WNBA Outdoor Game: A Missed Opportunity

When the WNBA planned an outdoor game, only days after the NBA solidified an outdoor game for their pre-season, the league had big exposure and big sponsorship dollars on its mind. Staging these events is part of marketing the league – build brand awareness, generate revenue. Did you even know the game was held yesterday?

Hosted on the biggest stage in the world, New York City, the game between the New York Liberty and Indiana Fever failed to generate any buzz. I live in New York and did not see one promotion in recent weeks, not reminded of the game until the last day or two before they played.

A special event needs national television exposure. League broadcast partners ABC and ESPN did not cover the event because they held it on a day no part of their weekly WNBA coverage cycle. The league needed this game on national television with an ad campaign leading in. Outdoor professional basketball is unique. It appeals to all the kids who grow up playing in the school yards around the country. Instead, ESPN will play the usual Tuesday and Thursday night games on ESPN 2. With a little effort one of three accomodations should have taken place: ABC accomodate an evening start time (maybe 6 PM) on Saturday, ESPN move off its WNBA cycle to televise the Saturday night game, or the league move the game to a weeknight for ESPN exposure.

New York’s big stage actually had the reverse effect on the WNBA event. Because so many events happen here, the Liberty game was swept under the rug thanks to the lingering All-Star game effect, and the Yanks and Mets. On the national landscape the sports headlines are never barren – Favre, British Open, baseball’s second half, a NASCAR event, NBA free agency – it all pushed the WNBA to the background, a place the league has lived since inception.

Overall, the league missed an opportunity to grab new fans. It was buried locally and nationally. Outside of grassroots outreach achieved through a fanfest and local basketball players (David Lee, Allan Houston) helping get tickets to kids in the area, this event failed its marketing mission. I can’t name one sponsor. Despite announced attendance of over 19,000, an overhead shot unveiled thousands of empty seats, potentially as much as 40% of Arthur Ashe Stadium. It also failed to capitalize on playing at a historic place in women’s sports history – Billie Jean King Tennis Center.

Gaffes like this will prevent the upstart league from ever reaching its goal.

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