The WNBA Sells Itself or Its Soul?

The Phoenix Mercury’s sponsorship deal is a clear indication that the WNBA can survive the recession.

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The WNBA doesn’t begin play until Saturday when the defending champions, the Detroit Shock, and the perennial powerhouse Los Angeles Sparks tip off in a nationally televised game that promises a full slate of action. But earlier this week, the league started its season with a bang.

At a press conference in New York City with NBA commissioner David Stern in attendance, the Phoenix Mercury announced a sponsorship agreement with LifeLock, an identity theft prevention company. The agreement will result in the Mercury jerseys and the floor bearing the company name. This arrangement will make the Mercury’s annual budget rise from the red to the black.

Finding a sponsorship deal these days is like finding an opening in the Sparks defense, but that isn’t half the story. By putting a company name on the jersey ahead of the team logo, the WNBA is broaching new ground. Sports purists need to put their hackles down. Sponsorships are already so prevalent in most American team sports that the jerseys are the only untouched elements. And sponsorships already dominate jerseys in European sports leagues, NASCAR and major league soccer.

This arrangement—and Stern’s implicit endorsement—implies that more pacts like this are in the works. Above all, this suggests that the league may well survive the recession. The economy has had an enormous impact on sports already. Witness the empty seats at Yankee Stadium, the fact that NBA powers such as the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers both dumped salaries at the trade deadline to reduce their luxury tax liability. The WNBA has been hurt, too; the Houston Comets, one of the league’s premiere franchises, winner of the first four WNBA titles, folded in December.

If you were an NBA fan and suddenly the Lakers folded up shop, you’d worry about the health of the league, too.

The big-scale introduction led to a backlash which was fueled by latent sexism and not-so-latent homophobia. (Lets face it. The average WNBA player wouldn’t just beat 95 percent of male sports fans in a game of one-on-one, they’d whup ‘em.) Also, the WNBA’s franchises were tied to existing NBA franchises which failed to build on women’s basketball’s hugely popular collegiate iteration. The fact that there isn’t a WNBA franchise in the state of Tennessee, home to the most successful basketball program in NCAA history, is an indictment of the league’s lack of vision.

But all of that is changing. And it’s changing rapidly. The sponsorship is a clear indicator, and so are the telling comments made two years ago to USA Today by Sparks co-owner Kathy Goodman. She compared the difference between the NBA and WNBA to that of a big studio movie to an independent film. “The scale of potential profit and loss is different, and so are the economic decisions you make.”

Goodman and her business partner, Carla Christofferson, are part of a new breed of WNBA owners who have no affiliation with the men’s league. They rely on grassroots marketing efforts to strengthen their base and maintain a solid constituency for their team. Many other owners are following suit.

All of this would be academic if the WNBA weren’t worth watching. I continue to think that the ad campaigns are misguided because women’s basketball isn’t well-suited to highlight clips, but there are several important story lines this season that should compel any sports fan.

For one, it’s the final go round for three key players, Lisa Leslie, Yolanda Griffith and Vickie Johnson. Griffith and Johnson have been two of the game’s top role players for many years. At 37, Leslie has been the public face of the game for more than a decade and a great all-around player. In a way, Leslie is handing off her role as the public image to her Sparks teammate, Candace Parker. Parker expects to return to the game in a few weeks after giving birth last month. Given her combination of skills, looks, charm and eloquence, she’s a crossover star; the league could hardly be blamed for leaning on her at every opportunity.