNBA’s growing big business connections be cause for celebration or concern?

34th Annual Cedars-Sinai Sports Spectacular
Forbes’ “30 under 30” honoree Breanna Stewart address attendees at the 2019 Cedars-Sinai Sports Spectacular.
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Cedars Sinai Sports Spectacular

In early December, McDonald’s announced that WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert had been elected to its board. A few days prior, Forbes named Breanna Stewart to the sports edition of its 2020 “30 under 30” list, with 2019 honoree Skylar Diggins-Smith, among others, serving as judge.

Earlier in the fall, the WNBPA announced a pair of business relationships, a tech transfer partnership with NASA and joint program with Microsoft, Microsoft LEAP for WNBPA.

These developments beg the question: Is women’s professional basketball becoming big business? And, more pointedly, is this a good thing? Is the support of über-capitalist institutions, whose products and practices are not necessarily consistent with the principles proclaimed by the WNBA and WNBPA, what the league needs?

A consideration of the past experiences and present realities of the relationship between women’s professional sports and corporations can provide a perspective of the potential promise of, as well as possible problems with, the WNBA’s increasing purchase in the business world.

“You’ve come a long way, baby”

Today, Billie Jean King is revered as the founding figure in the movement of women into sports, celebrated for her social consciousness and conscientiousness. However, as detailed by historian Susan Ware in Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports, pragmatism and professionalism, rather than activism, most motivated King.

Fed up with the unequal prize money that the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) offered to women tennis players, King, along with the other members of the Original 9, worked with Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis magazine, first to organize a separate tournament and then a separate tour. But even as the winds of the women’s movement swirled in 1970, King and her compatriots were concerned with economics, not feminism. As such, they welcomed the sponsorship Virginia Slims, Phillip Morris’ brand of women’s cigarettes.

Retrospectively, this partnership seems more than a little problematic. Not only was awareness of the harms of cigarettes becoming more widespread in the early 1970s, but Virginia Slims also peddled a somewhat sexist slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

According to Ware, King at first experienced a “real moral conflict” about partnering with a cigarette company. Yet, she ultimately determined, “I came to realize that Slims was doing us and the sport so much good that I’d have to live with my misgivings.”

In 1972, she more ardently asserted to Sports Illustrated:

We’re in big business, and until people face reality we’ll be dabbling in nonsense forever ... If we can get the money, we deserve it.

King also endorsed Virginia Slims’ slogan, saying, “I love it. I think it’s true.”

The Virginia Slims Tour was an uncontested success, forcing the hand of the USLTA and leading to the founding of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour in 1973. With her efforts and attitudes, King thus established professional, corporate sponsorship as essential to the sustainability and legitimacy of women’s pro sports.

“We got next”

The WNBA accepted this model.

By securing support from the likes of American Express, Coca-Cola, Sears, McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch, Kellogg’s, Nike, adidas and Reebok ahead of its launch in the summer of 1997, the WNBA distinguished itself from the other women’s professional basketball experiment, the American Basketball League (ABL). These sponsorships suggested that the WNBA was the premier women’s pro basketball league, even as the ABL, at least at first, claimed more of women’s basketball’s top talents.

However, in the intervening 20-plus years, the WNBA has struggled to attract and retain the consistent support of the prestige brands that signal legitimacy and sustainability. This is why the above announcements about Engelbert, Stewart and the WNBPA should inspire measured excitement.

While Engelbert’s involvement with McDonald’s may not lead to sponsorships for the WNBA or WNBA players, that the fast food behemoth invited her to sit under its Golden Arches is an indication of the business world’s respect for her and her league. Since Michael Jordan began shilling Big Macs in the late 1980s, Mickey Ds (regardless of the glaring contradictions) has retained legitimizing influence in the sphere of sports. By naming Engelbert to its board, McDonald’s is symbolically investing in the commissioner and her league, an action that could encourage other companies to offer symbolic or, better yet, material support for the WNBA.

Similarly, Forbes and Microsoft are institutions that carry cultural prestige. Their willingness to celebrate and cooperate with WNBA players communicates that these women are “real” athletes, deserving of respect and (substantial, serious) investment.

As alluded to by Stewart in her conversation with Axios, investment in media projects and platforms, in particular, can have multiplying effects for WNBA players — these platforms introduce audiences (as well as other potential investors and sponsors) outside the world of women’s basketball to the players and league. To their credit, athlete-owned media platforms like The Players’ Tribune and UNINTERRUPTED have committed to amplifying the voices of WNBA players, stamping their stories with credibility via blue-chip sponsors.

The revolution continues

Should women’s sports and women’s athletes’ dependence on corporate beneficence be cause for both consideration and criticism?

At minimum, it is worth recognizing that working with the WNBA allows major corporations to access cultural capital. A tepid investment in the WNBA and its players is a cheap, easy form of performative progressivism, showing support for women’s empowerment in a way that does not substantially threaten status quo political and economic structures.

In short, the “real moral conflict” experienced by Billie Jean King in 1970 still prevails.

Although it is easy to celebrate the recognition that big business is increasingly giving the WNBA, a closer analysis can raise more complicated emotions. Most of all, it is disappointing that — nearly 40 years after King launched the women’s sports revolution — women’s sports organizations and athletes still must prioritize pragmatism over principles. Maybe we can at least hope that the pragmatic partnerships that the WNBA, WNBPA and WNBA players form with corporations can help them attain the sustainability needed to, one day, choose principle.

But for now, Billie Jean King said it best, “If we can get the money, we deserve it.”