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The WNBA does not need to ‘make way’ for male fans, including NBA players

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While it is cool that NBA players support the WNBA, celebrating the fandom of NBA players carries implications that the WNBA should avoid. The league can better demonstrate its values by de-centering the prominent, as well as the problematic, male fan in its social media marketing.

Los Angeles Lakers Introduce Frank Vogel
LeBron James has shown love to the WNBA. But does WNBA media show too much love to James and other NBA players who support the league?
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

If a WNBA game happens and a NBA player does not attend, did the game really happen?

Yes, it is unsurprising that mainstream basketball media tends to feature the WNBA on its social media platforms only when NBA stars are parked courtside.

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However, it is rather disappointing that WNBA media similarly centers NBA stars who are fans.

While no longer seeking to seduce male fans through sexualized marketing, WNBA-related social media unnecessarily empowers both the prominent and problematic male sports fan. Such attention undermines the inclusive marketing that the WNBA increasingly has adopted, instead (still) positioning men as the ultimate arbiter of the league’s legitimacy.

The WNBA increasingly is making way for the diversity of its players and fans

The WNBA no longer shudders at the fact that its players are not uncomplicated basketball Barbies. The league recognizes the “layers on top of layers” that make up WNBA players. In a recent interview for The Athletic, Swish Appeal’s Tamryn Spruill spoke with the Connecticut Sun’s Layshia Clarendon about the league’s marketing. Clarendon shared:

“But I think we’re truly starting to turn the corner in terms of truly embracing some of the people who do make up this league — you know, queer women of color, people who are outspoken about it, and I think that’s where we need to go moving forward.”

The WNBA’s Pride celebrations, in addition to the league’s “Make Way” campaign, confirm her optimistic assessment. Instagram accounts, such as @wnbakicks, @wslam, and @beyondthew, likewise give visibility to the diversity of WNBA players and fans.

Yet, for all these positive changes, the WNBA still does not hesitate to genuflect to (heterosexual) male fans.

The WNBA still is making way for the male fan

Yes, I love LeBron. And I love that LeBron loves the WNBA. And I love that LeBron has made it cool for other NBA players to love the WNBA.

I don’t love the idea that if Bron and other NBA guys did not love the WNBA, then the WNBA and its players would be less legitimate.

However, this is the idea implicitly perpetuated by the attention that the WNBA’s official social media pages, as well as official team pages, give to prominent (as well as somewhat less prominent) male basketball celebrities.

The Sparks go the wrong way

Recently, the Los Angeles Sparks promoted the attendance of Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert and Portland Trail Blazers guard Rodney Hood, as well as a collection of other celebrities. The stars also received Jumbotron treatment in Staples Center.

Ignored, both in the arena and online, were a pair of WNBA legends, as Cappie Pondexter and Monique Currie also were in attendance.

The Sparks’ snafu is illustrative.

For all the increased visibility the WNBA gives to the spectrum of people who make up the league, as players and fans, the male fan still is most valued.

The presence of James, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook in Las Vegas, Gobert and Hood in LA, Bradley Beal in Washington, Trae Young in Atlanta or [insert name of NBA player] in [insert name of city] presumably proves that the W is “for real.” Evidence of their support is envisioned as refuting the tired trope that, “Nobody watches the WNBA.”

The WNBA does not need to make way for IT

The WNBA choosing to publicize Denver Nuggets guard Isaiah Thomas’s recent participation on the Storm’s practice squad further demonstrates the league’s excessive investment in the credibility that NBA players supposedly give the WNBA.

Members of the Storm likely appreciated Thomas’s effort, as the Seattle native has been a vocal supporter of the squad and the league.

Thomas’ practice squad foray should not be a central WNBA story, but the WNBA appears to have judged it to be one. In a newsletter distributed to WNBA media, Thomas’ workout with the Storm was highlighted, along with his comment: “Hoopers recognize real hoopers and they’re real hoopers.”

The league does not need Thomas to adjudicate whether or not WNBA players — and the 2018 WNBA champions, at that — are “real hoopers.” Of course they are! Their status as hoopers was not in question. Was it?

The dissemination of Thomas’ words reveals an unnecessary sense of insecurity. The league then relies on NBA players to assuage this insecurity, with the celebration of their seals of approval reinforcing the belief that men are the ultimate basketball authorities.

The WNBA must not make way for trolls

By frequently showing that some of the best male basketball players in the world respect the W, the WNBA also is suggesting that all “good” male sports fans should do the same.

“Bad” male fans, in contrast, are situated as straw men who should be ignored. Yet, the WNBA does not ignore them.

Instead, trolling the trolls has become a go-to media strategy, albeit one that not only unnecessarily gives voice to such sexist sentiments but also again centers the opinions of male fans.

This KD-esque social media strategy again smells of insecurity.

The WNBA should not attempt to burnish it credibility by having players condescend to men who make kitchen catcalls. Ignore them! Rather than rejecting gender norms by addressing those devoted to outmoded ideologies, recognize the women who daily model alternative ways of being and achieving. Or, simply celebrate the average, everyday women and men who consistently have supported the league and its players.

The WNBA must make way for new cultural norms

By seeking likes by shouting out NBA players ahead of, or even instead of, past WNBA players, or by trolling the trolls, WNBA-dedicated media is accepting and affirming the belief that the WNBA’s legitimacy still needs to be validated. The exaggerated, imagined binary of the “good” and “bad” male fan is understood as providing this validation.

But the WNBA should have more confidence; its credibility is not in jeopardy.

The social media of the league and its teams should prioritize empowering its players and supporters, thus “making way” for a changed sports world where all persons, regardless of their identities, carry equal cultural authority.