The WNBA has been the standard-bearer for athlete activism in recent years, and the role they played in this year’s Georgia senate races could serve as a blueprint for years to come.
New research from the Washington Post, which analyzed fundraising throughout the hotly contested campaign between current Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock, suggests the WNBA’s support for Warnock in the race boosted his campaign at a crucial point, helping him secure a run-off race against Loeffler in January.
Professional women’s basketball players—more specifically, the Atlanta Dream—took the bold step of speaking out against Sen. Loeffler after the Dream co-owner sent a letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert pushing for the league to sideline its Black Lives Matter messaging.
Her comments did what she likely hoped for. Her letter—and the league players’ vociferous condemnation of it—nationalized the race and won Loeffler a 10 percent spike in donations, mostly from political action committees and national activist groups, the Post reports. Loeffler’s “politicizing” of sports—the very thing she said she was against—worked well for her.
WNBA athletes noticed. And they changed their tactics in August, when the Phoenix Mercury and Atlanta Dream, in a nationally televised game, opted to wear “Vote Warnock” shirts as they warmed up.
“When we realized what our owner was doing and how she was kind of using us and the Black Lives Matter movement for her political gain, we felt like we didn’t want to feel kind of lost as the pawns in this,” Dream forward Elizabeth Williams told the New York Times about the players’ collective action.
Images of players in the shirts were shared over and over on social media platforms and news broadcasts, and led to a marked increase in grassroots fundraising for the Warnock campaign, the Post found. More than 50 percent of those donations came specifically from individuals, and most came from within Georgia.
From the Post:
[T]he Warnock campaign saw a 10 percent increase in daily donations over its previous daily averages, for an additional $25,000 in the 48 hours following the league and players’ criticism of Loeffler. Similarly, after the WNBA’s T-shirt campaign, Warnock’s campaign brought in 20 percent more than what the campaign had been getting in previous days, for a boost of $40,000 in the 48-hour window.
There also seems to be some correlation with Warnock’s poll numbers around that time. The leader of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (Martin Luther King Jr.’s congregation), Warnock saw a slump in his polling numbers between June and August, a time when Black Lives Matter protests were mobilizing large swaths of the country. But those poll numbers turned around after the WNBA began its campaign efforts, FiveThirtyEight shows.
Taking that into consideration, the WNBA’s shift in messaging—from anti-Loeffler to pro-Warnock—gave Warnock the traction he needed at the exact right time.
The Post is careful to note that Warnock’s success is multifaceted: Warnock didn’t lead in the polls until after Barack Obama endorsed him in September, which also led to a dramatic surge in campaign donations. He has also been tightly focused on his messaging throughout his campaign, emphasizing health care and racial justice as top issues in a state where Black voters have shaped the election. Meanwhile, Loeffler spent most of her campaign trying to out-Trump her conservative challenger Doug Collins.
But even though there may have been more substantial monetary boosts to Warnock’s campaign, so much about politics, like sports, hinges on timing. Two Georgia senate races could determine the balance of power in Washington, D.C., in a matter of weeks. If Warnock pulls off a victory against Loeffler come January, the WNBA deserves some credit for the assist.