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NBA’s marketing game plan is light years ahead of the WNBA’s

The NBA's little sister has been scrutinized for not being up to par with marketing efforts. So, what's really stopping the WNBA from reaching its full potential as a brand?

WNBA: Finals-Los Angeles Sparks at Minnesota Lynx
In recent years, the WNBA has struggled to capture the essence of itself and its players to grab the attention of existing and newer fans alike.
Photo by: Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY Sports

There's a problem in the WNBA that has players worried about the welfare of the league: marketing. With the addition of sponsor names on the court and on jerseys, what remains is the basics of marketing players and upping availability to other aspects of games.

It feels like one really has to dig deep online to find player information and summaries of past seasons, turning basic knowledge into an Easter egg hunt. That alone points at the minimum coverage that WNBA players receive, which hurts the league. Finding information on an NBA player, though, is available with a click of a button.

So, what exactly is the WNBA doing wrong in comparison to the NBA?

Of course, the NBA established itself much earlier than the WNBA, but that’s not the only disparity. Other factors, like overall outreach and accessibility, have derailed the WNBA from reaching its potential as a brand. These setbacks triggered NBA ring leader Adam Silver to call it a “marketing problem,” while then-WNBA commissioner Lisa Borders cited promotional issues — with both holding the power to improve both marketing and promotion.

Player marketability

This area of concern deserves its own book-length manuscript but, put briefly, there are not a lot of player endorsements in the WNBA. Aside from A’ja Wilson, who Mountain Dew signed last year, the league remains pretty empty in this category. We’re not talking about the jersey patches, but how each player can bring in more income off the court. In 2017, The New York Times detailed that being a WNBA player in today’s world isn’t as prestigious as the basketball celebrities from the league’s opening years.

Making a buck in professional women’s basketball is tough. But NBA players are cruising on easy street.

LeBron James and Stephen Curry are two of the NBA’s most marketable names — they each have a custom shoe line and dabble in other businesses. And being known for more than basketball makes athletes from any walk of life more endorsement-friendly. Take former NBA player Rick Fox, for example, who wisely invested in esports team Echo Fox.

Location, location, location

Unlike the 30-team NBA, the WNBA can only call 12 places home — Atlanta, Chicago, Connecticut, Indiana, New York, Washington, Dallas, Vegas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Phoenix and Seattle. For the record — whether a city wants to be in the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA, or even the MLS — expansion costs an arm and a leg. Unfortunately, the WNBA’s budget is air-tight and the lack of interest from investors is a bigger struggle.

Adam Silver and the NBA consistently look for newer teams, but only if his league and the local economies can support one. When the Seattle Supersonics had relocated to Oklahoma City, for example, the move wasn’t cheap. A local firm forked over $350 million, while another $30 million went towards a relocation fee.

Could the WNBA “Twitch” into the mainstream?

It’s hard to escape the presence of the NBA, which has its own television network and broadcast deals with TNT, ABC and ESPN. On the other hand, the WNBA is nipping at scraps despite a new deal with ESPN that promises more coverage.

In this day and age, there’s also more than just cables boxes and ultra HD television screens. Amazon-owned Twitch, a streaming platform mostly for gamers, is something the WNBA could rely on to lure in fans.

During the 2018 regular season, the NFL cashed in on Twitch’s audience for Thursday night games, even having the site’s most popular streamer provide commentary for one game. This executive decision was made because, a year earlier, NFL ratings slipped and a fresher approach needed to happen.

Before the NFL hopped on the bandwagon, though, the NBA’s G-League partnered with Twitch to livestream games for the 2018 season. While the NBA itself isn’t in talks with Twitch, Adam Silver still envies the distributor’s business model. All that said, it would be an extremely smart choice by the WNBA not to overlook Twitch, which isn’t just about video games anymore.

At the end of the day, the WNBA isn't doing justice to its players by missing growth opportunities. Then again, it's a small league that's only in its twenties. Unlike the NBA, however, the WNBA does have an advantage — like fewer scandals and less dirty laundry. Still, it is a tall order for the WNBA to achieve NBA-like status in terms of marketing. But the WNBA — and its fans — hope change will be coming soon.