Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The WNBA: New Customers vs. Repeat Business

Someone once wrote that all of women's basketball fandom could be split into three groups. There might be some overlap, but not a lot:

a) the elderly,
b) males taking their young (under 13) daughters so that the daughters will have strong women as role models, and
c) lesbians.

Let's take this bold statement as a jump-off point, and accept it uncritically as fact. The above group is the "repeat business" of the WNBA - these are the WNBA's potential core base, who are going to keep coming to games come what may. They have bought in.

The question is in which direction should the WNBA go if it is to survive? It seems that 100 percent of the emphasis on the WNBA financial future is about new business - we need more fans in the seats. We need better attendance. We no longer need repeat business, we need new customers instead.

Indeed, that appeared to be the emphasis on WNBA advertising from 1997-2000. The goal was to market to the yuppie crowd, and make the WNBA audience a "family audience" - mom, dad, Junior and little Sis. The impression I got from brief glances at the WNBA during the 20th century was that this was to be some vast, untapped market.

Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way. For whatever reason, the WNBA couldn't grab that middle class young professional demographic. Rumor has it that when these middle class right-leaning families came to Utah Starzz games, they were taken aback by the loud and proud lesbian presence - in Utah. (Did they believe that lesbians did not exist in Salt Lake City?) It would have been unseemly for the WNBA to purge the lesbos, so they lost the Young Republicans.

In the 21st Century, the WNBA began looking for some new, heretofore untapped audience. It appears that they settled on attempting to grab fans that had some hesitation about attending a WNBA game because they believed that the quality of play of women's basketball wasn't very good. This culminated in the self-abasing commercials of the 2008 season where players were forced to repeat humiliating lines on camera as to how bad women's basketball was - with video clips to prove the opposite. The new commercials not only confirmed the prejudices of their target audience but alienated their core audience. The core audience had enough problems dealing with the red-bellied woodpeckers out there; they didn't need the WNBA parroting the arguments of the enemy, even if in jest.

One gets the suspicion that the WNBA doesn't particularly like its core audience and if a magic wand could be waived and all three groups above could be replaced by some corn-fed midwestern demographic it would be the solution to all of the WNBA's problems.

This is a shame, because the solution the to WNBA's financial problems might not be in the hunt for new customers - which should, of course, not be abandoned - but to pay more attention to its core base.

One rule of marketing is that is costs more money to create a new customer than to service an old one. Furthermore, it also costs less money to keep an old customer than a new one, because "brand loyalty" sets in. Let's suppose that the WNBA needs to increase its revenues by 20 percent to survive another year. Which do you think would be the more difficult task?

a) get the core base to put up another 20 percent in revenue, or
b) try to increase your fan base by 20 percent and keep revenue charges the same?

I suggest that a) is easier than b). The a) group is more likely to spend money anyway; you just need to give them a reason to open their wallets.

Therefore, instead of looking for new fans the WNBA should market more effectively to its older ones. This could be a three-pronged effort:

1. Commercials that appeal to the elderly base and the family base. You could theoretically appeal to both bases at once. If I were doing commercials for the WNBA, I would emphasize the link between the current WNBA players and their parents. You see Diana Taurasi all the time, but you never see her parents.

A commercial would be narrated by Mr. and Mrs. Taurasi emphasizing the pride they have in Diana's accomplishments. Diana would not have any lines in the commercial, but we would see her play. Diana might appear at the end with her parents, and the messages would be....

...I am a strong child of strong parents
...my parents nurtured me to achieve my dreams
...I am proud of my parents
...my parents are proud of me

Let's see the red-bellied woodpeckers out there mock parenthood. If you get a set of parents that look elderly and wise enough, it would appeal both to the elderly - "hey, that player is just like our granddaughter!" and to the male (married or divorced) who is looking for something to do on a weeknight or weekend with his daughter. If the WNBA is looking to create a family atmosphere...my suggestion is that you emphasize the families that actually exist. If you can get Angel McCoughtry playing one-on-one with her dad in a commerical, that would be great.

2. Commercials that explicitly appeal to the lesbian fanbase. It's time. They have a network for that and everything...ever hear of LOGO?

Face it, of the three groups above, it's the lesbians that have the income. Whenever I go to Dream games, the season ticket areas are packed with older, graying lesbians that own their own businesses, that are executives in companies, that have a lot of disposable income. And, inexplicably, the WNBA would like to ignore that.

Don't worry about getting the reputation of being a "lesbian league". The red-bellied woodpeckers have made that argument for 13 years; they won't be convinced of anything.

If a player is willing to come out of the closet, let her come out and do commercials on LOGO or elsewhere. Hanging out with a bunch of women (the sexual orientation doesn't have to be stated) and just having a lot of fun. "I can be with my friends in the WNBA," would be the message. The WNBA is your friend. Come to the games.

Hell, I'd go all out and see if LOGO could put together a WNBA studio show. Maybe even televise a few games. Why the hell not? I'm sure that a few fiery lesbian fans as announcers could give Art Eckman a run for his dollar. Where is the lesbian Charles Barkley as announcer? Don't tell me that the Lesbian Nation has no opinionated women in it!

In short, in times this bad economically, I suggest to the WNBA that it stop running after the pot of gold behind the ever-further-away rainbow and reach out to what it has. Word of mouth helps business a lot more than the most spectacular commercials anyway. To borrow an old sterotype, it's time for the W to stop trying for the spectacular slam-dunk and put its emphasis on the old-school game.


Anonymous said...

They need to venture of and embrace femininity without being over sexy...The best thing to do is to expose the talent to the world maybe by playing some men at local gym's...gotta do it to shit them up, and they don't need lesbian commercials that is targeting an already solid fan base and catering to a common stereotype

Ethan said...

Check and see if AfterEllen.com has a web show devoted to sports. I think they do? Anyway they're affiliated with LOGO, which is another avenue. Kinda preaching to the choir (I dunno how many new fans they'd attract) but certainly another mutually beneficial PR move. (Site gets content, W gets more exposure/possible new fans.)

Rebecca said...

Where's the third prong? :P

The problem with this is that, well, the bold statement is a large crock of shit. (And if you're working off the theory from accommodatingly's essay, the person who put forth the theory would know it's a crock of shit, given that he doesn't fit any of his proposed categories.)

My mother, who's a marketing person, keeps trying to put together a campaign to present to Madam President, revolving around the theme of "What Do You See?" and using quotes from fans, both famous and not-so-famous to illustrate different facets of the league: style of play, fan base, role models, etc. Something like that might appeal to a lot of different markets, with appropriate tweaking.